AP Photo/Dick Whipple
Frank Kimmel, right, and his crew chief and brother Bill Kimmel, left, have reeled off eight straight ARCA titles. Starting their own race team in 2008 has proved much tougher, and a ninth-consecutive title appears unlikely.
ARCA: Starting own team has been hard on the Kimmels
As long as ARCA keeps running on the famed 1-mile dirt oval at the Illinois State Fairgrounds in Springfield, Frank Kimmel should be the man to beat. What's different this season is that, for the first time in more than a decade, Frank Kimmel isn't the man to beat in the rest of the ARCA world.
Kimmel knew that someday his amazing run of championships would end. He also knows that this more than likely will be that year, snapping an eight-year string of titles dating to 2000. He just hopes this won't be the end of his racing entirely.
The Kimmel family broke away from Tri-Star Motorsports, its home for nine championships (1998 plus the eight-year streak), to start Kimmel Brothers Racing this year. Frank and Bill, his crew chief brother, figured it was time to think about their long-term legacy in racing and use their equity in the series to build their own operation.
But this year has turned into one of the toughest in memory for motorsports teams to make ends meet.
"It wasn't the smartest thing, that's for sure," Frank Kimmel said, laughing and then stopping. "The timing has definitely been a challenge. We haven't had a [primary] sponsor all year. We've picked up sponsors for different races here and there, that's kept us going. If everything goes well, we should make it to the end of the season now. We're into the point of the year where the races are spread out. I think we'll make it every race this year, then we'll just have to see."
It's jarring to hear from a series legend that his next year in competition may not be guaranteed. But the 46-year-old Hoosier isn't letting it become a distraction at the track, in part because the on-track season has been a challenge in itself.
Kimmel's first 14 starts this year were winless, an unfamiliar streak for a driver who came into the season with 71 wins in 355 starts -- one in every five, on average. In a five-race stretch from Kansas to Pocono, he had only one top-10 (a 10th-place finish). Then, a four-race surge of third-second-fourth-third ended at the second Pocono race with a nasty crash.
On Lap 68 of 80, most of the field moved to the inside to pass a car slowing on the outside with a flat tire. Then someone hit the slowed car, pushing it into Kimmel and pushing his Ford into the fence. He sustained a concussion, and a doctor advised him to skip the next week's race at Nashville.
Kimmel started the race for points but left at the first caution, handing the wheel to nephew Will. It was the first race Kimmel didn't start and finish since Daytona in 1999, when he wasn't cleared to race after a qualifying crash.
But next on the schedule was the Allen Crowe 100 at Springfield, a 55-year-old mainstay on the ARCA schedule which in its United States Auto Club incarnations years ago was won by Al Unser and A.J. Foyt. Kimmel wasn't about to miss it.
"One thing about the dirt, all the downforce, all the power, all that is not important. It's all about setup and driving a race car. We expect to do well there," Kimmel said.
All Kimmel had done in 10 previous years at Springfield was win six times and finish second four others, and he added to that mark with his seventh win Sunday, tying the late Dean Roper for the most wins there.
"That win was a pretty good shot in the arm," he said.
It still left him fifth in points, 255 points behind Scott Speed. With six races remaining, a 10th championship would be more fantasy than reality. More wins are certainly possible -- especially with another Illinois date on the dirt Sept. 1 at DuQuoin State Fairgrounds -- but the bigger picture is now survival for 2009 and beyond, rather than championships.
"I raced a lot of years without winning championships and know how difficult it is and what a privilege and what an amazing run we had been on," Kimmel said. "I knew the day was coming, if it comes this year, that's just the way it's gonna be.
"We'll go out and race as hard as we can, then we'll probably have to figure out what table we're supposed to sit at the [postseason] banquet. But they'll tell us where to go."
That's an easier pill to swallow than not racing at all.
John Schwarb is a freelance journalist covering motorsports and a contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.