Talk about a rude welcoming.
All car owner John Kennedy's World of Outlaws team was trying to do was grab a couple of feel-good runs during a week of DIRTcar Nationals racing at Volusia Speedway Park in Florida. It ended up not qualifying for a single feature and losing an engine—and to make matters worse, as the team made its way home to snowy Western New York, the race hauler hit a patch of black ice and rolled over.
Nobody was injured in the accident, but it certainly added to the team's demoralizing start to the 2011 season.
"You have to want to do this," Kennedy said in a phone interview from Florida days earlier.
In the photo, from left: driver Dick Barton, team owner John Kennedy
and driver John Lobb. Courtesy Kennedy Motorsports.
John Kennedy, who turns 42 in April, doesn't know much about failure. After all, he has built a successful company, Phoenix-based Kennedy Partners, that specializes in capital improvement planning and development. It focuses on large-scale commercial projects such as building and remodeling schools and also is a substantial player in the solar-energy market.
Kennedy has also secured Phoenix companies CORE Construction and Ironco Enterprises to back his team.
"I own everything and my company is a huge sponsor, but they have stepped up in a big way," said Kennedy, who grew up in Frewsburg, New York.
While Kennedy realizes the financial and time commitment of fielding a top-notch late model team, perhaps a glimpse at his racing heroes explains why he's in this for the long haul ... why he wants to contribute and leave his mark on the sport.
"My heroes are kind of rooted in what I would call old-school racers, Ken Schrader comes to mind," Kennedy said. "Tony Stewart ... I appreciate everything he does for the sport. He's a great fan. I wouldn't say I'm a fanatic. I root for racers and respect what they do. I like the ones who support the sport other than driving on Sundays, if you will."
The Driver Roster
Speaking of drivers, Kennedy has that aspect covered, too.
On the national scene, he'll have longtime friend John Lobb pilot his No. 1 on the World of Outlaws tour and run for rookie of the year. Meanwhile, Dick Barton, who has won a mind-boggling 44 track or series late model points championships during his career, will be driving the team's No. 14B entry at various stops in the northeast. Longtime racer Chad Ruhlman, who serves as the team's manager and engineer, will also get plenty of seat time with 10 to 20 races in 2011, according to Kennedy.
"I have known both for many, many years," Kennedy said of Lobb and Barton. "I used to hang out where Dick used to build cars with his uncle Rod.
"John and I were friends in elementary school. We remained friends all through high school, and I partnered with John for about 10 years in the late '90s when we grew up in Western New York. We've always been very close."
Kennedy's increased impact was first felt following the 2009 offseason, after Barton's longtime car owner, businessman Ron Nielson, decided to call it a career. Kennedy helped pull equipment together so Barton could continue racing, and Lobb needed help, too.
"I decided to expand the team at that point," Kennedy said.
Ruhlman, who admits that he would like to be in the driver's seat every weekend, feels he can have a big impact from the pits on the new venture as well.
"I decided to join the team as a driver first and a manager second," he said. "I saw some ways to eliminate DNFs in Lobb's program and decided to help in the shop. I have a very good relationship with Close Racing Supply and Ruhlman Race Cars for parts and tech help, too, which could help Lobb's and Barton's program. I took the driver's position and was given the manager's position to sum it up."
John Kennedy first upped his partnership with New York drivers
Dick Barton (above) and John Lobb (below) during the 2010 season.
Kennedy wants to win big. He has provided the resources, including three race-ready Rockets to this point, with another on the way. The team had four new Custom race engines before losing one at Volusia.
And he likes the qualities his drivers possess. There's no secret that he holds high regard for Barton.
"I think the most admirable aspect is his fierce competitive nature," Kennedy said of Barton, who won the Little Valley (N.Y.) Speedway track title in 2010 and has piled up 236 career feature wins. "He is just so competitive. It's hard to find that in some people. He'll get everything out of a race car that he can."
Lobb has a number of notable wins including a STARS triumph at Eriez Speedway in 1999. Among the drivers he held off that night: Barton and Ruhlman.
"He's just a gentleman racer," Kennedy added. "He certainly has the competitive nature, but he races very clean and expects to be raced that way. He's pretty easy on equipment, tries not to abuse it."
So what about results ... what's realistic?
"Just like any other race team, we want to win races and championships," said Kennedy, who plans to travel to as many races as his busy schedule will allow. "We certainly want to be running in the top 10. With Dick this year, our expectations are for him to win another track championship. That was good for us last year; we won about six races. I expect to be in double digits this year. We have improved the race program, so that should be a reasonable goal.
"As for John, we want to be able to qualify well and be competitive, make races and certainly learn a lot," Kennedy added. "We're running for [WoO] rookie of the year and hope to win that award. Our goal is to be consistent and improve as the weeks go by. It'a a huge learning curve."
When you're lining up against the likes of two-time defending champion Josh Richards, Darrell Lanigan and Steve Francis every weekend, you're going to take your lumps. So why run with the Outlaws?
"I just thought it would be exciting to do," Kennedy said. "Years ago, John and I always wished we could run a series. I think John can be competitive with those guys, and we just decided to go for it. We have the equipment to be competitive."
As Kennedy, with a chuckle, stated at the beginning of this conversation, "You have to want to do this. We have a five-year plan and will continue to evaluate it."
It would appear that the critical components of that plan are in place, even though the program is in the building-blocks stage.
"John Kennedy is a very good businessman. He has a strong desire to win," Ruhlman said. "He understood the ups and downs of racing before he became an owner. He puts a lot of trust into the three teams and demands 100 percent effort in the shop and at the track."
And if you think he's showing a few nerves, you'd be correct.
"Absolutely!" Kennedy said. "It's a huge undertaking. It's like a second business. I spend a ton of time and energy researching and looking for the right kind of people to work with. We're trying to build strong relationships."
One step at a time.
Follow the team's progress this season at www.kennedymotorsports.us or on Facebook.