Editor’s Note: This is the first of a series by Indianapolis Motor Speedway Historian Donald Davidson featuring Indianapolis 500 veteran drivers returning to IMS for “Legends Day Honoring Roger Penske” on Saturday, May 26. The veteran drivers will participate in autograph sessions and other fan-friendly activities.
In addition to being USAC's All-Time National midget car feature winner with 111 victories from 1962-88, Mel Kenyon also compiled an impressive record in the Indianapolis 500.
Among the first of the veteran "500" drivers who have indicated they will be in attendance for the Saturday, May 26 autograph session at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Kenyon recorded four "500" finishes of fifth or higher from 1966-73.
Those finishes become even more impressive when one takes note of the drivers who placed ahead of him. When he claimed fifth as a rookie in 1966, the four he followed to the checkered flag were Graham Hill, Jim Clark, Jimmy McElreath and Gordon Johncock. When Kenyon finished third in 1968, the highest finish of his career, only Bobby Unser and Dan Gurney were ahead of him. And when he placed fourth in both 1969 and 1973, only Mario Andretti, Gurney and Unser, and Johncock, Bill Vukovich II and Roger McCluskey, respectively, had higher finishes.
Pretty exclusive company.
The truly remarkable fact about Kenyon's career is that the vast majority of his 111 USAC wins, plus every one of his "500" starts came after an accident which could easily have been career-ending. He had just won his first of a record seven USAC National Midget titles and was well on his way to successfully defending it when he was seriously injured in a Championship car accident in June 1965 at Langhorne, Pa. His Offenhauser-powered "roadster" was caught up in a multi-car accident, and leaking methanol fuel ignited while he remained slumped unconscious in the cockpit.
By the time he was released many weeks later from the famed U.S. Army Medical Burn Center at San Antonio, a series of operations had forced the loss of all of the fingers on his left hand. But quitting racing was never an option.
Huddling, while hospitalized, with Don Kenyon, his non-driving brother, and Everett, his father, a plan was drawn up for a special glove for Mel's left hand. Sewn into the palm would be a rubber grommet which would slip neatly onto a stud on the steering wheel so that he could steer with his right hand and left palm.
When Mel Kenyon finished third in the 1968 "500," car owner Fred Gerhardt had turned a car over to the Kenyon brothers and told them they could run it if they could find a sponsor. Financial assistance came mainly in the form of numerous small pledges from citizens who lived in the town to which they had fairly recently relocated from Davenport, Iowa, the car running in the race as the City of Lebanon, Indiana Special. Don Kenyon was the only team member on the payroll, drawing a princely $150 per week as chief mechanic. Mel drove for a strict 40 percent of the prize money with no guarantee and "nothing up front." To have "missed the show" would have meant no prize money at all. Not only that, but Mel was his own engine man, tearing down and reassembling the team's lone turbocharged Offy by himself, missing fingers and all.
One of the last drivers to earn membership in the prestigious, but long-since discontinued Champion 100 mph Club, the gracious Kenyon belies his legend and remains a race fan's delight.
He'll be one of numerous past "500" drivers on hand, in shifts, to sign autographs from noon-4 p.m. Saturday, May 26 in the Plaza area behind the Speedway's Pagoda.