Q & A: Brent Kaeding
On the future of 410 sprint car racing, growing up at the track, and driving a NASCAR Cup car.
Text + Photos: Saroyan Humphrey
Feature | It’s a weekday in early January, and the king of California dirt sprint car racing, Brent Kaeding, is on the phone at his Campbell racing shop, laughing and talking to his engine builder, Ron Shaver, in Torrance. Brent is building a new car, but it’s not a sprint car. It’s a 1930 Graham-Paige Deluxe rat rod that Brent will power with a retired racing engine that Shaver is rebuilding for his longtime friend. “They’re all pumped up over there,” says the sprint car champ. “It’s something different. I wanted a car big enough that I could get four people into. We’re gonna chop the top, channel the car and narrow the frame up.”
Brent is the second of three generations of Northern California open-wheel driving champions and is considered one of the greatest sprint car drivers of all time. With wins from California to Oklahoma to Australia, “B.K.” has lost track of how many feature events he’s won, but it’s safe to say, over 400. Growing up with auto racing, of course, Brent was bitten by the bug early in life. Before he ever strapped into a race car, Brent and his brother, Joel, were driving to high school in their dad’s Model A hand-me-down hot rod. Howard, who also drove the car when he was in high school, tore up Northern California speedways in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s racing modifieds and super modifieds and winning three state driving titles.
For his first car, against the advice of his father, Brent bought a 1970 four-speed Chevrolet Camaro with a hopped-up engine. “I told him to get an automatic,” remembers Howard. “In the first couple of months we replaced the clutch three times, at least.” While mischievous Brent was street racing around San Jose, Joel, mechanically minded, worked on engines and partnered with his dad and Brent in racing. Today, Joel is a specialty mechanic and retired from motorsports.
In the last couple of years, after 40-plus years as a race driver, Brent has limited his driving duties to rarely, if ever. Just don’t call him “retired.” Brent is still captain of the family’s Kaeding Performance shop, which supplies parts to thousands of racers across the globe. Brent’s also a long-time advisor and business partner with the NARC/King of the West Series for winged 410 sprints. Working behind the scenes, Brent is helping to shape the state of dirt sprint car racing in California.
Also, with the extra time on his hands from not driving, Brent’s personal priorities have shifted slightly. The 61-year-old has been enjoying Tahoe with his wife, Jodi, of 20 years and playing catch-up with family birthdays, graduations … and dreaming about that rat rod.
In his driving career, Brent racked up a coveted list of accomplishments. Steve Kinser, the retired king of the World of Outlaws, once said of Brent, “… probably as tough day-in and day-out on all the California tracks there is.” From Santa Maria to Chico, he was the man to beat whenever he and his crew rolled through the pit gate. With the most sprint car wins at dirt tracks across California, including Thunderbowl Raceway in Tulare, Ocean Speedway in Watsonville, Antioch Speedway and Kings Speedway in Hanford, Brent was at the top of his game in the ’80s, ’90s and ’00s.
Some other career highlights include: 13-time Northern Auto Racing Club [NARC], including eight straight (most of all time); 11 King of the West championships; four-time Trophy Cup champion; 21-time winner at Calistoga Speedway; nine-time World of Outlaw Series winner; Turkey Night winner at Ascot Speedway; and three-time Dirt Cup Champion.
Brent’s two sons, Tim and Bud, are also champion drivers and at the peak of their open-wheel racing careers. “At a young age, they were with me all the time. It was similar to my own experience with my father,” remembers Brent who was inducted to the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame in ’08. As his sons continued their own racing journey into sprint cars, the three competed at the same tracks where Brent had reigned. “It goes from being a lot of fun and you’re kicking their ass every night to their kicking your ass every night. Then it’s not as much fun. But it’s fun to watch them be successful.”
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Are you officially retired now as a driver?
Brent Kaeding: No. And, my dad’s not officially retired. (laughs) I don’t really have any plans [to drive]. We’re putting cars together and our team [BK Racing] will be doing some racing, but the driver is yet to be announced. If something happens and it feels good, we’ll do it. Sometimes no plan is the best plan. I will stay busy doing something.
What is it like running the shop on a daily basis?
Kaeding: I’m fortunate enough to have three employees that know what their position is. Brian Matherly manages all of us and does a good job. I’ve got some more freedom now because realistically these guys can do probably 80 percent of it without me being involved. Brian’s been with me a long time. Bill Foland has, too, over 25 years, both of ’em.
How long have you been a part of the family business?
Kaeding: I think I started in about 1980 in the automotive machine shop. We did a few sprint car parts with Dwayne [Starr] at Tognotti’s. We were kind of a satellite store for him. He was my supplier and Dwayne really helped us out initially. In 1985 we became a Gambler [sprint car chassis] dealer and we got a little bit more involved with racing at that point. At one point it became like two different divisions, the automotive machine shop and racing supplies. We did it all under one roof.
My brother Joel built some sprint car motors for customers. We had a dyno facility and everything. We worked on anything and everything, mainly American, performance, pro street. Then it changed again and the [shop] fire happened in 2005 and we had to make a decision. My brother was already trying to wind down the machine shop. He didn’t want to do that anymore. So Brian and I sat down, [and said], “We’re either all in, or we’re out.” We had nothing, basically, other than some desire, good employees and a great support group around us. Everything was destroyed, every bit of it. So we changed to one direction: parts and supplies.
We’ve been a Maxim [sprint car chassis] distributor for 20-plus years, exclusively. Now, we supply any and all parts that will fit any manufacturer in sprint cars and midgets. Everything’s interchangeable. We do a small bit of business with the midget crowd, although there’s not a lot of midgets out here on the West Coast.
We cover, end to end, every aspect. You could walk in the front door and go out the back door with a rolling, running sprint car.
Would you say your business is a barometer of sorts for the state of dirt track racing?
Kaeding: It really is. I’d like to say it’s pretty strong at this point. The [racing] season is pretty much year ’round, and there’s Australia. We start shipping stuff over there in June for their upcoming season and we continue to ship stuff over there through the winter. The down time is minimal.
It’s a challenge each and every day with the expense of the sport. There are a lot of talented up and coming drivers, and that’s something to be excited about for all of us, whether you’re in the business, or a race fan.
You’re involved with the NARC series as a director, too. How does that change your perspective?
Kaeding: Back in the day, I was on the NARC board of directors. I was always a supporter of the NARC and Golden State racing series, then King of the West. I was behind the scenes. Dan [Simpson] did a great job. But there was a point where business wasn’t going so well for him and he was going to have to bow out and the series was going to become none. This was about six years ago, and John Prentice and I got together. John had the opportunity to buy it from Dan. I definitely didn’t want to become a promoter. I was still racing somewhat competitively at that point. But I didn’t want to see [the series] go away. The history of the Golden State/King of the West is important to racing in California. We ran it going forward. John did all the promotional stuff and I was just kinda the silent partner and helped steer him here and there.
Basically, now, it’s Jim Allen and myself. John released his share of King of the West and we’re just trying to improve and grow it and get it back to a NARC club atmosphere.
What people don’t understand is, you’ve got a racing organization and there’s nothing financially to be made from it. There’s zero profit. It’s a thankless job. There are people putting a lot of time and effort, blood, sweat and tears into this. All for nothing, other than the love of it. It’s not like [NARC] will get a $5,000 check at every track you roll up to.
The race promoters, they’re struggling to survive. With the amount of people that we’re getting in attendance and what it costs to operate in the state of California these days, it’s getting really difficult. I want to see it continue. I want the younger competitors today to enjoy the sport like I did. I know it’s never going to be like it was back in the day, but it brought us together, the racing fraternity and family. The majority of my friends are from racing. Yes, it is my business but that’s not what drives me. Our business is worldwide, and I want the sport to be healthy right here [in California].
What is your position on the state of the 410 engine in sprint car racing?
Kaeding: I think it’s as healthy as it’s been in a few years. The problem is, we don’t have any local tracks [running weekly 410 events]. Chico doesn’t have a 410 series anymore and that makes it tough. It’s tough for a local competitor to become a 410 racer.
The myth that a 360 is less expensive than a 410 is nothing but a myth. The engines cost the same to build, cost the same to race — and you race for less money. The purses are consistently 30 to 50% less than what you’re racing for [in 360 events]. And your expenses are the same.
I hope people realize that it’s going to accelerate the learning curve if they race with better racers [in 410s]. They’ll become more successful sooner and gain valuable experience and become a better racer, faster.
If there were no 410 series [in California], there wouldn’t be any Outlaw races, and those are the big events that help support the facilities. The weekly races aren’t really making the track operators any money; it’s just keeping the facility open. And if they don’t have the big events, what does the young racer aspire to do… where’s your next step after running a 360 at a local track? You’re not going to go race with the Outlaws, or USAC.
The health of sprint car racing, I think, in California, really revolves around 410 sprint cars becoming healthier. Hopefully more people will see the light and join forces with NARC/King of the West Series and get behind it. Because I think if that does go away, it will definitely hurt sprint car racing on the West Coast.
How many KWS races are planned for 2019?
Kaeding: 20. We’ve got some exciting stuff in August happening with a mini speed week. We have an opportunity to work with Brad Sweet and his promotional group to race at Placerville on a Wednesday night [Aug. 21]. We have some support from him and some other sponsors to do a Thursday [Aug. 22] at Chico and a Friday-Saturday [Aug. 23-24] at Stockton. That’s an off weekend for NASCAR, so we’re hoping to have a couple of NASCAR drivers there. We have some commitments. They’re all NARC/King of the West races, four days straight. And the week following, we’ll be at Calistoga in conjunction with the Louis Vermeil Classic [Aug. 31-Sept. 1]. They dropped the midgets [from the program] and we’re going to have our series along with USAC. So, it’ll be two 410 [wing and non-wing] sprint car groups, honoring Louis Vermeil. It should be an awesome weekend. Hopefully, we can get some other teams from out of town with six races in 10 days.
Is racing as fun for you as it has been in the past?
Kaeding: No. You know, 20 years ago, if there was a two-day event, we’d all spend more time together. We’d camp out, barbecue together, there was more camaraderie. You might argue on the track and run into each other, but you’d get together that night after the races around the barbecue pit, or ice chest and it was all good and over with. It brought everybody closer together. So, hopefully some of that will change. We’re hoping to get more two-day events [for NARC].
And, I’m not racing. When you’re as competitive as I am and as successful, it’s not as much fun. And when you’re going [to the track] and hoping to run in the top five, instead of having a good chance of winning, every night, it’s not as much fun. But I enjoy watching. There’s some really good racing — some of the best racing there is — out there today and that’s always fun to watch. I’m still a big race fan.
How involved is Kaeding Performance with sprint car teams in the racing community?
Kaeding: There are teams that we will help out, but as far as financially, we don’t even sponsor my team. There’s not the margin in sprint car parts. There’s a lot of technology, or innovation that we help teams with, but not from a financial standpoint.
We work with Kasey Kahne Racing. We’ve worked with Kasey and they’ve worked with us since he started his sprint car, Silver Crown, and midget teams. We’re their main supplier of parts. That’s a relationship that goes back to when Kasey used to stay at the house, when he was good friends with Tim and Bud, when they were younger, and it’s continued. If they have an issue, they have one number to call.
But we’ve helped a lot of teams along the way, too many to name, from major Outlaw teams and teams in Pennsylvania to teams in Australia.
You’ve worked personally with young drivers coming up; how did those partnerships develop?
Kaeding: Well, it goes back to when Jason Statler started racing. He’s local, from Los Gatos. They would just hang close to us at the shop and I tried to mentor him. And there was Kevin Pylant. The first sprint car that he sat in was mine. Kevin and I became good friends and whenever we went racing, Kevin, Jason and I were together.
Later, as I was getting along in my years in racing, and trying to help finance what I was doing, I ran a couple of other younger kids. I had the opportunity to run with Kyle Larson. A race fan and admirer of his asked me if I would give him an opportunity to run a few races, which we did at the end of one season . He approached me about the following year, and we struck a deal. My sponsors and crew supported it. They were all involved in the decision. With Rich Stadelhofer’s help, we were able to run with Kyle. That worked out well for all of us and we have a relationship with [Larson] and that will last forever. He’s a great young man and he’s moved on. It was a stepping stone for him.
With Rico [Abreu] he was just hanging around the pits, a kid hanging around on a quad. I didn’t really know him, but I had the opportunity to watch him run a go-kart. I could see he was an amazing talent. My son, Bud, got him the opportunity to run a midget at the Chili Bowl . I told Rico, “We need to get you in a sprint car.” He thought I was crazy, but he was ready to do it, you know. So I ran the idea by his dad. He wasn’t too excited about it at first. I was going to put him in my car, modify it. Well, he said, “Why don’t you let me own my own car?”
So, we built a car here for Rico and I went over to a fabrication shop here in town and we did all the measurements, it took us two or three hours with blocks and boards, and figured out where to position him in a car and I think he still sits in that same, exact position today. The rest is history. Basically, it mirrored what we all sat in. We just moved the floor and everything else up in the car. It was an exciting time for all of us. Rico makes you feel good when he enters the room. You know you’re going to have a good time with this kid. He’s just a lovable guy with a lot of desire and determination.
What do you remember about going to the races with your dad?
Kaeding: How much fun it was. I started going when I was really young, 5, 6. We went to San Jose Speedway, Tully Road. It was asphalt. We’d go to Kearney Bowl on Friday nights, San Jose on Saturday and Clovis on Sunday. We were riding in the back of the truck (laughs). It was all exciting, every bit of it.
First, when I was really young, I wanted to go with my dad to race but it was as much fun hangin’ out with the rest of the drivers’ kids. Kearney Bowl had a big grass area next to the concession stand with trees. And whether it was [Al] Pombo’s kids, or whatever, all of us kids would get together and foot race around the trees and just hang out. And when my dad got hooked up with the Triguerio Brothers and Jim Bohner, that was a great experience. They were just a great group of guys and they taught me a lot about hard work and the desire to win races.
And, the days with the Flyers Body Shop and the 3 car. They all helped groom who we are, my brother and myself, and even my friends that hung out. You were going to work hard and get hollered at. Even when we were too young to go in the pits, we’d go to the race shop on Saturdays and there were summertimes when I’d go live a week with the Triguerios, cut beans during the day, work on the race car at night … a lot of great times.
Do you remember your first race as a driver?
Kaeding: I went to Fremont Raceway and ran a couple of off-road races. They had a little TT course there, but I didn’t really have any aspirations at that point to be a driver. I just had an opportunity to race this buggy, a full-on, fuel injected, on-alcohol, wild machine. I did that a few times and drove over my head most of the time but had a good time doing it.
Then I had an opportunity in 1977 to run a midget. A good friend of my dad’s, who lived in Sunnyvale, a gentleman by the name of Jim Smith, his son, who was a good friend of mine, Mike Smith, raced. So, he bought this old midget that was entirely home-built. It was like a monocoque chassis. The guy was an engineer who built it. He’d cut the block in half, he made the crank. It was a dry-sump system, but it was three big-block oil pumps with copper tubing. This guy made this whole race car, he made his own torsion bars, hexed instead of splined. Anyway, Jim Smith said, “If you want to run this thing, you can run it.”
My first race was at Merced Speedway. I was on the front row, outside of the B main, and Gary Patterson was starting on the pole. So, needless to say, I was a little nervous about entering turn one with G.P. and I had no experience. I had hot lapped a little bit at the old Tully Road track with this midget on pavement. Actually, the first day I sat in it was Feb. 19, 1977. That was the day my daughter [Reyna] was born. We’d worked on this car all winter long. My [first] wife [Robin] had been in labor 14 hours or something and she said, “Go; get out of here.” So I went over there and had some fun out on the track. After a while they kept black-flagging me. And just as in years to follow, I disobeyed the black flag. (laughs) So they threw the checkered for the session and somebody with the ambulance came running over and told me to get over to the hospital and says, “Your wife’s having a baby!” So off I went.
After all of the years watching your dad race, how did it feel to be in a race car for the first time on a race track?
Kaeding: I actually felt fairly comfortable. All of my driving experience came from watching him and other competitors. I just had a feel for what to do when I hit the track. I had been watching him for 20 years.
So, we ran the midget about 10 times — maybe — and the motor blew up. It was a complete nightmare. We’d replace main bearings after hot laps because it would beat them out of it. It just wasn’t a good design. We were probably going faster than it was capable at that time. So all those parts and pieces were given back to Jim Smith.
How did you get started driving a sprint car?
Kaeding: There was another friend of ours, who was a mechanic at the time, Jim Klein of Fresno. He raced with NARC and owned a big truck stop on Highway 99. One of his mechanics [Billy Cunningham] had aspirations of being a driver. So, he bought a Tognotti sprint car that had been crashed and repaired and he wanted to share the driving time with my dad. So my brother and I were excited about that. He’d [Howard] never had the opportunity to drive a sprint car. So, I went to Fresno, gathered all the parts in milk crates from Billy, brought ’em up here and we put this sprint car together. We didn’t really have much of an idea what we were doing, because a sprint car was different than a modified. [Modifieds] were leaf springs and sprint cars were all torsion bars, live axle rear ends, knockoffs. It was a nice car, just a year old.
So, we spent all winter putting that together and took it to Santa Maria for the opener, and Billy was out there hot-lapping it and he wasn’t that comfortable in it. So, he asked me if I wanted to drive it, and I said, “Hell, yeah.” So, we were successful. I think I won the heat race in that first night. That was the last time Billy sat in the car. He decided he’d have more fun as an owner. So, my dad and myself shared driving duties.
I continued to go to Santa Maria to run and was rookie of the year that season. I took over all driving duties after that and we won the [track] championship in ’79, running the full season.
You were also running non-wing at the time.
Kaeding: In 1979 we went to Calistoga for a NARC [wingless sprint car] race, and I didn’t run there too often. Lloyd Beard had been killed [Oct. 27]. So, his car was tore up and Lloyd had a bus that he hauled his car in, and they were unable to load it. So, because we lived so close to the guys that owned his car, they set it on my open trailer and from that point on, we had a relationship with the guy that was sponsoring them and owned that car, which was Ed Single. He was CSC Mechanical, a big plumbing outfit in San Jose.
So, Ed wanted to continue and wanted to know if my dad and I wanted to do some racing. His wife and my mom [Dixie] became great friends and I think that was more of the relationship at first. We ran some sprint cars and built super modifieds for the [San Jose] fairgrounds. So, in ’80 and ’81, I ran with Ed at the fairgrounds and in ’82, we ran NARC. We had great battles back then with Leroy Van Conett and Hank Butcher. You know, I battled Hank for a championship that year, down to the last night. I think it was two or three points. That was a lot of fun.
How was it racing with your father?
Kaeding: I loved racing with him. We were teammates a good part of the time. We had the two cars, 68 and 69. Our crews all worked with both cars. I had great times racing with my dad. It was probably no different with my boys. I wanted to beat him because he was the best you could be at that time.
We really had some great race cars at San Jose Fairgrounds. The modifieds were just making a transition from the pavement [to dirt]. I had a good friend, Jan Flammer, who was a chassis and engine builder, out of Carson City, Nevada, and we got together with him and built a NASCAR sprint car that was super modified legal, and it changed the way everybody built those race cars after we showed up. We were really successful. I think I won the first six out of the nine races. You had guys that had been racing out there for five or six years. You had [Nick] Rescino, [Mike] Sargent, and my dad, guys that were really fast.
So, we had success there and then wanted to expand and not just run the local track. And NARC was where the better race car drivers were, and my aspirations were to become a sprint car driver. So, we moved forward in that direction and found success quickly.
Really, everything that I was taught as a kid growing up with my dad, what it took to be a champion and the dedication that his crew showed with the No. 3 car of Flyers, I just instilled that in anybody and everybody that helped me, and that’s what made us successful. We duplicated what my dad’s team had done for years.
It must’ve worked; you won your first NARC championship in ’82 and you were on your way.
Kaeding: Yeah. In ’83 we thought we would travel. We jumped on the road and went back east and that didn’t work out so well because of Mother Nature. I lived with Jack Hewitt for four or five months. I think we ran 19 races, but I think we got rained out of 21 and back then you didn’t have cell phones and all the luxuries [of communication] that you have today to find how the weather was somewhere else.
We high-tailed it back home because it wasn’t working out financially. We’d blown up two of our three engines. We kinda hit and missed in ’84 with Jim Klein in Hanford. In ’85 we started back fully chasing the NARC program and we won the championship. We had a lot of success at Calistoga and all the tracks, really. A lot of credit is due to Ron Shaver and the reliability of his engine. Back then we’d run it 25 races: just run it and virtually have no issues.
There was a three-year gap between your second (’85) and third (’88) NARC championship.
Kaeding: We started running Baylands, Ascot, Hanford, a lot of different places. In ’87, because we’d had so much success in ’85-’86, no matter what we were doing, the Williams Brothers hired me. They had all the finances that could go do it all. So, I jumped over there and that was a struggle. It’s not all about money. I took my guys [with me] but I wasn’t able to manage it. I won like seven or eight races, and I had the best equipment I’d ever had at that time. I should have won more, but it just didn’t work; we didn’t have much fun.
I was just about to be released of my driving duties when Bob Miller from Los Gatos came along. He’d been wanting me to drive for him for years, he said. He and Jim Smith were best friends from the midget days and Bob was a big midget guy. He’d told my dad, “I’ve had my eye on that kid for years. …” We just hit it off and we had more fun than the law should allow. I brought all of my guys to Bob’s shop and just hit it off. That was as much fun as I’ve ever had racing.
You guys won five championships together.
Kaeding: Yeah, he built a truck and we all traveled together and that’s what made it fun. We ran Chico and Golden State [NARC series].
Did you consider going out on the road with the Outlaws?
Kaeding: We did. But I had a business, I had a family, most of my mechanics had families. We were actually leading the Outlaw points in ’89. In the first part of the year, in the spring, they’d come out here and we chased ’em back through Arizona, Texas, Oklahoma and we were leading the points and came home. We had to get back to reality, back to the real world.
What was your edge? What made you so successful at so many tracks for so long?
Kaeding: Just desire. I didn’t have any natural talent, or ability, I don’t believe. I just wanted it worse than the other guy and so did my guys. We were willing to work harder than the next team, we were well prepared, and we had reliable motors that made good power. That’s what we did, and we were going to be good at it.
Did you have a favorite track?
Kaeding: Back in the ’80s, Hanford used to race really well. We had a lot of success there. It was fun. We had some friends that we’d stay with and there were a lot of two-day shows like The Pombo-Sargent and Cotton Classic. There was Santa Maria. That’s where I started out and I Ioved and enjoyed going to that facility. I really liked Calistoga — without a wing — and with a wing. I probably had more success there without the wing.
Do you remember some of those early battles in the ’80s with Leroy Van Conett and Hank Butcher?
Kaeding: Leroy was the best there. He was the greatest. And Hank Butcher, he would help me out as far as driving tips. He told me anytime I needed any help, to come over and talk to him about driving. I went over and asked him something about a setup and he just laughed in the way that he laughed, sorta giggled: “I don’t know anything about a race car. I can help you with driving. …” But it was hard racing.
Did you have a favorite win?
Kaeding: There’s a few of ’em. It would be hard to pick one. Trophy Cup; Dirt Cup in Skagit; the Johnny Key race in 1980; Turkey Night, 1985; World of Outlaw win at San Jose , all of those were cool … they were all pretty special.
And there was a situation in Petaluma, that track used to be so muddy. You’d run through 40 or 50 tear-offs and it was still hard to see. There was one night, I ran out of tear-offs and had a yellow flag. I threw my helmet out of the car and had my crewman throw me another helmet and I put it on going around under yellow and continued on and won the race. Then there was a new rule about that. (laughs)
For the Johnny Key race in 1980 [at San Jose Fairgrounds], we had stayed up all night, building an engine. We never slept. It was four of us right here. We machined the block because on Thursday, or something, we found out the block was broken. So, we built a new engine, stayed up all night and went out there. In those days you pitted in the infield and a guy ran through our pit area. I think his steering wheel came off. But it tore up everything, our tools, tool boxes. But we went on, and at that point, that was the most prestigious race you could win. I qualified in through the B-main — and won. So, that was a big win at that point, or the biggest.
And, Turkey Night, of course, at Ascot. I don’t know if it’s as prestigious today as it was. I was driving for Martin Hagopian, a farmer out of Fresno . I didn’t run a midget too often, maybe three or four times a year. We sat on the pole there one year. We had some success. I think I ran third the last time at Ascot .
How about your first win?
Kaeding: Yeah, it was at Santa Maria in my first season . It might have been the last race of the season. We had decent equipment down there; we were as good as the top half dozen in the field but had no idea … we were just a bunch of young, 21-year-old kids having a good time.
We would have to call Doug Fort and Nettie; they owned the facility. They would pay you the week after — in cash. So, we’d call down there and see how much money we made and see if we’d have enough money to drive down there, pay for our pit passes and buy gas to get home. So, we didn’t even have a spare tire for our trailer. It was a different time, for sure. We blew a tire one night and dismounted a sprint car tire and put it on the trailer. That didn’t last long, and we had to climb the fence at a gas station and steal a used tire and mount it on there. We were using carburetor cleaner and a match to bead it up at 3 or 4 in the morning in King City. It was just a crazy time. And that’s nothing that the kids today will experience. They’re riding in giant rigs, or riding to the track in a limousine. Today is a different time.
In the mid-’80s, you started driving a stock car; how did that happen?
Kaeding: Don McKim got behind us. He was a developer in the area. He was hooked up with Joe Huffaker [sports car team owner] at Sears Point and that’s when I ran with [NASCAR] Winston West [Series in 1986]. I drove Huffaker’s [Triumph] TR8 for a season and had some success and went through the Bob Bondurant Driving School. I got the opportunity to run a Cup car [in 1989] which was fun. That was with a local Ferrari dealer, Brian Barnett. But it came through a friend of his, who was a sprint car racer, Lem Tolliver. I think the movie “Days of Thunder” got [Barnett] interested in NASCAR as an opportunity to make some money and get some exposure for his Ferrari dealership.
Barnett had bought some cars and motors from the Stavola Brothers [Cup team in North Carolina], and that’s when I got involved and I talked to Richard [Childress] and the engine builder, Danny Lawrence, who’s still there [at Richard Childress Racing] today. Anyway, they were like, “Those cars are frickin’ junk. The motors are…” So, I put a program to them [RCR], and they said, “Yeah, we’ll build you a car…”
Did you always have aspirations to run NASCAR Cup?
Kaeding: I did, for sure. NASCAR hadn’t blown up yet. We hired a mechanic, David Ifft. He was a great guy. A perfect mix for us. So, we go down there [to Phoenix International Raceway for a test] and I just overdrove the car the whole time. We had Ricky Rudd and Darrell Waltrip down there with us. I thought a good idea would be to go deeper than anyone into the turn but they would beat me five car lengths coming off.
So, once they got me to slow down, we picked up enough time and he [Ifft] was like, “hey, we might have a shot at this.” Richard and Dale [Earnhardt] were coaching me. We made the race, did reasonably well [finished 29th]. Before the race they [NASCAR] took rookies and inexperienced drivers in a closed room and threatened us, basically, saying, “if you affect the outcome of the championship, you’ll never race with NASCAR again.”
During the race I just spent the whole day looking in the mirror, getting out of the way, moving this way and that way. I wasn’t racing, I was just trying to stay out of the way. There was a five-car pileup and I couldn’t miss it. We didn’t tear it up too bad and we continued. Those cars were lazy to drive. The last race of the season was the next weekend in Atlanta and Mark Martin and Dale [Earnhardt] were fighting for the championship. I didn’t have the experience for the big tracks. So, they hired Phil Parsons but they had engine failures and had no success and they went to Daytona the next year [in February] and didn’t do well. That’s when Barnett decided this wasn’t for him.
After Phoenix, I had started talking with Richard about the next season. We had a business plan, but it didn’t work out. It was still a great opportunity and I made some great friends.
How did the Al’s Roofing sponsorship get started?
Kaeding: In 1996, basically Al [Peterson] and his daughters wanted to have their own sprint car team. They formed M&M Racing, which was Michelle and Mellisa, and Al put together a racing program and Randy Hannegan drove for them for a year or so. It was the end of the year and they decided they wanted to make some changes. They had bought cars from us and they wanted to go in a different direction. The Outlaws were going to Vegas and Al wanted to know if I wanted to drive his car. So, we got together, went up to his shop, got fitted [in the car] and hit it off, like we did with Bob Miller. All my guys and the mechanics, the girls, and his wife Jeanette, we all got along, went to Vegas and had some success—and had a blast. We started talking about the next season and we brought my sponsors on board with Al’s program.
And the rest is history; it became such an iconic car for you.
Kaeding: Yeah. No matter what I do, moving forward, my cars will always have Al’s Roofing Supplies on them. I owe the last 20 years of my career to Al and his family. He's helped give me the opportunity to race all these years.