His Racing Heart

When it came to love for the Indy 500, Pat Kennedy was unsurpassed.

Author: Paul Coppola ’78

Pat Kennedy at the track

Pat Kennedy ’78 never missed the Indianapolis 500. He had been to 57 consecutive races since 1963. He had published two books on the Indy 500 — one recapping each race, The Short Chute Edition, and The Official Indy 500 Trivia Book.

On Easter morning he became one of our early victims of COVID-19.

His passing was noticed. The Indianapolis Star ran two stories about Pat. His congresswoman, Susan Brooks, gave a tribute which is recorded in the Congressional Record. And the mayor of Indianapolis, Joe Hogsett, declared the day of this year’s race — August 25, 2020 — Patrick Kennedy Day in the city.

Racing had been in the family “forever,” as Pat put it. His grandmother dated Joe Dawson, the 1912 Indy 500 winner. Pat’s father went to every race from 1930 to 1988. For years the family business, Kennedy Tank & Manufacturing Co., was the race’s official gas tank supplier. That meant every Indy 500 driver had a relationship with the Kennedy family. Pat was the fourth-generation head of the company.

Many great drivers visited his house while Pat was growing up. The legendary Scottish driver Jackie Stewart had dinner with the Kennedys in 1966. Pat,10 at the time, and his sister, Ann, could not stop laughing at Stewart’s accent. He kept looking at the kids, wondering what was wrong. And they kept giggling and giggling. In spite of that, Pat said, the future three-time winner of the World Drivers’ Championship was very congenial to them.

Pat’s grandfather and dad sponsored cars at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway from 1936 to 1952. Pat’s 2012 book included a cover photo of the car that ran in the 1947 and 1948 races. Out of the blue, a guy called him and told him he had found that car. Pat purchased and refurbished it, and displayed it in the lobby of their company building. They named it the Kennedy Tank Special. Every year Pat would drive it around the track in the vintage-cars run in the days leading up to the Indy 500.

The whole family would be watching as Pat drove the Kennedy Tank Special. Everybody was scared to death, but cheering and screaming and whistling like he was winning the 500. His body was halfway out of the car — most drivers tend to be small, unlike Pat — and he was going faster than he should have been.

One of the first years that Pat drove the vintage car, something happened. As his sister Ann tells the story, “We were looking for him and looking for him and then looked down the straightaway and he’s down there, like in the fourth turn and he’s kind of sitting there and I think that he had an oil problem. Anyway, he gets out of the car, he’s got oil all over his beautiful white suit and his shoes. You just never know in racing what’s going to happen to a car.”

Engine troubles could not diminish his enthusiasm for the experience. “I’ve never seen a happier person on the planet than when he’s driving the car,” Ann says. “It brought so much joy to all of us. We just couldn’t wait to see it.”

Pat went to his first Indy 500 when he was 7 years old. As a 6-year-old in 1962, he remembers being upset while listening to the race on the radio after not being allowed to attend. From then on, he never missed a single race. May was a monthlong holiday. Pat would sit at practices as a child, stopwatch in hand, and watch the cars zoom by. The enthusiasm lasted a lifetime.

“His love of racing was as passionate when he was 7 years old as it was when we lost him at 63,” Ann says. “Every single race day, he would say, ‘Today is better than Christmas!’”

“I’ve never seen a happier person on the planet than when he’s driving the car.”

His leadership of the Kennedy Tank Company — a business that his great-grandfather, a boilermaker, started as a boiler repair business in 1898 — made him an icon in Indianapolis far beyond the Speedway. Peyton Manning, who led the Indianapolis Colts to a Super Bowl championship, appeared in a video tribute to Pat. He was honored to know that Pat was a fan of his.

Notre Dame football was another lifelong love. This year, as every year, was going to be “Notre Dame’s year,” according to Pat. And like his father before him, he was named the Indianapolis Notre Dame Man of the Year in 2017.

But his love for Notre Dame took second place (or at least it was a tie) to the Indy 500. He would rattle off facts without hesitation, like the years A.J. Foyt won the Indy 500 — ’61,’64, ’67 and ’77. Pat knew the cars inside out, and he knew everyone at the racetrack. With longtime figures and first-timers, he forged lasting bonds.

A few years ago, Jack Harvey came over from England to be an Indy racer. He did not know anyone at the time. Pat invited him to family dinners and celebrations, and they became fast friends, enjoying making fun of each other’s accents.

Once Jack came to the Kennedy home wearing a Notre Dame shirt. “Are you an Irish fan? Pat asked. “Yeah, kind of,” he responded. Soon Jack was tailgating with Pat before Notre Dame football games. Jack and Pat became like family. Pat’s support jump-started Jack’s racing career and they would analyze races together.

“If he was your dad, you would’ve felt so lucky that he was your dad,” Jack says. “If he was your friend, you felt so lucky he was your friend. He’s the guy you wanted your sister to bring home. He was a truly great guy.”

In the 104th running of the Indianapolis 500 — postponed this year until August — Jack drove with Pat’s picture on his helmet and his name on his license plate. Pat’s earthly attendance streak at the Speedway was broken in 2020 but, ironically, no one else was in attendance either because of the pandemic.

And back in May, before Pat was laid to rest, his family made sure he had a final victory lap at his beloved Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Paul Coppola ’78 is a retired federal worker, an adjunct chemistry professor and a freelance writer who has published two books. He begins his chemistry lectures with an Our Father — just as the legendary Emil T. Hofman did. Paul lived in Cavanaugh Hall as a student.