All three have slowed down in recent years, but the United States Auto Club’s career victory leaders in midget, sprint and Silver Crown cars can still provide thrills.
Open-wheel enthusiasts were given a rare treat as the USAC trio of Mel Kenyon (midgets), Tom Bigelow (sprints) and Jack Hewitt (Silver Crown) were among the guests at the Dayton Auto Racing Fan Club’s USAC Night on Tuesday. USAC’s all-time winners shared stories, laughs and reminisced about their hall-of-fame exploits.
Some were even suitable for print.
Kenyon won a record 111 USAC midget features (he won 382 midget and modified races overall) before retiring in December of 2009. Kenyon, 80, one of only three drivers to win USAC national races for 21 consecutive seasons and had eight Indianapolis 500 starts from 1966-73.
“I was thinking of driving up until I was 80 years old, but between my wife and my billfold they said I had to retire at 77,” said Kenyon, who remains active in racing by working on cars and tutors drivers.
Bigelow, 73, recorded 52 career USAC sprint victories. Racing at high-banked tracks like Winchester Speedway and Eldora Speedway was an adjustment for Bigelow, who grew up racing flat tracks in Wisconsin.
“The first time I came to a high-banked track was Salem, Indiana. I went out there and I thought I was flying. Then they threw the green flag and everybody passed me,” Bigelow told the DARF crowd. “I told the (car) owner I can’t run these places right now, but I will some day. I loved the high banks. I liked the speed. I always figured if you’re going to be a race driver then you better drive fast. If you don’t like speed, then heck, you’re never going to get anywhere.”
Bigelow, who has nine Indy 500 starts, also remains active in racing. Two of his grandchildren race, which provides Bigelow a different experience these days.
“When I was in the cockpit I knew what I was doing. Now the grandkids are in the cockpit, sometimes I’m not too sure what they’re doing,” he said. “Tommy would run around the bottom at Winchester. I kept telling him you have to get up a little higher, a little higher. Well, about halfway through that year he hit every wall in that place. They’ve both won features at Winchester now and that tickles me as their grandfather.”
Hewitt, 62, still turns laps in his two-seat sprint car often for charity functions and fundraisers giving fans the “Dew It Like Hewitt” experience that helped him win 23 Silver Crown features
“Everybody thinks I’m so in control when I get out there,” Hewitt said with a grin. “Well, if it don’t scare me I know it’s not scaring you. If they only knew how many times I said, ‘Oh (expletive), this ain’t gonna be good.’ I always pull it out somehow.”
Known as much for his antics off the track as his accomplishments on them, Hewitt turned the 1998 Indy 500 — his lone appearance in the race — into an unforgettable month of May.
“To me, I knew I was only going to be there one year because of this mouth,” Hewitt said. “It wasn’t because I couldn’t race it two years, but after everything I said the first year I was done.”
Hewitt finished 12th in his Indy 500 and still planned to race at Eldora Speedway that night, according to veteran racing announcer Gary Lee.
“After the feat(ure) — he calls the Indianapolis 500 the ‘feat’ — I’m going to Eldora. Well, he didn’t make it to Eldora that night. I think they were partying too hard,” Lee said.
With three of USAC’s greatest drivers under one roof, Thursday was a pretty good celebration, too.