By Joe Buckles
TERRE HAUTE — An impressive list of credentials has earned him the title as the winningest driver in Wabash Valley Fairgrounds racing history, yet he probably remains one of the best-kept secrets on the area motorsports scene.
He is Kenny James, the undisputed king of National Hod Rod Association Pro racing at Action City Dragway USA.
Like the many NHRA ET bracket racers who compete weekly at the one-eighth-mile strip, James runs in the shadows of the more publicized oval-track racers at the Terre Haute Action Track.
Racing in near obscurity for almost five decades has never been an issue for a guy who admittedly prefers staying out of the limelight.
James’ trademark floppy hat and aging ‘68 Camaro have long presented a deceiving image over the years.
The Camaro, which appears more destined for the salvage yard than another winning pass at ACD, is often the subject of good-natured ribbing by the competition.
It’s the same machine that has consistently over the years sent the non-believers to an early trip to the trailer.
Since his early days dating back to the 1960s, James has approached drag racing from a different perspective than his rivals.
While winning is nice, James says, it’s just a small part of the overall picture of bracket racing.
“It’s more about camaraderie and having a good time,” James said of his countless visits to the dragstrip. He says his racing is not only the simplest form of drag racing but also the most competitive.
“You can have a $50,000 car, a $100,000 car. You can race your van. You can race what you drove down here and have a chance to win if you cut a light and run what your dialing is on the window. It’s that’s simple,” explained James.
“Basically, you’ve got to have a better race than the guy next to you. You can have a bad race and the guy next to you might have a worse race. If you have a good race and he has a better one than you, you lose. There’s a lot of luck involved.”
He stresses how competitive ET bracket can be on any given night.
“You don’t have to have a fast car,” he said. “You have to have a consistent car. Anybody that comes through that gate can beat you, if they cut a better light.”
It’s something that James has done better than most over the years.
Asked what his career win total might be, James says he’s never kept count.
“When you do something for as long as I have and you’re lucky enough to win seven or eight times a year, they add up,” the modest James said. “I don’t keep track. I do know in this business you lose more than you win.”
Entering the twi-light of his racing career, James concedes the wins are harder to come by these days.
“I used to win a lot more than I do now. I’m not near what I was 10 years ago, but I still have fun.” said James, already a two-time winner this season.
Although he might be celebrating his 68th birthday at the end of the month, his age and that Camaro haven’t lessened the degree of respect he maintains with his competitors.
“They call him ‘the King’ down here and for good reason,” offered fellow Pro racer Brad Doan. “He could show up in grandma’s station wagon and still win. It doesn’t matter what he drives. The guy is unbelievable.”
Mike Ralston, an accomplished drag racer himself, tagged along with James to drag strips across the Midwest during their early racing days.
He has nothing but praise for his close friend and fellow racer.
“He’s truly the epitome of bracket racing,” Ralston said. “You don’t have to have a $100,000 car to win. If you were to put Kenny’s car in among 25 and say which is most likely to win, his would be the last one picked. He doesn’t even have the same two color plug wires in that car.
“In bracket racing, if you run the number, you cut the light, you are going to win. Nobody is better at doing that than Kenny James. He’s a true supporter of the track in every sense of the word.”
Don Giovanini of Clinton has shared many days at the drag strip with Kenny James and is one of his biggest admirers.
“He’s the king of Pro, no doubt about that,” offered the patriarch of the Giovanini family, which is in its third generation of racers. “He’s a tough man to beat. He’s been around a lot of years and has a lot of fun doing it,”
Giovanini couldn’t pass on the opportunity to offer his own take on James’ Camaro.
”When you have the same car for a thousand years and you don’t do anything to it but drive it,” he mentioned, “the car and driver become one. That’s why he is so good.”
James doesn’t know why so much fuss is made of his car.
”There ain’t nothing fancy about it,” he noted. “I drive it home from the track, put it in the garage and get it out next week and drive in back down to the track and race. It’s street legal. It’s got plates. I could drive it to California if I wanted.”
The former city fireman who retired after 37 years, a span in which he never missed a day of work, doesn’t offer the competition much hope of stepping aside from the sport he loves anytime soon.
“People ask me how long I’m going to do this and I say as long as I have fun doing it,” James said. “I have fun if I win. I have fun if I lose. If I lose, I go home and don’t worry about. If I win, that’s just icing on the cake.”
That approach has served the likable racer and his sport well over the years. It’s also one that is likely to see James and the Camaro make a few more winning passes before they surrender their crown as “King of Pro” at Action City Dragway.
Joe Buckles can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.