According to the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America, when it comes to Mel Kenyon, “Many consider him to be Midget Car racing’s greatest driver ever.” You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone that disagrees with that statement.
Kenyon was born on this day (April 15) in 1933, in DeKalb, Illinois. The small town in northern Illinois was best known for the development of barbed wire until Mel Kenyon put his hometown on the map.
“Miraculous Mel” attended his first auto race in 1946 and was an instant fan. He began his racing career in 1954 racing a 1937 Chevy Coupe. The Coupe was totaled in a race when a tire blew out and the car rolled. The next year he began raced modified stocks and attracted some attention. In 1958, Mel began his career in the midgets.
Kenyon won his first championship in 1962 racing in NASCAR’s Midget series in Florida. He switched to the USAC series in mid-season and finished Fifth in the USAC National Midget championship points, becoming an instant star.
He went on to win one of the premiere Midget Car races when he took home the 1963 Turkey Night Grand Prix trophy and wrapped up Second place in the 1963 USAC championship points race. He would win his first USAC National Championship the following year.
With his popularity growing, Kenyon attempted to qualify for the 1965 Indianapolis 500 but failed to make the field. A month later, Kenyon was the catalyst in a horrific crash at Langhorne Speedway on June 20, 1965. In his tenth USAC IndyCar race, Mel’s engine blew up sending oil all over the car, his firesuit, and the track. He lost control of the car, hit the wall and was knocked unconscious.
Unable to avoid the oil, racers Jim Hurtubise and Ralph Liguori slid through the spill and slid straight into the fuel tank of Kenyon’s car. The fuel ignited and began to burn the car and the unconscious Kenyon. Driver Joe Leonard was also involved in the crash, managed to rescue Kenyon from the burning wreck, but the fire had done severe damage.
Because of severe burns, Kenyon went through multiple operations at the San Antonio Burn Center, and he lost nearly all of his fingers on his left hand. Kenyon was committed to returning to racing and with the help of his brother Don, and their father Everett, they designed a special glove with a rubber grommet sewn into the palm. The glove was designed to fit on Kenyon’s hand and hook into the steering wheel, allowing the racer to steer with both hands. The trio formed a racing team called 3-K Racing, with Don as the crew chief.
Kenyon returned to racing the following year in 1966, logging twelve First or Second-place finishes. This earned him Second in the National Midget points standings.
In only 11 months after his fiery crash, he qualified for his first Indianapolis 500, finishing the race in an impressive Fifth place. He finished the year winning 17 of 49 feature events to again claim the National Midget title in 1967.
He qualified for the 1968 Indianapolis 500 in a car sponsored by his adopted hometown of Lebanon, Indiana. He finished on the podium in Third place.
Doing most of the maintenance on his Midget Car by himself, Kenyon tore down and rebuilt his Offenhauser engine routinely. He won the 1968 Midget National title again, in what was becoming a regular event.
He continued to race in both USAC “Big Car” and Midget Car races, finishing Fourth in the 1969 Indy 500 and Forth in his last of eight Indianapolis 500s in 1973.
He won his second Turkey Night Grand Prix in 1975 at 605 Speedway, the first time the event was held on a paved track. By the time he was inducted into the National Midget Auto Racing Hall of Fame in 1984, he had racked up over 100 Midget Car Victories.
Amazingly, Kenyon continued to accumulate wins and captured the 1985 Midget National Championship after his HoF induction. Without hesitation, he continued to win Championships and titles racing in national series until 1993 when he stopped for family reasons. Racing locally, Kenyon continued to win regional championships until well after his 70th birthday in 2003.