By Eric Benson
WINCHESTER, Ind. -- Two days before he'd attempt to tie his circuit's most hallowed record, the race car driver Frank Kimmel stood alone in the barren parking lot of a Menards home-improvement store in Fort Wayne, Indiana, a supremely hopped-up, neon-yellow Toyota Camry beside him. Kimmel had come to Fort Wayne to promote Menards, which sponsors him, and the Automobile Racing Club of America, where he races, but it was a sleepy Friday afternoon, and only a trickle of shoppers showed up.
Still, Kimmel had a job to do. He greeted passersby with a twangy "how you folks doing?" before thrusting an autographed "Frank Kimmel #44" car flier into their unsuspecting hands. He patiently answered familiar questions about his Toyota's top speed, horsepower and acceleration. He offered kids a chance to sit in the driver's seat. After 90 minutes, he left, bound for more of the same at another Menards store across town. No one who met Kimmel that afternoon had ever heard of him. Most were surprised to find out that this white-haired 51-year-old father of two grown children was still actively racing.
Early the next morning, Kimmel arrived at the Winchester Speedway, an hour and a half south of Fort Wayne, to begin his preparations for that Sunday's event, the Herr's Chase the Taste 200. Kimmel was familiar with the high-banked, half-mile track -- he had won there five times previously -- and over his long career, he'd grown accustomed to the diverse mix of characters he saw assembled in the infield.
There was 78-year-old James Hylton, a former moonshine runner and longtime NASCAR racer, chewing on the tip of a cigar while telling stories about besting Richard Petty at Talladega. There was Milka Duno, a 41-year-old Venezuelan driver with master's degrees in Naval Architecture and Maritime Business, who serves as ARCA's pin-up and is widely regarded as a danger to herself and others on the track. ("She can't drive a lick," one driver told me. "They say she's friends with the president of Venezuela or something.") There was Kimmel's brother Bill, from whom he is now estranged, prepping three cars, only one of which was slated to run more than a few laps. And there were the kids -- a flurry of 15- to 18-year-olds who had secured sponsorships (which often meant family money) to compete in ARCA, in the hopes of catching the eye of one of the big NASCAR teams.
Frank Kimmel is the unquestioned patriarch of this motley crew. He has won the ARCA championship a record nine times, including eight consecutive titles from 2000 to 2007. He has won over $4 million in race earnings over the course of his career, more than twice as much as any other driver in the circuit's history (though Kimmel takes pains to point out that drivers keep less than half of that money). He has lined up fender-to-fender against NASCAR stars like Mark Martin, Tony Stewart, Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch, and sometimes come out ahead.
This season, Kimmel, after five years without a championship, is well positioned to capture his 10th. And while the Menards shoppers may have remained ignorant of the fact, they'd met him on the eve of a potentially historic weekend. Kimmel had won 78 races since joining ARCA full-time in 1992. The ARCA series wins record, held by the barnstorming mid-century racing legend Iggy Katona, stood at 79.
When motorsports fans first hear about Frank Kimmel's domination of the ARCA series over the past decade and a half, they invariably ask him the same question: "Why didn't you move up to Sprint Cup?"
ARCA, founded in 1953, races primarily in the Midwest, and in Kimmel's own estimation, it's the Double A equivalent of NASCAR's big leagues. The talent is thinner, the life is more ramshackle, and the difference in income and fame is exponential. Sure, Kimmel has won $4 million for his teams over the 21-and-counting years of his full-time ARCA career, but Jimmie Johnson, a five-time Sprint Cup champion and that series' current points leader, has won over $6 million this season alone.
Kimmel, like so many racecar drivers, was born into a racing family. His father, "Big" Bill Kimmel, had leapt into motorsports after returning from his army service in postwar Germany in 1948 -- the same year NASCAR was founded -- and began racing open-wheel cars throughout Indiana and northern Kentucky. By the time Frank, the youngest of seven children, was born in 1962, racecar driving was "Big" Bill's primary vocation. Growing up, Frank and his brother Bill, five years his senior, would watch their dad compete at the local short tracks, riding from their home in Clarksville, Indiana, in the back of the family pickup.
Kimmel raced for the first time at age 15, sneaking into a feature at the Fairgrounds Motor Speedway in Louisville and crashing on the first turn of the race, after pushing in the clutch when he meant to engage the brake. During his high school years, Kimmel raced infrequently, dedicating more of his energies to football, basketball and long-distance running. His senior year, he was class president and auditioned for the school play, Fiddler on the Roof, on a lark. Kimmel had never acted before, but he was a natural ham and a capable singer. The German Catholic jock got the role of Tevye.
After high school, Kimmel attended Indiana University Southeast with the intention of becoming an elementary school teacher, but he dropped out after two years to work with his father and brother at the family auto shop. Kimmel mostly dabbled in racing during those years, driving entry-level bombers and street-stocks at the Sportsdrome in Jeffersonville, Indiana, and the nearby Charlestown Speedway. He didn't have enough money to do anything else. "In racing, you have the haves and the have-nots," Kimmel said. "You have guys that can do it but don't have the money to do it. And you have the guys that can't do it that have the money. For years and years and years, I was a have-not."
Kimmel eventually caught a few lucky breaks, culminating in an opportunity to race a full ARCA season in 1992. He finished fifth in the points standings and was named the circuit's top rookie. For the next several years, Kimmel lived the life of a blue-collar racer, driving full-time in ARCA but not making enough money to give up his auto shop job. In 1998, now driving for a better-heeled team owned by an Iowa auto dealer named Larry Clement, Kimmel won nine races and captured his first ARCA championship. In 1999, his brother Bill joined Clement's team as crew chief, having retired from his own racing career the previous year. And in 2000, Frank Kimmel began his eight-year, scorched-earth campaign through ARCA.
During these years, Kimmel actually did compete in some of the country's premier racing circuits. In 2002, Kimmel started six NASCAR Cup races, but he was massively outspent by the top teams and never finished better than 26th. In 2006, Kimmel was selected to drive in the International Race of Champions, an all-star circuit where drivers received identically prepared racecars, effectively neutralizing money as an advantage. He was more successful there, placing third at Daytona and finishing the four-race season 7th out of 12 cars. Perhaps the 44-year-old Kimmel wasn't about to conquer the peak of the racing world, but he proved that against the best, he could hold his own.
By then, Kimmel was far too old to get a shot, and in truth, he'd been out of the running for NASCAR glory almost from the very start. Kimmel was 30 years old when he finished his first full ARCA season in 1992. The following year, another Indiana-bred driver who had a history at Winchester, 21-year-old Jeff Gordon, raced his first full season in NASCAR's Cup series. Two years later, Gordon was NASCAR's champion. "That was unheard of," Larry Clement told me. "Before Gordon, most of the drivers would be in their late 20's or early 30's before they got started with Cup teams." After Gordon's rise, all the big NASCAR teams wanted their own Wonder Boy. No one was looking for thirtysomething Frank Kimmel. "If Frank had come along prior to the 90's, it would have been different," Clement said. "He would have had four or five NASCAR teams calling him."
"Frank Kimmel!?!?" yelped the driver Darrell Basham when I approached him that Saturday morning in the infield. "Why he's the most no-count dog that ever lived!" Basham, a mischievous, 64-year-old long-haul trucker, had a history with the Kimmels. He'd raced against practically the whole family and had known Frank from boyhood on. Since Kimmel and Basham had become ARCA competitors, the two had been engaged in a giddy prank war. Kimmel and his brother Bill would box in Basham's pickup at a stop light and spray shaving cream over every inch of it. Basham would retaliate by covering Kimmel's RV with toilet paper and smearing Vaseline under the door handles. Kimmel liked to introduce Basham and his fiancée, Sandy Sparrow, who is 44, as father and daughter. "He has a warped sense of humor," Sparrow said, "but we love him."
While Basham was Kimmel's match as a prankster, he was not his equal on the racetrack. Basham's crew was woefully understaffed and completely volunteer, a rag-tag unit that consisted of Sparrow, two college-aged men who had studied in the University of Northwestern Ohio's High Performance Motorsports department, and an older man in a red "US MARINES" cap known simply as "Uncle Buck." Basham relied on donations of lightly used tires from better-funded teams to get by. "It's $1,200 for a set," he told me. "I buy those, I can't pay the electric bill!" When Basham and Sparrow traveled to races, they didn't stay in a motel; they slept in their pickup truck. "The Dodge Motor Lodge," they called it.
In November, 2010, a fire swept through the garage at Basham's house, destroying two of his cars. Less than two years later, a tornado leveled his auto shop in downtown Henryville, Indiana. Each time, the racing community had pitched in to help him stay afloat, donating racecars, spare parts, and expertise. Kimmel helped Sparrow install a new engine in one of the cars, and was always available to explain mechanical issues. "He's one of the best craftsmen in racing," Basham said. "And as a man, he's as good as they come."
During the years of Basham's almost Biblical misfortunes, Kimmel also experienced a downturn. After winning his ninth championship in 2007, Kimmel and his brother Bill had left Larry Clement to form their own team, fully expecting to continue their run of victories and championships. But over the next four seasons, Kimmel's career sputtered. He won only three races and failed to win another title. In late 2011, a frustrated Kimmel split with his brother and signed with ThorSport Racing, a better-financed team that competes in NASCAR's Camping World Truck series. With ThorSport's backing, Kimmel began a career resurgence. Going into Winchester, Kimmel had won two of the season's first nine contests and was leading ARCA's points standings. But Kimmel's decision to switch teams had taken a toll. His brother Bill felt betrayed and would no longer speak to him, outside of cordial small-talk.
Kimmel's new ThorSport team was far from the only well provisioned outfit in ARCA -- the teenage NASCAR hopefuls all had top-flight organizations behind them -- but it was far and away the most professional crew for whom he'd ever raced. If Basham's team was the Bad News Bears, ThorSport was practically SEAL Team Six. The crew snapped with almost military professionalism, eight stoic men (their ranks grow to 15 on race day) decked out in black logo-laden polos and matching work pants. Basham was barely hanging on to his three rusty cars and had been running the same engine for the last two years. Kimmel has eight heavily modified Toyota Camrys for this season alone, and he races with a new motor every week. Basham's biggest recent sponsor was a mom-and-pop company that sold a chafing-prevention product called Anti Monkey Butt Powder. The deal had been worth $8,000 a year, and Basham no longer had it. ThorSport's budget for Kimmel's 21 races this year alone is around $1.5 million, an arrangement primarily funded through a lucrative co-sponsorship by Menards and the international work-glove brand Ansell ActivArmr.
But despite the shiny trappings, an essential part of Kimmel remains a scrappy, working-class racer. He helps set up the pit. He sweeps up tire debris. He will pitch in with the racecars. At one point, an older ThorSport crewman patted Kimmel on the back as he was folding up chairs. "Frank, relax, we need you on Sunday," he said. But the chores seem fundamental to Kimmel's preparations.
"Driving is very important to me, but it's not everything," Kimmel had mused to me the day before as we were driving to his Menards appearance. "Working on cars and building them -- that's probably my biggest passion."
"After the last two wins, you were out in the garage working on the cars," said Kimmel's friend and neighbor John Cozart, a salt-of-the-earth mechanic with a delightfully galumphing twang who serves as Kimmel's traveling companion -- the Sancho Panza to his Quixote.
"I built a little car that John helps me with," Kimmel explained. "We go race at the Sportsdrome whenever I'm in town."
"Go home and go play," Cozart said. "When he's home, he's out in the garage pretty much until he hits the couch."
Kimmel laughed. "That, or our wives make us do some bulls*** inside the house."
Kimmel took out his iPhone and showed me a picture of the long, angular white car that the two men had built. It had a Mad Max look, sharper and more primitive than the neon-yellow Toyotas he drove for ThorSport. It was an Oval Xtreme car, he told me, and it would only race at the Sportsdrome back home. "I always wanted to build a car for that track. The ones that they have over there, I think are junk. I wanted to build a nice one."
Between practice runs, I decided to walk to the other side of the infield and introduce myself to Bill Kimmel. I found him bent over the red #69 car, one of three that his team would be racing the next day. Bill has Frank's easy smile, but his look is less polished. He's a little heavier around the middle, his white hair is buzzed rather than combed, and his skin is starting to sag.
The #69 car was a so-called "buy-a-ride" to be driven by Brad Lloyd, a 22-year-old aspirant from Napa, California. Buy-a-ride meant that Lloyd didn't have his own team. Bill and his crew would handle tires, gas, pit stops and in-race strategy. Lloyd would just drive. Lloyd happened to have his own racecar, so Bill was only charging $15,000 for his services. Had Lloyd needed one of Bill's cars, the price tag would have been $40,000.
I asked Bill about the kid's prospects. He shrugged. "He's the next Jeff Gordon. Just ask his mom." He continued: "Dollars can get you through the lower series, but you got to have abilities to stay on top. You get kids whose parents pay for them to go through into some NASCAR series and they just can't cut it."
A tall, broad-shouldered man with a crew cut was leaning through the passenger side window of Lloyd's #69 car, making some post-practice adjustments. It was Will Kimmel, Bill's 25-year-old son, who would also be driving that weekend. Will, however, already knew he wouldn't be finishing the race. He was competing only so that his team could collect the $800 starting fee. A few laps after he began, he would swing onto pit road and call it a day. There would be no tire changes, very little fuel consumed, minimal mechanical work, and almost no wear on the car. "If I do a start-and-park," Bill explained, "I pay less than $500. It would cost me $30,000 to run the whole race."
Everyone around the track agreed that Will Kimmel was one of ARCA's most talented drivers, but getting a crack at the big-time depends on a lot more than talent. "If I have a kid who is 6'9" and has a 50-inch vertical leap and makes forty-percent of his three-pointers, that kid is going to get a shot at the NBA," Bill said. "Stock-car racing is different than that. If my son can drive around Winchester faster than anyone, he might not get a shot at NASCAR. Your abilities won't get you to the top. Abilities get you to the top in stick-and-ball sports. They're not enough here."
Before Frank Kimmel left Kimmel Racing, the team, buoyed by Frank's Ansell-Menards sponsorship, was not in the business of selling buy-a-rides, nor did they start-and-park. Fraternal feuds are as old as Genesis, Chapter 4, and the Kimmels have lived lives far more intertwined than most brothers. Perhaps some kind of combustion was inevitable.
The Kimmels began their racing careers together, watching their father compete, helping him in the pits and assisting one another at the local tracks. But it wasn't until the 90's that the brothers began to race against each other. When they shared a track, the Kimmels instituted a non-aggression pact, knowing that a bump here or touch there could quickly escalate. They thought brothers, especially, should steer clear of such skirmishes. "Whenever you see the same family wrecking each other, that looks as bad as can be," Frank told me.
Nevertheless, the brothers were competitive, with Bill, the more aggressive of the two on the racetrack and off, usually coming out ahead. "I figured Bill would be the one that would have been stronger," their father told me. "If they run 10 races, Bill would probably have two more wins. Frank will tell you he'd rather run against anybody than Bill."
Bill retired from his own racing career in 1998. He had won four consecutive track titles at the Louisville Motor Speedway, but he was, in his own estimation, an unpopular champion. "Listen, they had to put a doggone state trooper with Bill's wife in the stands," his father, remembers. The next year, Bill and Frank began their historic ARCA partnership as crew chief and driver. And when they formed their own team in 2008, it looked as if the Kimmels would break all the remaining ARCA records together.
But dynastic jockeying undid their partnership. The Kimmels had set up the team with an eye toward their two sons, and a multi-year succession plan was sketched out. Frank would step down his driving commitments and Will would ratchet up his own. Eventually Frank's son, Frankie, would come into the fold. But Frank felt that Bill was trying to cast him aside prematurely, putting more work into the car Will raced in ARCA than into Frank's own ride. Frank worried that, when the time came, his own son wouldn't get a shot. "Bill was really ready to let Will race, and it was pretty obvious that I was not wanted there," Frank told me. "The whole reason we started Kimmel Racing was for our sons. Frankie is a very good racecar driver, but he would never have had a chance at Kimmel Racing with Bill running the show. As long as it was just me and Bill racing, we could do it and we were competitive doing it. But once the boys got involved it changed it all."
When Frank told Bill he was leaving for ThorSport, Bill was furious. "I had made a lot of sacrifices for him; I helped him win championships," Bill told me. "It was more than just a team, and it was more than just a business. Hell, we grew up together, we raced together forever. It was supposed to be that we would retire together, and then we'd watch our kids race. The way it was handled just really surprised me. That hurt more than anything."
On Sunday morning, Frank Kimmel awoke to rain. The previous day's qualifying session had been cancelled on account of the weather, which meant race order reverted to the season's current standings. Kimmel would begin on the pole. When I met Kimmel downstairs at our Holiday Inn Express, he put the chance of even starting the race at 50-50. "This is already a wash-out weekend for the promoter, he's not going to get many people to come out," Kimmel said, as we walked toward the team van. "He'd call it right now, but 75 percent of these teams come from Charlotte. They have a lot invested in motel rooms."
When we arrived at the track, the ARCA carnival was at a low-level hum. Many of the buy-a-ride kids hadn't yet arrived, and Kimmel occupied himself by busily doing chores. With a cloth in hand, he wiped puddles from the tarps covering his own and his closest opponents' cars. He used the handle of a broom to knock pools of water off the canopy of his team's tent.
A crowd of hardcore racing fans, undeterred by the likelihood of a rainout, began filtering through the turnstiles around noon. Built in 1916, the Winchester Speedway is America's second oldest racetrack and one of its most notorious. It bills itself as the "world's fastest ½ mile" and greets guests with a large sign that reads: "Through these gates, pass the bravest drivers in the world." And even though a mist fell, the racing faithful were enthusiastic, lining up to meet each of the twenty-four drivers and excitedly grabbing the same autographed ARCA fliers that Kimmel had had to push on passersby, two days earlier at Menards.
One fan had brought his own signed fliers to hand out: Nine-year-old Brayden Stamm, a resident of Fortville, Indiana, who was already a racing veteran. Brayden's father told me that he'd bought his son a go-kart at age three and allowed him to begin racing the next year. So far, Brayden had won 16 features and had already been accepted by a team to start driving open-wheel "midget" cars, once he turned 14. Brayden's father emphasized to me that he was "just an average dad," and that Brayden's racing was largely funded by selling donated aluminum cans to a recycling plant. Getting to the big-time meant you couldn't start early enough.
As the autograph session drew to a close, the clouds began to dissipate. An hour later, the drivers were introduced to the 2,000 or so fans that filled the half-full bleachers, received a prayer from the ARCA chaplain, and hopped into their racecars. A collective heave sounded from the engines, and the Herr's Taste the Chase 200 commenced.
Kimmel shot out to an early multi-car lead, with 18-year-old Mason Mingus trailing behind. Through the early going, as they roared around the oval, it seemed like Kimmel might simply lead from start to finish. But a caution flag tightened the field, and after the race restarted, Mingus, in his black #32 car, started to close the gap. On lap 107, Mingus made his move, swooping above Kimmel and passing him with ease. Mingus's car now seemed jet-propelled. By the 126th lap, Mingus was in the lead by a quarter-mile.
A near-infinite number of small contingencies can swing a race one way or another. If Mason Mingus had been traveling slightly faster or slightly slower as he rounded the second turn on the 128th lap, he might very well have sailed off to victory. But instead, Mingus slingshotted directly into the side of two cars that had collided a half-second earlier. The front of Mingus's #32 Toyota crushed inward like a stomped Coke can.
Soon after the race restarted, Kimmel was back in front. But as the laps ticked down, another young rival, 17-year-old Austin Wayne Self, closed Kimmel's lead to three car lengths. Self was desperately searching for a way to pass to Kimmel, edging next to him on the turns before being forced to drop back as the two bounded into the straightaways. When both cars hit their groove in the race's final turn, it looked like they were nearly even. But Kimmel came out of the bank slightly ahead and zoomed under the checkered flag, three-tenths of a second in the lead.
Kimmel didn't do a burnout to celebrate his victory, a common showboating display for race winners. He simply drove his car back to the starting line, called over his wife, Donna, for a kiss, and climbed out of his car. Kimmel didn't receive a Champagne shower. Instead his crew doused him with water from their Nestle Pure Life bottles. Then Kimmel posed for photographs in the hats of his many sponsors, politely answered questions from several TV and radio reporters and proudly displayed a framed poster with pictures of him and Iggy Katona, the two drivers now tied for ARCA's all-time wins lead. His sister Kim, in tears, whispered, "he raced like he did when he was a baby."
An hour later, as Kimmel left the track, his brother and nephew rode by on a tractor. They didn't stop.
Kim turned to Frank. "I just can't believe it," she said, shaking her head.
"Bill didn't say nothing," Frank sighed. "Will said, 'Good job.'"
Could Frank Kimmel have been a success in NASCAR? Could he have won championships, earned tens of millions of dollars, become a legend? Is his life the story of a talent thwarted by his sport's cruel economics?
On the drive up to Menards, Kimmel had chewed over the question. "I'm not a super-talented race car driver and never thought I have been," he said. "But I'm smarter than a lot of them. I think if you ask some of those Sprint Cup guys if I could have done well at that level, I think they would say, yes. Would I have won five races a year? No. But I could have won a race or two and been competitive."
Cozart broke in: "I think if you had a car Gordon or them had, you could have been up with them guys."
It felt almost vulgar to ask Kimmel if he had any regrets. Darrell Basham would probably have given a kidney to win just one ARCA race, never mind becoming its all-time winningest driver. But it was also hard not to see in Kimmel a little bit of Crash Davis, Kevin Costner's character in the baseball movie Bull Durham -- a player who was good but not quite good enough, sticking around the minors long enough to break the all-time homerun record. Kimmel, like Crash Davis, had gotten a little taste of the show. Did he ever wake up at night and wish it had turned out differently?
"Well, how could I?" Kimmel answered. "Most racers in the country pay to race. I never even thought I could make a living doing it."
"Lotta guys come and gone," Cozart trailed off, almost to himself.
"I'm not a rich man," Kimmel said, "but I have two healthy kids and a wife that puts up with me, so I'm very wealthy in that way. But if I had run Cup for two or three years, I would be a wealthy man. That part would have been nice. I wouldn't have wanted to go out there and know the best I could run every week was 25th. But it would have been fun to bust my ass and try to make it work."
Kimmel celebrated his historic victory with a dinner at the Texas Roadhouse in Richmond, Indiana. A lifelong teetotaler, he drank a tall glass of sweet tea and ate a far-from-gluttonous six-ounce filet mignon. He spent much of the dinner returning congratulatory text messages from friends and family, including Iggy Katona's son Ron. Mounted above the bar were caricatures of the legends of NASCAR -- Dale Earnhardt, Rusty Wallace, Jeff Gordon, Darrell Waltrip, Bill Elliott, Dale Jarrett, Terry Labonte and The King himself, Richard Petty. They all grinned down at us. Kimmel never noticed that they were there.
Eric Benson is a journalist living in Austin, Texas. He has written for Men's Journal, New York Magazine, the New York Times, and the Oxford American. Follow him on Twitter.