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Mel Kenyon: “King of the Midgets”

Unsurprisingly, Indiana is home to a variety of top caliber racers. Some Hoosiers have gasoline in their veins, in no small part due to the nearby presence of Speedway, Indiana and its vaunted racing venue. One such born and bred Indiana racer is Mel Kenyon, otherwise known as “Miraculous Mel,” the “Champion of Midget Auto Racing,” and “King of the Midgets.” Kenyon is considered by many to be the greatest midget racer in the history of the sport and he has the honors and awards to prove it, including inductions into three different racing Halls of Fame.

Video of an interview with Lebanon, Indiana native and midget car champion Mel Kenyon and Rich Vogler from 1987

 

Mel Kenyon was born in Lebanon, Indiana in 1933. When he was sixteen, the aspiring racer attended his first auto race. It didn’t take long for this life changing experience to translate to a passion: Kenyon began racing eight years later, in 1954. By 1955 Mel Kenyon was racing modified stock cars, and in 1958 he began his lucrative career in midget car racing. Kenyon’s first taste of success occurred in 1962, when he won the Florida midget series of NASCAR. The victory didn’t calculate into his final standings, however; Kenyon switched to the United States Auto Club (USAC) later that same season. Despite his late arrival in the circuit, Kenyon still managed to place fifth in the USAC National Midget Championship points totals.

Video of Lebanon, Indiana native Mel Kenyon giving a speech at a 2010 MASCS Banquet

 

Overall, the USAC was kind to this Indianapolis sports figure. He finished third in USAC championship points in 1963 and finally took home the whole championship in 1964. Mel Kenyon‘s life would take a sharp turn for the worse the following year, however. In an IndyCar race in Langhorne, Pennsylvania in 1965, Kenyon’s engine exploded. The result was a multiple car accident that left Kenyon with severe burns. After multiple operations at a top burn unit in San Antonio, Kenyon emerged from the hospital missing almost all of the digits on his left hand.

Video of Lebanon, Indiana native Mel Kenyon discussing his life changing 1965 accident and recovery in a 2008 interview.

 

Mel Kenyon didn’t let this setback stop him for long, however: by 1966, Mel, equipped with a special glove that fastened to the steering wheel, was back in the cockpit. He finished second in national midget points and, just eleven months after his crash, qualified for his first Indianapolis 500 Mile Race. His first encounter with the Indianapolis Motor Speedway went pretty well, considering the circumstances. Kenyon ended up finishing fifth place. That wouldn’t be the last time Kenyon raced around the vaunted Brickyard, however. He made return trips to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway every year from 1966 to 1973. Though he never emerged victorious from the Indy 500, he finished in the top twenty every year (including four finishes in the top 5) except for 1971, when he crashed around the third turn.

Video of Lebanon, Indiana native Mel Kenyon’s explosive 1971 accident at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway

 

Of course, Kenyon didn’t become the “King of the Midgets” for nothing. Even after he lost the digits of his left hand, he continued to build and modify his own engines, making him a well rounded racer and mechanic. His dedication is shown in the incredibly impressive numbers he’s racked up over the years. Throughout his long, 27 season career, he totaled seven USAC National Midget championships, 21 top 5 point finishes, and 8 seasons as runner up in points. He has had an astonishing 688 Top 10 finishes in his midget car career, including 111 victories, 131 second place finishes, and a total of 419 Top 5 finishes.

Video of Lebanon, Indiana native Mel Kenyon’s final race, the 2009 Rumble in Fort Wayne, Indiana

 

This famous Lebanon person is one of the most triumphant figures in midget car racing history. 2003 was a landmark year for Mel Kenyon: he was inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame and the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America (he had already been inducted into the National Midget Auto Racing Hall of Fame in 1984). Needless to say, Kenyon has earned his place in each of these vaunted halls. If you need more proof of Mel Kenyon’s midget racing superstar status, you need only look to the O’Reilly Raceway Park in Indianapolis, which hosts its annual Mel Kenyon Classic midget car race every year. Mel Kenyon lives on as one of the finest racers to come from Central Indiana, so the small town of Lebanon, Indiana certainly has at least one famous person to be proud of.


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