One of the most decorated drivers in the history of the ARCA Racing Series is like a rookie again.
Frank Kimmel, a nine-time ARCA champion at 49 years old, will suit up for Sandusky-based ThorSport Racing Saturday at Daytona International Speedway with a new team and a fresh outlook.
"It's the difference in the way they do things from what I've been so used to all of my career," he said. "They're very deep; they have a lot of support throughout the entire team, with the crew and the facility and the equipment all across the board, they do things in the utmost first-class way.
"I'm just looking forward to having that kind of support behind me, pushing us forward, with everybody pushing in the same direction to try to get a win and try to get the championship."
He debuted in the ARCA Series in 1990. At Toledo Speedway in 1994, Kimmel claimed his first ARCA victory, and followed with 73 more series wins over the ensuing 15 years. He is just five away from the all-time record in the 59-year history of the series, trailing only Iggy Katona.
For a decade, Kimmel was nearly unstoppable. He won the first of his nine ARCA driver championships in 1998, then followed with eight in a row from 2000-07.
Kimmel, of Jeffersonville, Ind., just across the Ohio River from Louisville, Ky., was most dominant in 2001 and 2002, during which he won 20 races in just 47 starts -- with 39 top-five finishes -- and led an incredible 2,677 of 5,879 laps (45.5 percent).
His wins tapered, however, as the years went on and other competitive teams emerged. In three seasons and 60 events racing for his own No. 44 team, sponsored by Ansell and Menards, Kimmel is winless.
"Any time you go out and you win, and you win on a pretty regular basis and it's actually kind of easy -- I don't want to say that in the wrong way -- it's expected every time you go to the racetrack," Kimmel said. "Success breeds success.
"When it stops, it becomes very, very frustrating for everybody involved. Everybody starts looking at each other and they're trying to figure out why it's not working anymore. It becomes a very stressful, very, very tough time."
After leading for at least 960 laps per season from 2000-04, including a high mark of 1,439 in 2001, his led laps dropped to 669 in 2005 and 260 in 2007, bottoming out in 2009 with 96.
"That's the hard thing, is when you don't think you have a chance to win," he said. "Two years ago, I don't feel like we did. Our team improved last year to where we were competitive in a lot of different races, so I thought we made the right step."
Part of the issue for Kimmel was the turnover in equipment and cars, which are largely hand-me-downs from NASCAR's Sprint Cup series. When the Series moved to the "Car of Tomorrow," the equipment available throughout ARCA changed, too. One of Kimmel's advantages started to melt away.
"For a while there, we had a better race car and our -- Bill and I -- past experience and the racer mentality was enough to succeed on the racetrack really well," he said. "The past few years, with the RCR team and Venturini teams have really come a long way, there were just several teams that came to the racetrack that were very, very good. And the equipment was a lot better, which made the competition a lot better."
But it wasn't just the equipment, he said. The team was pulling apart, especially as Bill's son and Frank's nephew, Will, revved up his career and focused shifted to the next generation.
"I think we were just growing in different directions," Frank said. "My brother Bill was my crew chief pretty much for all the years but the first championship. We had really good chemistry, we were working well and we were all working in the same direction.
"The last couple of years, Bill's son Will has been racing quite a bit -- he's a very good racer and does a nice job -- and I think Bill's focus became more in tune with what Will's future is. That's fine. I guess that's very natural. I just wasn't really ready to quit yet."
It was difficult to find the right chemistry between driver and crew, he said, as evidenced by the turnover in crew chiefs in the highest levels of racing, as teams throughout the Sprint Cup shuffle teams and chiefs to find the best fit.
Jeriod Prince, the former car chief for the No. 88 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series team, will step up as Kimmel's new crew chief. Prince was being groomed to take over a crew chief position, ThorSport general manager David Pepper said.
"This just seemed like the perfect fit to give him the opportunity to win some races, shine and make a name for himself," Pepper said. "We're very excited about the possibilities with Jerry leading this team. He's young, he's very energetic, he's got some great ideas. Really looking forward to seeing him blossom into an outstanding, hopefully championship-winning crew chief in the ARCA Series."
When Kimmel put out word he was thinking about leaving Kimmel Racing, he received interest -- amplified because he came with a sponsor -- from around the sport. One of his main sponsors, Menards, encouraged him to link up with ThorSport, which already partners with Menards through the No. 88 team, piloted by Matt Crafton. ThorSport made the deal official in the first week of December.
ThorSport carved out and finished a portion of the basement at their new facility on the corner of Neilson and Campbell Streets for the ARCA team. It took about six weeks, Pepper said, to turn thousands of square feet from dirt-caked concrete to a refined, professional race shop. The new ARCA team added about 10 people to the ThorSport stable, with a few more on the way.
Now, two decades after winning the 1992 ARCA Rookie of the Year award, Kimmel is as good as new.
"It's amazing. You go up into Northern Ohio, where you wouldn't think you're near a NASCAR-type situation, and there's a NASCAR Sprint Cup-quality facility right there in the middle of Sandusky, Ohio," Kimmel said. "Once you walk in there and shut the door, you wouldn't realize you're not in the Charlotte or Mooresville (N.C.) area. It's just a second-to-none facility."
On Saturday Kimmel will make his 17th start at Daytona since 1996, still looking for his first victory there. He finished in the top five there seven times in the eight-year span from 2001-08, including a pair of second-place finishes, but he has never conquered the track. His last win at a superspeedway was in 2006, when he captured the flag at Talladega.
"It would be cool to get our first win at Daytona this year with a brand new team, but realistically we need to go and get acquianted with each other and get our team in the right frame of mind and have a good, strong race," he said. "I think coming out of there with a top five would be a very, very good day. Top 10 would be acceptable, I guess, and a win would be tremendous."