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The Driver’s Journal- From the Beginning

By Steven Kent

kent

Sprint car racing is in my blood; I went from the hospital to the racetrack. I grew up on dirt tracks watching my dad, Steve Kent, in the red Selma Shell 11. Every weekend he would fight with Brent Kaeding, Tim Green, Jimmy Sills and others for the win. Legend against legend. Open wheel to open wheel.

My dad is a perfectionist, whether he’s in a racing helmet or a welding helmet. Everything is done right or not done at all. And from the moment the engines fired, he was locked in. He had a routine: belts pulled tight, wheels straight. Helmet. Gloves. End of all conversations. And I took it all in, but I never fully understood it as a kid. I always found myself wanting to talk to my dad, but I knew he wasn’t going to talk back.

Once I started racing, I figured it out. You have to mentally prepare yourself. The first corner after the green flag flies is chaos, the feel of the car on the dirt is unknown, the track is different from the last time you were on it, and most importantly you have to get through there faster than the other drivers. You have to be smart.

My dad won everything there is to win on the west coast. Racing put a roof over our heads, started our business, and put my brother through law school. All because my dad is a perfectionist.

He took that attitude into his business, Kent Performance Center. It started as a part shop; with a repair to the occasional race car. But things quickly grew for him. His business diversified into multiple areas of manufacturing. We built midget frames, stainless steel winery stands, offshore oil EPA testing equipment, and a hovercraft for a NASA build off. And then he built my personal favorite, the first Kent Performance Center chassis. KPC 1. My junior sprint.

And just like that my life changed. Now, I had wanted to be the next Chipper Jones or Troy Aikman, but once I started racing, I knew where my true passion was. Nothing compared. The speed. The roar of the engine. The adrenaline from green to checkered. And there’s nothing like the feeling of winning. To be the best on that night is what drives any racer. We don’t race for second place; we race to win.

The amount of joy that pours over someone when you win your first race is indescribable. When you see the checkered flag drop, cross the line first, and the realization that you won sinks in – it’s an out of body experience. You want to live in that moment forever. You want to memorialize it; commit every turn, every lap, every second against the clock to memory. You want to remember it all and take everything in. But at the same time all you want is to just celebrate.

I can remember my first wins as if I’d never left the track after taking the checkered flag. I was ten years old and it was my first year racing in my red number seven, KPC 1 junior sprint. At the biggest junior sprint race of the year, there I was, the wide-eyed kid who had watched his dad’s red sprint car blur past in a rush of perfection, pushing for the win in a little red blur of my own. From the drop of the green flag, I took the lead. And I never looked back. Lap 10. Lap 17. Lap 26. White Flag, one to go. Checkered flag. I led all thirty laps. They paid out money by the lap, and you best believe I was counting every dollar.

Of course, the first person to the car was my dad. All the years of my childhood when I’d rushed to my dad, my hero, to hug him in victory lane – and there he was, in victory lane, waiting for me. In that moment you wouldn’t have been able to tell which Steven Kent had won the race. You would’ve thought that he won the race, a huge smile across his face, giving me a big hug. I can still hear him say “You did it, buddy! Good job! I’m so proud of you!” Nothing could have beat that.

Drivers are an interesting breed. When you wreck everyone has the same question: “what happened?” We tend to only reply two ways: it was the other driver’s fault, or we don’t know what happened. But when we win? You can ask us anything; we remember it all. How’d the car feel? Well on Lap 18 we were a little bit loose and I had to pull the wing back.

But I wasn’t just learning how to win on the track from my dad. I was learning how to win off it too. Learning from my dad is one of the toughest things to do. Remember that perfectionist thing that I’ve been harping on? Yeah, it makes it really tough as kid. Through high school I worked at our business, Kent Performance Center, doing small stuff. I’d cut material. I’d grind it. I’d notch it. First try I had to get it right. The more time my dad spent teaching me and correcting my mistakes, the less time he had to get other things done. I knew that so I tried my best to learn quickly.

And then, in 2007, the business changed again. We built the first of many KPC Chassis cars for Jason Meyers. If you don’t know Jason, let me explain him. There are drivers, and then there’s Jason Meyers. He moves at 1,000 mph with ideas constantly bouncing around in his head. Jason has one aspect of his personality that truly resonates, he’s meticulous. Jason understood that the difference between winning and losing on the track could be inches. But he also knew that those inches, those difference making seconds on a lap time, those could be won before the tires ever hit the dirt. Jason had no problem focusing on the minute details of the car. I mean, an 1/8 inch here or a 1/4 inch there. A perfectionist. A hell of a race car driver.

This was the perfect opportunity for my dad. They both expected the best out of each other. Their communication was easy. Their passions and intensity matched perfectly. Whether in the shop or at the track, they’d stand next to each other showing with their hands how the steering wheel would have to be turned on exit in turn 2 or mimicking two cars going through a corner. Yes, I’ll admit Ricky Bobby was right, racers talk with their hands, sounds and body motions. It’s a racer’s language and the language of KPC. When Jason came to us at KPC, he needed a car that understood its driver and a person who could take the racer’s language and implement his feedback. He needed someone who could think like a driver and the chassis have shown that from lap one. The goal for my dad and Jason was simple, they didn’t want to just lead laps, they wanted to win races. And they didn’t want to just win races, they wanted to win championships.

In order to win a World of Outlaw championship you have to be on it night in and night out. This requires a product that could repeat itself. And not just lap after lap, but from frame to frame. Rarely did Meyers crash, but when he did the car upstairs had to be the same. Not a 1/8 of an inch different here or a 1/4 of an inch different there. From seat positions, to steering wheel, to the very feel of the car, it had to be identical. Everything from car one had to fit on car two, as it should. It had to be perfect.

As is still true of a KPC Chassis today, every car was built like it was going to be us in the seat. With quality tested U.S. made steel, we strove to build a championship car. Ever the perfectionist, my dad ensured that everything on our chassis has a fixture and every car be built with a regimented routine. Truly, performance through precision.

It didn’t take long at all before the trophies started piling up, the awards started coming in, and World of Outlaw Championship banners started being hung up. And just like that, my dad was back to dominating on dirt.

Maybe it’s the racer in my dad, or maybe it’s just his need for perfection, but he still strives to get faster. Everything my dad wants to try on a racecar chassis goes on my sprint car first. It would be fair to say that I’m the official KPC test driver. Just as I was when I was ten years old in our first junior sprint.

All the testing, all the tinkering, it all came together one night at Thunderbowl Raceway in Tulare, California.

Belts tight.

It all came down to the last seven laps. Seven to go and I’m in third when the yellow flag comes out. I can see myself passing the two leaders in one corner. I need to be fast. I need to be smart.

Wheels straight.

Green flag. Turn one is chaos. I’m the only one running the top, my right rear tire right against the boards. The leaders are fast through the first turns. I’m faster. I know that I have to make my passes quickly. With a handful of laps left I can’t get into a slider battle.

Helmet on.

I come out of four and I’m in second. Outside the track the world is an indiscernible blur. But on the track, time has slowed. Each lap feels like an eternity. I was stalking the leader. But I had to make it perfect.

Gloves.

I’m 8 years old again. I’m watching my dad’s red Selma Shell at Antioch on a VHS tape. I watch the screen on as my dad passes Brent Kaeding for the lead coming to the white flag. I watch him adjust the attitude of the car and drive it deep into the corner. My eyes are glued to the television as the front wheels of the red Selma Shell twitch effortlessly as the car glides across the track from the bottom to the top. The car, a red flash in front of Kaeding, that he could only realize he’d seen too late. I hear the voice of Bobby Gerould yelling “Kent for the win!” But, I’d missed the point then. My dad could’ve passed him earlier. He was faster. He pointed out to me that he’d waited. That he knew that he had Kaeding, but that he’d slid past him at a time when he couldn’t respond and left Kaeding in a panic.

End of conversations.

I see the white flag. I adjust the attitude of the car and drive it deep into the corner. The front wheels of my red KPC number seven twitch effortlessly as the car glides along the cushion. The car, a red flash as it slides across the track, clearing the leader out of turn two. My mind travels back to the VHS tape and I hear the voice of Bobby Gerould yelling “Kent for the win!” I don’t remember going through the final corner. I see the checkered flag drop and I’m yelling, “I won! I won!” I climbed out of the car and up on the cage to salute the crowd. And just like that, I’m ten again, winning for the first time. There’s my dad, waiting for me in victory lane. In that moment you wouldn’t have been able to tell which Steven Kent had won the race; a huge smile across his face, giving me a big hug. “You did it, buddy! Good job! I’m so proud of you!”

Perfection.

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