By Tony Veneziano
The average temperature in Winnipeg, Canada, in February is 17 degrees Fahrenheit. In the Tampa, Florida, area, the average daytime high is 72. That is one of the reasons Thomas Kennedy and his race team make the 2,050 mile trek to the Sunshine State each year to compete in the Ronald Laney Memorial King of the 360s at East Bay Raceway Park in Gibsonton, FL.
Kennedy also heads to East Bay to get a head start on the season, which back home does not begin for a couple more months. This allows him to test out some items and shake the car down before returning home to eagerly await his return to action when warmer finally weather.
The Canadian will be in action this week at East Bay as the 42nd edition of the Winternationals comes to a close with the three-night Ronald Laney Memorial King of the 360s. A pair of preliminary nights on Thursday, Feb. 15, and Friday, Feb. 16, will set the stage for the 40-lap finale on Saturday, Feb. 17.
“The weather keeps us coming back to Florida and the racing, of course,” Kennedy said. “We get away from the cold, cold weather back home. It’s always nice to get away for a few weeks in Florida and enjoy some warm weather. Being able to race as well makes it a great trip for us.”
The Ronald Laney Memorial King of the 360s traditionally draws in upwards of 50 cars for the three nights of action. Last year, 63 drivers were in attendance. Among those on the entry list this year are Mark Smith, Terry McCarl, and Wayne Johnson, who have each won the event twice. Kennedy was the only Canadian driver to qualify for the main event on the final night last year. Glenn Styres is the lone Canadian to claim victory in the Ronald Laney Memorial King of the 360s, with that coming in 2012.
“You have to be consistent at East Bay, especially during the preliminary nights,” Kennedy said. “One of the biggest things at East Bay is knowing where you are at and who you are racing with. A lot of different things factor into being a contender and having good runs at East Bay. With how strong the field is, you have to be on your game every time you hit the track.”
Kennedy finished second to Smith in the finale of the Ronald Laney Memorial King of the 360s last year at East Bay. He started 11th and charged to the front in the 40-lap event, against a stacked field. Kennedy also earned a top 10 finish in the finale at East Bay in 2016. Winning at East Bay would rank right up there with an Arctic Cat All Star Circuit of Champions win that Kennedy picked up at Buffalo River Race Park in Minnesota in 2013.
“It would be great to get a win at East Bay,” he said. “We've been going to East Bay for the last six, seven, eight years and to get a win 2,000 miles from home would be a fantastic accomplishment.”
While every dirt track changes throughout the course of a race night, East Bay Raceway Park sustains some massive changes, mainly due to the rising or falling of the nearby ocean tide. Kennedy applies knowledge he and his father have gained over the years racing at East Bay when it comes to preparing for the ever-changing surface.
“The tide plays a huge role in track conditions,” he explained. “You can start the evening with a very tacky track and by the end of the night in the feature it can be slick and then get tacky again for the last half of the feature. Usually we just go to our set-up book and look back at previous years. We have a basic setup for East Bay that we start off with and then we make changes from there.”
Kennedy opened his season last weekend at Bubba Raceway Park in Ocala, FL, with the United Sprint Car Series (USCS). Bad luck befell him both nights as he knocked the rust off from the offseason to gear up for this week’s event at East Bay. He just missed qualifying for the main event on the first night, while he was sidelined during the feature on the second night.
“A lot of guys raced Bubba (Raceway Park) last weekend,” he shared. “It didn’t go so well there, but it’s good to be able to shake things down before you get to East Bay. I think about half the guys already have races under their belts this season going into East Bay this week, so it’s good that we were able to race last weekend.”
While he is in Florida first and foremost to race, Kennedy does take a little time away from the track to enjoy the sights, sounds, and warm temperatures of the Sunshine State. In between last weekend’s events in Ocala and this week’s races at East Bay, he and his team set up shop in St. Augustine, parking at a resort, about 100 feet from the ocean.
“It’s always good to get away and go in the ocean and see all the sights that you normally wouldn’t see because you are racing all the time,” Kennedy said. “It’s a fun trip because we get to combine racing along with relaxing and having some fun in the sun.”