IRL: Kelley Hopes to Continue IRL Success at Indy 500

OWNER KELLEY HOPES TO CONTINUE SUDDEN SUCCESS AT INDY 500 INDIANAPOLIS, May 7, 1998 -- His family business touches four states and generates hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue each year. He is an intense competitor who never met...


INDIANAPOLIS, May 7, 1998 -- His family business touches four states and generates hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue each year. He is an intense competitor who never met a contest he didn't want to win. Now, Tom Kelley has his eyes on Indy.

Kelley, 45, is embarking on his first full season as a car owner in the Pep Boys Indy Racing League and already has served notice that Kelley Racing is a team to be reckoned with.

The Kelley family business, founded by Tom's father, James, some 46 years ago, is based in Fort Wayne, Ind. Their primary business is automobile retailing, with the Kelley Automotive Group consisting of 18 automobile dealerships in four states and boasting annual revenues of more than $600 million.

Tom Kelley saw his first Indianapolis 500 in 1964, as a 12-year-old boy. He was just a kid then, but as he grew and matured into a role of leadership in his family's sizable business, he never lost the desire to compete -- and win -- at the famed Brickyard.

"I get goose bumps when I think about it," Kelley said. "When I was a kid, I never figured I would be in a position to go racing, but I always dreamed. I still go there (Indy) and feel a little bit like a kid. It's always been one of the most special places in the world for me."

Whether it is racing or business, Kelley has a strong, intense drive to succeed.

"Yeah, I guess that's an understatement," he said with a laugh.

The competitive spirit has driven him to succeed in nearly anything in which he has been involved. An avid golfer, he won the Fort Wayne city men's title eight times and finished in the top 16 in the U.S. Amateur in 1979 and the British Amateur in 1981.

He also competed as an aviator, winning a Silver Championship at the Reno Air Races in 1985.

"Whether it's sports or business, you want it done right," he said of his philosophy. "My dad and I, we just don't have a tolerance for mediocrity. I'm not in (racing) to finish second and just have fun around the track. We go out to win."

Indeed, this season marks the first full-time effort for Kelley Racing. The team came home a winner in the second event of the season, the Dura-Lube 200 at Phoenix International Raceway in March, with Scott Sharp in the saddle.

Kelley's involvement in racing dates back to the mid-1980s, when he was a distributor of the March racing chassis. In early 1997 it was revealed that Kelley would be the first customer of the new Riley & Scott chassis. But a phone call from racer Mark Dismore brought a change of plans. "(Mark) called me and was looking for an engine for Indy, I had ordered some engines for the Riley & Scott tests for later," Kelley said. "We wound up as a very late entry at Indy with Mark, and he stuck it in the show and that was our start. "We ran the rest of last year with the PDM team kind of in partnership, with Mark driving. He is truly a great guy, and he drives his heart out." This year, the team was expanded to include a second car, driven by Sharp. Although two-car teams can be an exercise in creative psychiatry, Kelley insists that he has the right chemistry with his pair.

"Scott is hyper, and Mark is just the opposite," he said. "They complement each other really well.

"In fact, when you think about Phoenix … if you would have asked me which driver would be the patient one and wait until the end to race and win the thing, I would have guessed Mark. But Scott was the one, and he's normally the aggressive one. But they bring out the best in each other, I think."

Now, as the team prepares for the Indianapolis 500 on May 24, Kelley dreams of what might be.

"A dream come true would be to win Indy, then go on to win the championship," he said. "But it is a very, very tough league, and it's only going to get tougher."

He admits the team's early success has taken him by surprise. Besides Sharp's victory, Dismore led the opening race of the year at Orlando, Fla., before being passed by eventual winner Tony Stewart with five laps to go. Dismore ended up fifth in the team's Dallara/Aurora/Goodyear.

"No, I never thought it would come this quickly," he said. "After Orlando (in January), I began to see the potential of this team. These two guys are racers, good racers. Mark has proven it time and time again, and with a good car he's always in the hunt. Scott has proven that he can win as well."

While passion fuels much of the drive in racing, it is often difficult for a car owner to keep that passion from leading them down the wrong path.

"No race team will last indefinitely if it isn't a solid business opportunity," Kelley insisted. "To ensure the longevity, you've got to run it as a business, and it has to either be driven by profit or by some related financial gain.

"You can't just run out and go racing because you love the sport. The plan has to be that it is profitable over some period of time. No matter how much fun it is, you have to run it like a business."

Despite his will to win and his inner drive for success, he realizes that nearly every great team in the history of the sport has done plenty of losing along the way.

"Sure you lose some," he said. "I've lost a lot of things. We don't sell a car to every customer that comes in our showroom. I don't win every golf tournament I enter. There isn't any point to getting mad about that, it's just reality.

"But you have to always learn from your mistakes, constructively. You say, 'What can we do next time?' and always go from there."

At that he goes back to the business of business, where battles are fought and wars are won or lost every day. It keeps the fire in his belly stoked, and the truth is he wouldn't have it any other way.

In a few days, when his team rolls out of the garage area at Indy, Tom Kelley will have a new focus through May 24. He will wear his game face, and he will be ready for a spirited fight. You can count on it.

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Series IndyCar
Drivers Tony Stewart , Scott Sharp , Mark Dismore