Flat Spot On: "Ringers" draw fire at The Glen

Ingram's Flat Spot On by Jonathan Ingram "Ringers" Draw Fire At The Glen "Road course ringers" became a hotter-than-usual topic at Watkins Glen this weekend. When Marcos Ambrose put a surprising but incredibly clean move on Kyle Busch to win...

Ingram's Flat Spot On
by Jonathan Ingram

"Ringers" Draw Fire At The Glen

"Road course ringers" became a hotter-than-usual topic at Watkins Glen this weekend. When Marcos Ambrose put a surprising but incredibly clean move on Kyle Busch to win the Nationwide Series race, the offended driver and other veterans cried foul in unison. One wonders what the response might have been if the former Australian V-8 Supercar champion had finished first instead of second in Monday's Sprint Cup race.

Next thing you know, the good ol' racers will start referring to the road racers as scabs and start carrying picket signs at the gates to one of America's most storied tracks: "Unfair To Local 12 -- NASCAR Regulars."

Not that he's to blame, but the man who started all this commotion was Tommy Kendall, the Trans-Am driver who drove a Hendrick Motorsports Chevy at the Glen in 1989.

After a deal initiated by Herb Fishel, GM's racing director, Kendall was a contender at the Glen for two years running. In 1990, Billy Hagan was so angry at Kendall's successful battle for position with his driver Sterling Marlin that the team owner, despite a bad leg, chased Kendall down afterward and poked him with his cane!

They've been raising cane about the road racing "irregulars" at the always difficult, high-speed Watkins Glen ever since. I caught up with TK via Facebook and, naturally, had a few questions. The host of Test Drive on SpeedTV, Kendall had these replies to my on-line queries:

Question: You were the first road racer to prove you could mix it up and lead races at the Glen with the NASCAR regulars. What do you think about the less-than-complimentary term road race ringer?

Kendall: At the time, I didn't realize I was blazing the trail for all of the subsequent "road-course ringers" The name doesn't bother me, but it certainly hasn't proven to be that accurate, has it?

Even then, when my experience road racing provided a reasonable edge in terms of what you were trying to do driving-wise, the regulars' experience with cars that are really unlike anything else in the racing world from an inertia standpoint, kind of offset that.

The biggest thing working against the "ringers" though is that most of their outings have come in teams whose over the wall guys were either part time or a step behind the best and that is huge on stops under yellow, which are most stops.

Question: Was it difficult to talk Rick Hendrick into providing a Monte Carlo entry for you at the Glen?

Kendall: Getting Rick to put me in that car was mostly down to Herb Fishel. That was their R&D car and as such Chevy had a lot of influence on it. The tougher part was probably getting Rick to step aside as Rick had driven the car himself at Riverside earlier in the year and qualified quite well.

Question: Had the incident with Michael Waltrip in the fight for the lead not cut down your tire, do you think you would have won the '89 race?

Kendall: Michael running me over almost into the pit wall and knocking the fender in on the tire definitely cost us a good finish, but a win was not in the cards. Michael and I had gotten to the front using the now de rigeur strategy of stopping as soon as you could and making it to the end.

But since so few were doing it, the peleton of cars on new tires was only a few cars back, coming hard and wasn't going to be held back. I do remember the feeling though coming up through the esses as a total unknown with the entire Cup field behind me!

Question: What's your opinion about the pass by Marcos Ambrose for the lead in the Nationwide race versus Kyle Busch?

Kendall: I liked Marcos' move on Kyle. Kind of a high-stakes gunfight. If Kyle would have turned in, it would have likely turned out different, but he didn't have the stomach for it. I don't blame him as it is kind of like taking a charge against Shaquille O'Neal, but it doesn't leave him much room to complain since he didn't draw the contact.

We should add that TK nearly won at Sears Point in 1991 while substituting for injured driver Kyle Petty in the Pontiac owned by Felix Sabates. A late caution cost him a comfortable lead, then contact with Mark Martin cut a valve stem.

Remembering Tim: Is it just me, or is it odd that very few have commented on the 20th year of racing at Watkins Glen since Tim Richmond died on race day morning? Although the dates don't match up exactly, Richmond passed away from complications of AIDS on Aug. 13, 1989, news that spread quietly through the garage that day not long before the command to start engines.

The winner at Watkins Glen in 1986, when NASCAR returned to the track under International Speedway Corporation ownership after a hiatus of two decades, Richmond was considered a flake by quite a few of his contemporaries. He certainly knew how to celebrate. There may not have been as much beer sprayed on the victory podium at the Glen -- or consumed at the Seneca Lodge -- in the decades since his victory during that landmark season.

There was a consistency about Richmond that revealed his character -- and his flaws. Like so many successful race car drivers, Richmond's ego was as big as a blimp and just as vulnerable. And he was beholden only to his own view and those who supported him absolutely.

He would not compromise with sponsors, crew chiefs, sanctioning bodies or other drivers. While he craved the limelight, Richmond was always fighting his own independent battle. At Blue Max Racing he won relatively few races relative to his talent, because his idea of racing was carrying the car to the limit on every lap and in every corner, not very often a winning strategy in NASCAR.

His spectacular season with Hendrick Motorsports in 1986 resulted from a partnership with crew chief Harry Hyde and car owner Rick Hendrick, the first men in racing that had enough genius to figure out Richmond's own brand.

Perhaps his greatest accomplishment was winning his first two Sprint Cup races in 1987 upon his return from life-threatening pneumonia and a six-month layoff. Richmond likely already knew he was dying. But never one to compromise he drove until his health could no longer sustain competition. The cries and whispers in the garage about his erratic behavior ultimately ushered him off the stage.

These twenty years later since his death, Richmond leaves behind a sense of incomplete promise. It is the stuff of sports legends. The sad, unfathomable ones.

Jonathan Ingram can be reached at jonathan@jingrambooks.com

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About this article
Series General , NASCAR Cup
Drivers Michael Waltrip , Kyle Petty , Marcos Ambrose , Billy Hagan , Felix Sabates , Tim Richmond , Kyle Busch , Mark Martin
Teams Hendrick Motorsports