Now With A Bond That Goes Beyond Mere Chemistry, The Team Is Striving For A Seventh Championship
The late Iggy Katona was the "Man" of ARCA Super Car racing in the days before racing was all over TV. He won a record six ARCA Championships and even won a race at the age of 57 . . . at Daytona, no less. Ask anyone who's spent more than one season in the ARCA family and they will tell you they still speak of Iggy with awe.
When members of this generation of racers talk about their good old days in ARCA RE/MAX Super Car racing, they'll likely be talking the same way about Frank Kimmel and Tri-State Motorsports. That's because Kimmel, in the familiar number 46, has now tied Katona's record of six championships. No driver, other than Kimmel, has earned five consecutive crowns, and there's no end in sight. But bring that up with any member of the Tri-State team-especially Frank-and you'll get a truly embarrassed reaction. That's because these guys don't think of themselves as being in Iggy's league.
Along with the six titles, Frank Kimmel is ARCA's leading money winner with $3,029,078, which is more than double the amount earned by the driver who is runner-up on the list. In 280 career series starts since 1990, Kimmel is second on the all-time win list with 56 victories, 23 wins behind Katona's 79. In addition, Kimmel surpassed Tim Steele this year as the all-time series superspeedway lap leader with 2,364 laps led. Kimmel's career total in laps led stands at an incredible 8,251. His 168 top 5 finishes and 207 top 10s are more than any other active driver in both categories. In addition, Kimmel has been a top 10 point finisher in the past 13 consecutive seasons, finishing out of the top 5 only once during that time period.
With stats like that, one would expect a measure of conceit, but that's not the case with Kimmel. That's because he remembers what it was like to be out there with less than competitive equipment, trying to run with the big boys.
"I look back at the early days, and it certainly wasn't always this way," says Frank. "There were many struggles to get here. We didn't always have the support of our great sponsors, Advance Auto Parts and Pork, The Other White Meat. There was a time we didn't have any sponsors at all, when just getting to the track was a feat in itself, let alone doing well in the race.
But Kimmel's memory goes back even further to when he and big brother (by five years) Bill Kimmel saw their dad run ARCA when there was little in the way of sponsorship money and big purses. Frank remembers it well and ties it in with his six titles.
"I don't watch the records a whole lot," he says. "But I know very well who Iggy Katona was. In a lot of ways, he was our Richard Petty in ARCA. I remember watching him race when Dad raced in the '60s. You knew when that bright yellow and orange 30 showed up, he was a guy to beat. He was going to be running right there all day long. To think that we won a championship was always really big to me. To think that we tied him now with six is very remarkable. We passed Jack Bowsher, who is a phenomenal racer. Just to be mentioned with Jack Bowsher in the same sentence as Iggy Katona is a big step to me. So this year we've got to go for seven."
And it looks like they have every chance to do it. The 46 team has built itself up to what it is today, a team that is a threat to win every time it unloads its Ford. But what makes this team so good? Frank has an idea, "I think what makes it really good, and I think it makes any business good, is just good people. I think it comes down to we've got a really good bunch of young guys that are very dedicated in what they do. They enjoy this sport. They enjoy being involved with us. We've been very fortunate to hire the right kind of personalities that mesh well with our entire team. I think that when you get good people together, and you have good sponsorships and good money and your equipment improves, you should do better. And fortunately we have."
The more silent of the three main parts of Tri-State, owner Larry Clement, has another theory. "You always hear about a team having chemistry. We've got something better than chemistry, we've got blood." He's referring to crewchief Bill Kimmel, who gave up a successful driving career of his own to turn wrenches on the 46.
When asked what it is that makes the team thrive, Bill says, "One is that we do the same thing year after year, race after race. I don't think we've done our job if we don't go back to the racetrack and have done something to the car to make it better. It doesn't make it better all the time, but every time we go to the race track we try to make our car better. When you run a Late Model or any kind of Saturday night show, and you've got 30 cars a night, if you don't make your car better every night they're going to beat you. We've kind of brought that same philosophy over here, and I think it's paid off."
That and other tricks, like using assets wisely, have worked for the team. Testing is an example. With the shop located in southern Indiana, team members are close to Salem's short track and Kentucky's intermediate for testing. But they don't test for just those tracks. knowing Salem the way they do, they can apply other short tracks' characteristics to find what they need when they race at other venues. Ditto for Kentucky Speedway and testing for other intermediate tracks, the bulk of the ARCA RE/MAX schedule. It may be economical, but it seems to be more of a smartly calculated decision than a monetary one.
The family connection is a big plus as well. "I think a lot of that is that (Bill) kind of knows what I want before I have to even say it a lot of times," says Frank. "I think he brings a lot of competitiveness to this team that maybe we didn't have before. We were a fairly good team before, but when Bill came on board, he's actually much more competitive than I am. He hates to lose more than anything. I think he brings a lot to that part of the team. Of course, I know with Bill being my brother if he messes up too much, Mom's going to get him. So I have a big influence on him that way."
What happens when there's a big disagreement between them? Don't siblings fight worse than others? "We've really never had that kind of problem," says Frank. "As we were growing up, our dad had this rule around the house. If Bill and I got into a fight, whoever won the fight had to take on him. Well, he's 76 years old this year, and we can't whip him still, and we would never try. That was never a choice."
A team is more than its primary members, and Tri-State has good people that do what it takes to win a title. And that's more than just winning. Frank cites an example from the past season. "Ryan Hemphill came on the scene last year. In the past three or four years, we've gone to these intermediate tracks and were kind of the guys to beat. We weren't that way this year. Ryan was better than us almost every single track that we went to in mile-and-half tracks. We had a lot to catch up to. But with all that experience throughout the years of not having the best equipment and not being the fastest race car, we're still here to win championships. To pout and scream and yell and not run good, that doesn't do any good. You've got to go home and go back to work. We worked very hard all year long to get caught back up to where those guys are. We think that by the end of the year we were getting a lot better. I think that's what makes a good quality team. You can't go home and lay down and quit. You've got to keep trying."
Being ARCA Champ has its benefits. "I think the coolest thing is doing something that was really, really important to my family and my mom and dad," says Frank. "I know that's really strange sounding, but Dad raced this division when he didn't have anything. He was raising seven kids, racing out of his own pocket, and he could never quit and go racing. But I was lucky enough to get with the right owners and let somebody else take care of the money situation. And I was able to build up and get into a good situation with Larry Clement and Advance Auto Parts."
Clement knows the real Frank. "Nobody wants to win any worse than Frank Kimmel does," Clement says. "Frank's a nice guy off the track; he's a nice guy on the track. But I don't think people realize how hot the fire burns inside Frank's belly to want to win a race. Having said that, I think what sets Frank apart from a lot of people is, as bad as Frank Kimmel wants to win a race, he knows that it's better to finish second or third than it is to wreck your race car and somebody else's race car trying to win."
Iggy Katona raced when he was 61. Are we going to see an ancient Frank Kimmel out there with his turn signal flashing while doing 190 at Daytona? "I hope not," he says. "I don't think so. I've always said that when I can't do this anymore, when I'm holding the car back, I think I'll know it."