"There's no way to get involved in racing without some financial support, whether it's from family or not," says Tommy. "I'm never ashamed of that support. The pitiful thing would be to have all the opportunity I've had and not make the most of it. But I kept hearing, 'You never would be driving if it weren't for your father buying your ride.' So to prove myself, I just drew a hard line after '86: Never take a ride in a car that didn't have a sponsor. Looking back on it, I could have easily ended my career right there. It was an overreaction. But it forced me to become a paid driver right away."
Behind the wheel, Kendall is smooth, smart, consistent and aggressive—but not too aggressive. While he isn't afraid to risk a hit, he doesn't look for trouble. He's also sensitive to the limits of a car and extremely easy on it. Says Dave King, manager of the ICI/Olivetti Chevrolet Beretta Race Team, "When Tommy comes in, the brakes, clutch and tires look as if he's never used them."
Says Kendall, "There's not a whole lot of magic to race driving. A lot of it is just seat time, and after that it's really a mental deal. Natural ability only gets you so far. When you get to a level like Trans-Am, the talent is pretty equal. What sets one driver apart from another is how hard you work. I've got a buddy who's always telling me, 'The only difference between you and Rick Mears is experience.' "
Kendall believes he'll be moving up to stock cars in 1991. In addition to his oval track tryout, he has raced in three stock car events, two at Watkins Glen (N.Y.) and one at Sears Point ( Calif.), both of which are road courses. He led two of those races before crashing—a blown tire caused one wreck, the other was to avoid a spinning car—and finished fifth in the third. But the NASCAR circuit isn't his only option. He could move to IMSA's GTP class for prototypes; he has entered four GTP races this year, driving a Spice-Chevy to third place at Lime Rock Race Park in Lakeville, Conn.
The mixture of California college boy driver with a Southern good ol' boy stock-car team might seem to be asking for trouble, but any preppy who can ride point in a pack of choppers knows how to mix. Kendall, in fact, loves the way things are done on the NASCAR circuit. "Here's the best way to describe what racing stock cars is like," he says. "We had to raise the exhaust pipes to clear the track on some of the corners, and my chassis man jacked the car up and dropped it down on the pipes, on top of a tire. 'There,' he said. 'Smashed it perfect.' To use the words smash and perfect in the same sentence pretty much defines stock car racing."
As for his schoolwork, he says, "I came to the realization that I was staying in college simply because I wanted to finish something I started. My only career ambition is to drive as long as I can. The business world has appeal, but I have no plans to do anything with my economics degree, unless the racing stops going well. I can't imagine ever not wanting to drive."