Back in the saddle again
He's a six-time track champion, and he's back with a vengeance after five years out of the seat as a full-time racer. Pat Kelly returned to the Grundy County Speedway this spring in the Late Model Division, where he has regularly been at or near the top of the standings.
"We've had a very consistent season. We've had a lot of great luck, knock on wood," the 43-year old driver said. "There haven't been a lot of wrecks or other problems to this point. We have fallen off in the past couple of weeks, but we think we've got it back to where we were three weeks ago now."
Even with a "down" spell in the season, Kelly and crew finished fourth last Saturday — and had an 87-point lead going into action.
"We're always trying to make the car better. When you quit working on the car, you quit winning because there is always something you can do better," Kelly said. "You want to get better so you try things, but it's also nice to have a reference point that you can go back to."
Kelly's crew chief Jim Lawrence said that the adjusting and then re-adjusting was done to the way the No. 16 handles.
"We got a cushion in the points and made some adjustments because Pat was complaining the car was tight," Lawrence said. "We played with it a little but it didn't seem to be helping, our trying to take the tightness out."
The Grundy Late Model field is trying to take some slack out of Kelly's lead in the point standings.
Kelly is originally from Channahon and currently lives in Coal City, where he's been for the last six months or so. He started racing back in 1992 racing the Enduro Series before moving up to Street Stocks in 1993. He then ran in the Mid-American Division before going to Late Models in 1998.
"Everything we did at the start is the way a lot of these younger kids are doing things today. Only now everyone's trying to chase Bill Elliott's son and the kids now are getting into Late Models at a younger and younger age," Kelly said. "I started my son (Nathan) out in go-karts at the beginning, which is why I left racing for a while there."
Kelly was a Grundy Speedway track champion in the Mid-American Division in both 1996 and 1997 before he moved to the Late Models. There, he won both the Grundy and Illiana Speedway titles in 2000, then won the Illina title in 2005. His last Grundy title was in 2006.
Prior to getting out of the driver's seat, Kelly also had the chance to do something that few around Grundy get to do in their lifetime when he raced full-time in the ASA circuit back in 2002. Before that, he had raced in three ASA events in 2000 and seven more in 2001 before committing to the series solely in '02.
"We raced in California, Florida, Virginia — we went everywhere," Kelly said. "I know we missed a couple of races, but we were in the top 20 several times that year. We had high hopes going in, but we were a low-budget team and were out-funded."
Morris resident Randall Ritke was the owner of the ASA No. 66 car that Kelly's team ran that year. Kelly had one top five finish that year in Pennsylvania and he ended up with five top 10s as well, but the toll was just a bit too much for the team to keep things together.
"Oh man, it was very hard," Kelly said. "Especially when I was also trying to hold down a full-time job at the same time."
"I won the Illiana championship and I came back and won the championship at Grundy in '05 (and) '06, and after that, I left to put time into my kid. It was the path I had chosen at the time and I was devoted to it."
Getting it back together
This is Kelly's first full season back at Grundy, though he did run part time in the 2008 season.
Lawrence is his current crew chief, though Tony and Tammy Phillips from Morris Transmission own the car.
"Jim's the whole ball of wax. He does everything," Kelly said. "He's my crew chief and me makes all the calls. He's an all-around good guy to have on the team and working on the car."
Kelly said that he was asked if he would come back to racing by Tony Phillips two years ago.
"Tony Phillips came to me and said that he had a new car that he had a lot of money into and asked me to drive it," Kelly said. "I wouldn't have done it without Jim. That's how everything came together."
Kelly did run two nights in 2011 in that car, but something just didn't seem quite right.
"We spent maybe three weeks trying to put the car together and Pat just didn't feel comfortable in it," Lawrence said. "He wanted the Port City car, so Tracy (Schuler) said he'd take it in a switch."
"I think we finished third and fifth. Now Tracy Schuler, my teammate, runs the car. We traded and now I got the old car back. We didn't know we were going to do it for sure until about two months before. That's when we knew we were going to do it."
Yes, Kelly is back in the saddle in a well-worn seat.
"It's the same car I won with in 2000. There have been a bunch of different people driving it over the years," Kelly confirmed. "It's been all updated and everything and really only the center section on the car is still the same."
It looks like the result are the same as they used to be as well.
"We're ecstatic. It's a nice deal," Kelly said of the first half of the Grundy Late Model season. "We came into it again big time this year and we've had fun doing it the whole time too."