May 25th, 2010
If circumstances had taken a slightly different path nine years ago, Kasey Kahne would probably be contending for an Indianapolis 500 victory this Sunday instead of chasing his third Coca-Cola 600 trophy at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
A native of Enumclaw, Wash., Kahne grew up around sprint-car racing and once he climbed into the cockpit and buckled the belts, his career followed the traditional path that led multiple generations of short-track racers to Indianapolis stardom.
“As long as I can remember, my dad (Kelly) worked on sprint cars,” Kahne said. “As a little kid growing up, I wanted to go out in the garage with him. I wanted to go to the race track with him. He’d go to the pits and I would sit in the stands with my mom (Tammy).
“They would race 20 to 25 times a year, and initially I was probably making 10 or 15 of those races. That wasn’t enough for me, but it was plenty for my mom,” Kahne recalled.
When Kahne was 14 years old, he talked his parents into buying a micro sprint and he quickly advanced to the 1,100 c.c. mini sprints. By the time he was 16, Kahne was racing 360 sprint cars.
“I still remember my first 360 race,” Kahne said about an event at Skagit (Wash.) Speedway. “My dad walked up right before I pushed off for the main event and reminded me that I was racing mini sprints next year and that this was just to see what driving a sprint car was like. I think I finished fifth or sixth, and I haven’t raced a mini sprint since.”
The Kahne family eventually expanded its racing exploits, competing in both 360 and 410 sprint-car races up and down the West Coast. Kahne was enjoying considerable success at a very young age and both he and his father knew that the next career step had to be a drastic one.
“I was in high school at the time, but all I wanted to do was race and to be able to make a living racing, whether it was a sprint car or a midget,” said Kahne. “My father and I knew that moving to Indianapolis was what we needed to do in order to make that happen.
“So I graduated from high school early. I took a year of college night classes and graduated during the winter time,” Kahne explained. “I moved to the Midwest a year earlier than I would have if I had stayed on the normal school schedule.”
After relocating to Indiana for the 1999 season, the then 19-year-old Kahne spent the year racing winged sprint cars with the All Star Circuit of Champions, the World of Outlaws and in the Keystone State.
“My dad was my car owner and my parents were doing all they could to keep me out there,” Kahne noted. “But once you get to a certain level, you have to drive for someone unless you are a millionaire. That’s the only way you can do it and be in really good equipment.”
Fortunately for Kahne, it was during that 1999 season when he met car owner Steve Lewis and chassis builder Bob East.
“I started driving for them in 2000,” Kahne said. “I won the USAC midget championship and a lot of things went really well that year. Driving for Steve Lewis also opened the door with Ford, so Ford was working with me and they really liked open-wheel, and I liked open-wheel, so that was initially the direction we thought was right.”
As part of his accolades for winning the USAC midget title, Kahne tested a Panther Racing Indy Car at Texas Motor Speedway and through his relationship with Ford was invited to test a CART car owned by Bobby Rahal at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
“I went and did a test for Rahal on my 21st birthday. That is still one of the coolest cars I’ve ever driven,” Kahne said. “It was definitely an eye opener with the turbocharger, the brakes and the downforce those cars had. I really enjoyed driving that car.”
In addition to racing USAC midgets, sprint cars and Silver Crown cars in 2001, Kahne also tried his hand at Formula Ford racing and the Toyota Atlantic Series where he earned one top ten finish in three starts.
“But the open-wheel stuff was kind of winding down at that point and there were opportunities in NASCAR,” he said. “So we kind of changed directions and went South.”
Kahne started his NASCAR Nationwide Series career in 2002; joined Ray Evernham’s fledging Sprint Cup Series team in 2004; and next year will become part of the powerful Hendrick Motorsports organization.
Now, 30 years old and one of stock-car racing’s most successful drivers, Kahne keeps in touch with his short-track roots through Kasey Kahne Racing, which fields a pair of World of Outlaws sprint cars, and a USAC sprint-car and midget team.
“I think it’s very important to give back and it’s also something I really love,” Kahne said about his role as a team owner. “I enjoy that type of racing so much and the only way I can be a part of it is to own teams because I can’t race that stuff very often. To give drivers and mechanics opportunities, I really enjoy being a part of that.”
But proving he has fully transitioned from open-wheel racer to stock-car driver, Kahne offers a surprising answer when asked if he feels more at home in a Sprint Cup garage area or a sprint-car pit area.
“I feel more at home in a Sprint Cup garage,” he responded. “When I go back and drive the sprint cars now, I enjoy it but it’s such a change from what I’m used to. In a Sprint Cup car, I’m way more relaxed. I feel like I’m under control and I feel like I know more about what’s going on at a Sprint Cup race than I do a sprint-car race these days.”