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Remember Tommy Kendall? The Rick Hendrick 'find' of the 1990s. Well, look at what he's driving now!

   Tommy Kendall (R) and his brother, cruising with El Gallo Grande (Photo: Tommy Kendall)

   By Mike Mulhern

  TALLADEGA, Ala.   
   From Santa Monica to Talladega in a yellow 1973 Olds chicken-mobile: El Gallo Grande – with this giant Fiberglas chicken head on the roof and a huge rooster tail on the rear deck?
   Well, Tommy Kendall always did march to a different drummer.
   And he was, Friday afternoon at Talladega Superspeedway, finishing up the loser's end of a bowling bet with Brian Vickers by having to drive El Gallo Grande ( this thing has its own Facebook page ) from his Santa Monica home to this place…via a late night stopover at Jimmie Johnson's Charlotte home, a midnight knock on the door that – given Denny Hamlin's recent car problems in the neighborhood – nearly provoked a call to the cops.
  Once upon a time -- and now it does seem like so long ago -- Tommy Kendall was Chevrolet's most promising newcomer, a Rick Hendrick find, who nearly won Watkins Glen in one of his first Cup starts.
   Back in 1989…..when Kendall was a wunderkind, just 22, working toward a degree in economics at UCLA.
   Life has changed a lot for this wild-eyed Californian since then.
   He pretty much wound up his racing career in the late 1990s, after dominating the sports car world's Trans-Am tour, with four championships and an almost-perfect1997 season, in which he won almost every week….all this after nearly being killed in a vicious crash at Watkins Glen. He was for years a Jack Roush man, ran six years of IROC, wanted to move up full-time to Cup, but lost out in a debate with Roush over that point.

  Jimmie Johnson autographs El Gallo (Photo: Tommy Kendall)


   Post-racing Kendall has been a TV guy.
   And always willing to make a bet.
   Like the one he lost in 2002 to then unknown Danica Patrick, with the winner getting to parade the loser around Sunday's pre-race garage area for the Long Beach Grand Prix on a dog leash.
   "We were racing in the celebrity part of the weekend," Kendall recalled. "It was pros and celebs, and I asked who the pros were, and when they mentioned Danica Patrick I said 'uh-oh, that could be a problem' because I knew she'd finished second in the Ford Festival in England, and that's a pretty serious race.
   "Now I'm still heads-up confident I can pretty much beat anyone, but I was worried about how much she weighed. When I met her, she almost crushed my hand. But she only weighed 100 pounds. She's not only beautiful…..
   "We went through practice, neck and neck, and in qualifying she was a tenth ahead of me. And I realized if I don't beat her to turn one I'm in trouble.
   "I decided I have to do something to get her off-balance. So at the drivers' meeting I asked 'Hey, how about a wager, to put some teeth into this deal?'
   "She said 'Sure. What?'
    "I said 'How about the loser has to be lead through the pit lane before the big race on a leash?'
    "She said 'You're on!'
    "Long story short, she beat me to turn one. Now I had a shot at her. And I was known for never, ever backing off, which led to some pretty bad high-speed wrecks with people. She was next me to me, and I was up to her, and I was about to turn her….like I always did….but I let her off the hook. I'm not sure why, I don't if it was because I'd been retired for a while or if it was because she was a girl….But she beat me.
   "The next morning we went to pay the bet. She said 'Now you don't have to do this. I don't want to humiliate you.' I said 'I appreciate that…but if you had lost, you'd be doing it…in a Catwoman's suit.' So I did it.
    "I'm great at making up great bets…I'm just not good a winning them."


   Now what would you think if you looked in the rear view and saw this? (Photo: Tommy Kendall)


   Kendall -- though it might be hard to tell this particularly day, this big, tall blond-haired, bearded dude with the mullet and a yellow '73 Olds with a giant chicken head on the roof – was once one of the country's top racers.
    "That's my past life. Like my ex-wife used to say 'You were big in the 90s.'
    "Vickers tells it I was big in the 60s; he thinks that's funny."
    Kendall bought El Gallo Grande 12 years ago, "rusted beyond belief. I saw it in LA and bought it at an impound. Two years ago the original got totaled, parked in front of my place in Santa Monica; a kid was texting and ran his mother's Lexus into the rear of it. So we harvested the organs – we put it on life support, suspended animation.
    "And then my brother found an original '73 Olds just like it, cherry, cherry, 29,000 original miles. I didn't have the heart to paint it yellow and put the roster head on it for about a year. But Vickers wouldn't let me flake on this bet, so when John reminded me it was Halloween he said we've got to take El Gallo to Talladega.
   "Got it all together….and we left Venice Pier Friday night, and here we are.
   "We've been doing a rolling dialogue on Tommy Kendall's Facebook page. We went to Graceland – and El Gallo has his own Facebook page too, because he thinks he's a person, and 'he' started talking about 'I'm like Elvis. Elvis knows what I go through. I need Gallo-land.'
   "Now I think he's out of his mind…."
  Yes, this is a Southern California surfer dude….
   Actually Kendall was so good that he got an offer to do a full Cup ride with Robert Yates, which he turned down. "Retired at 31….no regrets.
   "I had a good run. My career was a study in pure focus, total intensity, making things happen. Ran the Chevy R&D car at the Glen for Hendrick and led toward the end. Led the Glen with three to go driving for Felix Sabates when Mark Martin and I collided.
    Now Kendall has a part-time job, believe it or not, as a host for Mercedes Benz at various events around the country. "A perfect spokesman for Mercedes, don't you think," Kendall said with a laugh.
    "My TV career has been pure serendipity. I don't have a business card. I just let things happen.
   "We were coming into Charlotte the other night, and realized we didn't have a place to stay. So I called up Jimmie, and he said 'My place is your place.' We got there at midnight and had to wake him up. The neighbors were really on guard, and while we were waiting for Jimmie to open the gate, some neighbors came by to watch us. Probably thought we were some crazy fans….and they were kind of right.
   "I was thinkin I'm not sure when the lady of the house wakes up that she won't call the cops. But Channy (Johnson's wife) is really cool. And we all went out the next night, and El Gallo was really strutting his stuff.
   "Hey, everybody knows El Gallo. Dale Earnhardt Jr. just came by and said 'Hey, saw your car.'
   "Everytime you take it out it's a fun machine. You never know where the night will end up. It's just pure fun.
   "I've got a new TV show in my head right now – a lap around America, going to the big events…like I was supposed to take it to the premier of the new Boondock Saints, that cult film….
    "A road-trip talk show; we're going to call it Cocktales. The idea is part Howard Stern, with freaks and geeks. Just fun. And if we use it as a promotional vehicle for racing, we could do it like a lead-in to the race.
   "We just got NASCAR approval to run the car in the Saturday parade lap here. That's cool. I've always wanted to set the world's closed course speed record for chicken cars…."





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