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Published: Sunday, 6/19/2005

Raising Kahne: Father's support key in young driver's career

BY MATT MARKEY
BLADE SPORTS WRITER

BROOKLYN, Mich. - The highlight film that plays in Kelly Kahne's mind every time he thinks about his son Kasey does not feature the recent win at Richmond, the debut in Nextel Cup racing, or a hundred other moments that have played out in the national spotlight.

Those are all part of the proud parent's reel, but not the main event. No, dad has one better.

Kasey was a 15-year-old kid running in a sprint car race in his native Washington, facing a field stacked with wily veterans. Kelly Kahne would have been content to just have his son survive and finish the race.

"But he went through the pack and started racing wheel-to-wheel with a really good driver from California, and with about two laps to go, Kasey passed him and took the lead," Kelly Kahne said.

"Then the guy slid him real hard and went back in front. That guy was very experienced, and the racing in California was way ahead of us back then, but on the final lap Kasey passed him and won the thing. Kasey was a kid, and for him to beat one of the top racers from California - that was just incredible."

Kasey has been chasing down and beating a lot of good drivers ever since, but that's a road he would never have seen without the encouragement, know-how and financial support of his father.

Kelly Kahne was working in the logging business in Washington State, raising a family with his wife, Tammy, and running sprint cars on area tracks. Kasey played basketball and baseball in his hometown of Enumclaw, until the lure of racing became his priority.

"My dad was in racing, working on sprint cars all the time, and I just grew up around it," Kahne said. "I remember standing in the shop next to my dad, and trying to help. Maybe I was more in the way, but I knew I wanted to do what he was doing."

Eventually, Kasey made his way into the driver's seat and started running at tracks near their home. He got his car, his crew and his direction from his dad.

"I remember the first race we ran, and it was all so new to me, and so wild," Kahne said. "On the way home, my dad told me to work on driving into the corners a little further, and offered some encouragement. It was something we shared a love of, and spent a lot of time doing."

Kelly Kahne recalled those early days when Kasey would riddle him with questions about every minute aspect of the car, and how it all came together and translated into speed.

"He couldn't wait, and before he was old enough to be in the pits, Kasey was at every race, sitting in the stands watching," Kelly said. "While we were driving home from the track, he'd ask a hundred questions, and I could tell he had the will to be a race car driver from early on. He just could not wait to get his first opportunity."

Kahne was racing in Micro Midget events by the age of 14, and a year later he was sneaking into the pits to work on the crew with his dad's sprint car team.

"He was 15 when he was racing on Friday nights, and 16 on Saturday nights," Kelly Kahne said. "He always wanted to do anything in racing before he was ready for it. If I did anything for him in his career, it was hold him back until he was ready for it."

It never took long for Kasey to be ready for the next thing. This season, his second in the Nextel Cup, marks the first time in his career he has raced at any level for more than one season.

In 1996 he won 11 of 14 races to claim the Northwest Mini-Sprint Car championship, and by 1998 Kahne was racing full-size sprint cars, where he had a dozen wins in his first season. His dad feared that Kasey had hit the ceiling.

"He couldn't wait to do more and more and more, and I wanted him to learn at each level and not go too fast," Kelly Kahne said. "We raced a lot in Washington, a lot in Oregon, then in California and then in the Outlaws. When I saw he could compete against all of them, I knew he had to go to next level."

"My dad owned all the cars I raced in for six full years, but we reached a point where I was getting pretty decent, and he couldn't coach me any more," Kasey said.

Kelly Kahne then made the toughest decision of Kasey's career. When Kasey turned 18, his dad loaded a trailer and sent Kasey and his older sister to the Midwest to find more racing opportunities.

Kasey had taken courses at night and had enough credits to graduate early, so they left in February for Indianapolis. Kasey came back home to walk across the stage with his class at the end of the school year, but he was essentially gone for good.

"That was an extremely tough thing to do, and I still get emotional when I think about it," said Kelly, who is now divorced from Kasey's mother. "Kasey was just a kid and he was so far from home, but it's something he wanted to do to keep improving. That was our goal, and when I knew he was a pretty good racer, I also knew he had to leave home."

Kahne set up a race shop in Indy and ran more than 100 races for a couple of years. He got the experience and the exposure he needed, and soon was signed by Steve Lewis to run a full USAC schedule. A couple career jumps later, Kahne enters today's Batman Begins 400 at Michigan International Speedway 19th in the season points race with more than $2 million in winnings against the best in the world.

"I look back all of the time and I can't believe where he's at," Kelly said. "We went through such a hard time because I had to stay home and work and support his racing. I not only lost the racing team that I had for so long, but my daughter and son were so far from home, too.

"But now, it seems like all of the time and sacrifices involved were for a good reason, and it was worth every minute and every penny of it. I think about some of the things Kasey has done with a race car and I can't believe it. He does things most people can't do."

Kasey said his father lost a lot of money running that racing business, but that he always put his son in good cars with good engines.

"Everything he did - it paid off," Kasey said. "But I could have quit any time. He never said I had to win or this had to pay off.

"The biggest thing to him is that I stay the person I am and work hard at this. My dad had to be a super hard worker to get me to where I am, and I need to honor that and keep using that approach. I think that will make him the happiest."

A Father's Day win at MIS would please dad, too. Kasey said he would like to add that to the Kahne family highlight reel sometime soon.

"I remember just trying to learn all that I could about sprint cars from my dad when I was little, and then one time when I was 12 he finally let me get in and start it," Kasey said.

"We had to push it, and once it got going it was idling real fast and the whole thing is shaking and jumping all over the place. I thought that was pretty cool. But my dad trusted me, and put so much into helping me race. I know I can't, but I'd still like to win them all for him."

Contact Matt Markey at: mmarkey@theblade.com or 419-724-6510.



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