You can’t judge a book by its cover. It’s an old saying which still applies today. And, apparently, it rings true when reviewing the life of Hall of Fame crew chief, mechanic, and car owner Kenny Woodruff.
He was gruff. He was tough. He was stubborn. It was an image that he embraced, and encouraged. As a motorsports journalist, I’ve built relationships with a whole lot of racers, promoters, car owners, crew chiefs, pretty much anyone associated in some way or another with sprint car racing. But, over all of the years, there has been one person in particular that – for no better way of putting it – just plain blew me off. And, I wasn’t the only one. If you weren’t in Kenny Woodruff’s inner circle of friends, he had little time for you. He wasn’t much on making small-talk to begin with, even with his drivers and close friends. So, if he didn’t need to speak with you, he
Kenny lost a hard-fought battle with ALS on October 25, at age 79.
To prepare a feature memorializing his life, I turned to several of his former drivers, some of the people who knew him best. In this feature, we’ll primarily allow them to tell his story, sharing their personal stories and experiences.
To be blunt, I was somewhat surprised to discover that each of them recalled a very different man from the persona he presented at the race track throughout his lengthy career. Each would recall a soft-hearted soul, many going so far as to use the phrase “teddy bear” to describe the man that they grew to know and love. They spoke of a man with a big heart, who loved kids; a guy who had your back, who you could entrust with your life. And, upon being informed that Kenny’s health was suddenly rapidly deteriorating, several of those drivers rushed to his side to say their goodbyes.
I am saddened to discover that there was an entire side to this man that I, and so many others, never got to see. Kenny, it turns out, was much more than a one-dimensional character. He was a complex individual that only shared his softer side with those he trusted most. He not only turned wrenches, but also shared sage advice that helped further the racing careers of many of his drivers far beyond their time working together. Many took his words of advice to heart, not only concerning racing but in all aspects of life rolling forward.
He was a loving husband to Annie, and loving father to daughter Tammy and son Jeff, and doting grandfather. He even adopted an almost fatherly or grandfatherly role to several of the racers that he worked with throughout his incredibly successful career.
He teamed with the majority of the greatest names in World of Outlaws sprint car racing history. His accomplishments included World of Outlaws championships and wins in many of sprint car racing’s biggest events. And, in recognition of his achievements, in 2005 he was inducted into the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame.
Kenny never believed in sugarcoating things, so to honor Kenny we shouldn’t either. As a crew chief or car owner, Kenny pushed his drivers hard. Very hard! He expected a lot from them. He wanted proof that his driver wanted to win as much as he did. And, make no mistake about it, Kenny Woodruff towed to the track determined to win. Every driver he worked with respected his tireless, and precise, work ethic. And a driver who proved he was willing to work hard and sacrifice alongside him could earn his respect.
Woodruff served as Dale Blaney’s crew chief in 1998. Blaney knew going in that Kenny demanded a lot from his drivers. “He always felt like they should give you the exact same effort that he gave,” Dale explained. “And, if he didn’t feel like you were giving that, yeah, he was hard on you. No doubt about it.”
Brad Doty drove for Woodruff in late-’85 and ‘86. “I’d like to think that he had maybe a little respect for me, because when I was driving for Gary Stanton the first time, which was in ’84, I towed the rig and worked on my car pretty much by myself,” Doty explained.
“Gary would show up at the race tracks usually and do the setups and help with stuff like that, but in between it was pretty much up to me. I was up in New York, it was a really hot day, I was working on the car by myself. And I’d had the car…I put two left rear tires under the ramp so I could just roll the car back out of the trailer a little bit so I could work around it without unloading it. Well, anyway, to make a long story short, Kenny was working on his car. He was done for the day, going into the hotel to shower and whatever. It was like two in the afternoon, we had to race that night, and he just kind of leaned in the trailer and he said, ‘Bud, all I can say is you must really wanna race.’ And I just really kind of smiled and said, ‘Well, I do.’
“And, looking back, I think that might have influenced him on part of the decision to hire me. Just for the fact that, you know, I thought he had zero respect for drivers, because of his reputation, but now, listening to some of the stories that Dave Blaney and Donny Schatz talk about, that if he was on your side, man, you were good. And I think he respected the fact that I was able and willing to do the work, and put in the work to try to be successful. And that may be what helped me get the job with him.”