Originally created 08/16/97

Kite's timing right for IRL, claim to fame



LOUDON, N.H. (AP) - Jimmy Kite is fast proving he has a good sense of timing on and off the track, and it has put him in contention for his first Indy-car victory Sunday in the IRL Pennzoil 200.

Kite, 21, an unknown even among the fledgling tour's little-known lineup, picked up a little recognition Friday when he turned in the second-fastest practice lap at New Hampshire International Speedway. He covered the 1.058-mile oval in 159.933 mph, behind only Scott Goodyear's 160.729.

Until then, Kite's only claim to fame was a dramatic victory in the 50-mile USAC Silver Crown race at Phoenix in February. That helped him land a ride the IRL.

The race brings together the top drivers in the four short-track series for a chance to show what they can do on a one-mile track, and Kite stole the show.

Not only did he come from 26th to beat veteran Chuck Gurney at the finish, he sent the crowd into hysteria when he parked at the start of the pits because he didn't know how to find victory lane. He wound up sprinting down the straightaway to the winner's circle as the crowd roared.

Striking while the iron was hot, he returned to Phoenix in March to watch the IRL race and to introduce himself to every owner he could find. They remembered the former midget champion, whose boyish looks and slight build make him appear much younger. He stands only 5-foot-4 and weighs 125 pounds.

"If you're going to win any race, that's the one to win," Kite said Friday, referring to Phoenix, where all the owners come to scout drivers. "All the right people are there.

"I didn't have a name Andretti or a pocket full of money. That one race in Phoenix is the reason I'm in Indy car now."

In June, the week before the IRL race at Pike's Peak, he got the call from Scandia owner Andy Evans, who was looking for a driver after letting go Fermin Velez of Spain.

On Thursday, he climbed into an Indy car for the first time for the rookie test, and passed.

On Friday, he qualified with the fourth fastest time, and on Sunday morning, shortly before the race, Evans signed him to a five-year contract.

"He liked what he saw. He apparently liked it a lot. He wanted a young American driver, and he gave me a chance," said Kite, a native of Effingham, Ill., who lives in Stockbridge, Ga.

"I was very excited, very nervous and very scared,"

But he managed the fastest lap in the race before he spun out and hit a wall on the 41st lap.

At one point, he passed veterans Eddie Cheever and Arie Luyendyk, and "I could feel a smile on my face," he said.

He knew he belonged.

In the next race at Charlotte, he led for a while and completed 163 laps before a cut tire sent him into another wall.

Now he is ready to drive into victory lane.

"I'm a lot more comfortable now," he said, noting that the straightaway at NHIS is as long as some of the entire short tracks.

"I have 100 percent confidence in my team," he said. "I think we can win."