KITE EXCITED ABOUT RETURN TO PHOENIX INDIANAPOLIS, Feb. 23, 1998 - On any given day, Jimmy Kite's enthusiasm is bubbling over at full boil, about 200 degrees hotter than most people. But when you talk of Phoenix, his smile broadens and...
KITE EXCITED ABOUT RETURN TO PHOENIX
INDIANAPOLIS, Feb. 23, 1998 - On any given day, Jimmy Kite's enthusiasm is bubbling over at full boil, about 200 degrees hotter than most people. But when you talk of Phoenix, his smile broadens and he heats up even more.
"I'm ready to get back there," he said with a laugh. "I think I'll always be ready to go back to Phoenix."
It's nearly always warm and bright in the Valley of the Sun, and that sun smiled kindly on Kite one year ago. Struggling to take his career to the next level, he turned a one-shot USAC Silver Crown ride into one of the biggest upsets in all of racing last season, winning the prestigious Skoal Bandit Racing Copper World Classic event at Phoenix International Raceway.
It was truly a breakthrough for the 22-year-old Georgia resident, one that vaulted him squarely into the Indy Racing League. Just a few months after his Phoenix win, he was signed by Team Scandia owner Andy Evans to a long-term deal that will have Kite running with the series for several seasons. Kite will return to PIR for the Phoenix 200 on March 22, the second race of the 1998 Pep Boys IRL season.
"It was a neat deal," he said of the Silver Crown win, an understatement if there ever was one.
It was just one race, and just one win; but perhaps it was the fact that Kite was such an incredible long shot that made it all the more memorable. It was just his third start in a Silver Crown car, typically an evil-handling, unbalanced beast at a fast, 1-mile oval like Phoenix. He qualified poorly, relegating him to the non-qualifiers race, eventually placing him 24th behind nearly every big name in the series.
When he crawled into the seat for the 50-lap grind, only Kite and the Almighty knew what might be coming.
"I had a tape of Mike Bliss winning the race the year before, and I watched that tape every night for two weeks before the event," Kite explained. "I saw how he ran a higher groove, and I knew that it was possible.
"I bobbled on my qualification run, and it cost me a lot of positions. Running the (non-qualifiers race) helped me, because I had to pass some cars and it showed me that the outside groove really would work at Phoenix."
At the outset, Kite immediately began moving forward, passing cars seemingly at will.
"I was starting so far back I figured that a fifth-place run would be about right," Kite recalled. "But at the first yellow I started counting the cars in front of me, and I was already seventh. That's when I started getting greedy, thinking I might win this thing."
Up front, veteran Chuck Gurney had dueled with Kenny Irwin Jr. through much of the early going. When Gurney settled into the lead and began to pull away on Lap 28, he looked like a shoo-in.
But Kite fought his way to second with just a handful of laps remaining. The racing gods smiled on him and brought out a caution flag with just two laps remaining, erasing Gurney's advantage and bringing the crowd to their feet for a close finish.
"When we got that last yellow, that's when I knew I had a chance," said Kite.
On the restart, Kite pulled alongside Gurney on the backstretch as they headed for the checkered flag. The wily Gurney held Kite back through the final turn, but on the stretch run to the flag Kite slipped less than a car length in front to take the win.
The young driver was so excited he forgot to drive to the victory circle. Parking in his pit, he leaped from the car and sprinted to the victory ceremony, much to the delight of the enthusiastic crowd.
It was a day he will never forget.
"I had struggled so hard to get my career to the next level, and there for a while it seemed like the bottom had dropped out and I couldn't get anything going," he said. "But winning that one race changed everything."
A few weeks after his win, he returned to Phoenix as a spectator for the IRL's Phoenix 200. There he met Evans, and within a few months was seated in an IRL car.
He has since made five IRL starts, his best a sixth-place finish at the Las Vegas 500k last fall. He finished 16th at the IRL's 1998 season opener in January at Walt Disney World, despite crashing during the final practice session and starting last in the race.
Now, he eyes his first opportunity to race at Phoenix since his Silver Crown win. He is excited about the prospect.
"It's hard to not get really fired up," he said with a laugh. "We've got a great team, and a great car, and we feel like we're capable of winning on any day. So when you know you've got the right combination, you feel really good heading into any race.
"But, you know, Phoenix is special …but it hasn't been all good."
Indeed, Kite and the Scandia team went to Phoenix for a test session last September, and he crashed heavily.
"I hit the wall really, really hard, and it had me spooked when we went to Las Vegas (for the season finale) a few weeks later," he explained. "I kept thinking, 'Is this going to happen again?' But we went back there a few months ago to test again, and we ran really, really well.
"So all the concern I had seemed to settle down, so I'm ready to get back out there and race again."
A year ago, he stole the limelight, and his life and career haven't been the same since. His enthusiasm is at full bubble; the Valley of the Sun awaits.