You'd think a race driver coming out of retirement following an eight-year hiatus would be focused on the here and now. After all, time is not exactly on your side when you're a 45-going-on-46 athlete competing in a sport where the young lions seem to get younger every season.
But anyone who thinks Tommy Kendall is just about now would be very wrong.
In joining the lineup for the new SRT Motorsports effort in July, the former IMSA GTU/Trans-Am champion committed to the long-term, a development program designed to – in due time – re-establish the Dodge Viper atop an ALMS GT pecking order featuring BMW, Corvette, Ferrari, Lotus and Porsche.
“If we started at the beginning of the season saying, ‘Our focus is on next year…' we'd risk getting sucked into the same expectations every other team has – even though that would have been unrealistic,” Kendall says. “So it's really kind of perfect the way this started.
“Having said that, it's natural for competitive people to get ahead of themselves; you say, ‘Here's where our goals are.' And, after one day, you say ‘Why aren't we right where we left off (before)?' But, for the most part I think everyone has kept their eyes down the road. We're not swept up in the immediate moment.”
Of course, when he talks of “where we left off” Kendall is speaking not only of a Dodge Viper that dominated GT racing in the late 1990s, or of SRT Motorsports' partner Riley Technologies, whose name is synonymous with motorsports engineering excellence. He is speaking from the perspective of a multiple champion who finished in a mathematical tie for the 2004 SCCA Trans-Am title and won what, at the time, figured to be the final race of his career. Spending the following eight years as a television analyst and SPEED's unofficial in-house test driver was not exactly a recipe for keeping him at peak performance.
“There were obviously some question marks,” Kendall says. “I hadn't driven much, I wasn't in shape. The getting in shape part is pretty straightforward; a matter of how much time you put into it and how much work you do.
“The fact that it's a start-up program and it's going to take awhile before it's full song dovetails relatively nicely with my personal situation. You don't forget how to drive, just like Riley and the group knows how to build a competitive car, but it doesn't happen instantly. So we're kind of on similar development paths, if you will, and it's worked out pretty well.
“Personally, there's a lot of ground to make-up. It's all new faces for me. I did one test with Oliver Gavin, but most of the other guys certainly weren't racing – and I'm not even sure all of ‘em were born – when I raced before. So learning that, getting used to multi-class racing – there's a real art to not letting it affect your rhythm and your speed. I did some of that a long time ago, but the intensity and depth of the classes is way different now.
“And on another note, it's really cool to be part of this program. In 20 short years the Viper has become a real icon, an all-American kick-ass car. So even though we're not fully competitive yet, interacting with people who are just so happy to see the car has been really fun.”
If not fully competitive, SRT Motorsports gave a good account of itself in its first two outings. The quickest of the two Vipers qualified about 3s off the GT pole at Mid-Ohio and both cars were some 4sec off the GT pole at Road America which, considering it's nearly twice as long as Mid-Ohio, suggests improvement. Both cars ran to the finish at Mid-Ohio and the Kuno Wittmer/Dominik Farnbacher entry finished five laps down to the winning Porsche at Road America. The Viper piloted by Kendall and co-driver Marc Goossens? It registered the team's first DNF thanks to an “off” by Kendall just shy of mid-race.
That not-insignificant faux pas aside, Kendall is generally satisfied with progress.
“It's going about like we expected and hoped,” he says. “Anyone who's close to it at all knows the GT category is stacked with experienced, talented and well-backed teams. So on the one hand, we could have tested twice a month for a year and still not feel we were ready to go to the first race. On the other hand, actually racing gives you a report card on what you need to work on next.
“We wanted to finish with both cars at Elkhart and have a more routine race in terms of proper driver changes, no unscheduled stops – which we did not accomplish thanks to the accident. But also we left with plenty to be encouraged by in terms of what we're learning about the car … there's so much to do.
“But one of the nice things about getting reconnected is being part of a team with so many people who are just giving it their all, and there's still way more to do than you can do. So you put one foot in front of the other, don't get too caught up in what's happening now and say, ‘I'm gonna keep my head down and look up in two weeks at the next race.' And in two weeks you look back and say, ‘Wow! We've actually covered some distance.'
“To come this far, not only developing the car but the team didn't really exist six months ago. Of course, Riley Technologies has been manufacturing and building cars and they know what it takes, but they weren't a functioning race team. So to do everything in six months is a big task. That's one of the things that impresses me most: Bill Riley is a great manager but he's also a designer, engineer, leader, strategist – a really impressive individual.”
The next report card period is already upon Kendall & Co in the form of this weekend's Baltimore Sports Car Challenge presented by SRT. No pressure, given the fact that it's just the team's third race, one sponsored by its manufacturer. And why not make it the street racing debut for the SRT Vipers? Kendall is cautiously optimistic the Viper will be right at home on the 2.04-mile street circuit.
“I think Baltimore will be a step forward,” he says. “First time on a street course, one that I think will favor our strengths more than the other two (tracks) have. The Viper's strengths so far have been under braking and handling. We're relatively close to the other cars in the tighter stuff, so I think not only are we improving but I think Baltimore plays to our strengths, relatively.”
With the American Le Mans Series at VIR currently not on the SRT Motorsports agenda, that leaves Petit Le Mans as the team's final event of 2012 before what figures to be a winter of intensive development. As ever, Kendall's eyes are down the road.
“When our season started we had four races,” he says. “Well, we're halfway through. We'd like to get more competitive; get to the point where the driver changes are second nature, the pit stops are sharper, faster. We'd like to leave Petit Le Mans in the hunt with the other guys. You want to show up at Sebring next year ready to race!”
David Phillips is one of North America's most respected and renowned motorsports journalists, having been featured in RACER, AutoWeek and other prominent motorsport magazines.