The Girls (And Boys) Of The Kelly Girl Challenge

I found this today while looking for something else entirely. Oh, to be a racer in the Kelly Girl (later, of course, just “Kelly American”) Challenge! Racing against famous and soon-to-be-famous people! Driving 1976 Cutlasses and whatnot! Would people come to see races today with nothing but Honda CR-Vs and the like? These were not particularly rapid events; the one year of results I could find for Mid-Ohio the pole position time was 1:59. My Neon will run a 1:43 on that same track, and my Accord will run a 1:37. But everything’s relative, of course, and I think it would have been great to see these big coupes (and, apparently, the occasional Granada sedan) bash it out.

The spectator stands would fill up for these races pretty quickly. They’d be empty today, of course. Quite a few people have decided they’d rather go iRacing on their home computers than watch someone else compete for real. I can’t argue with this viewpoint, but I’d also like to step into a time machine for just one summer weekend in 1980 or thereabouts. Nothing to do, no screens to contemplate, and a genuine showroom-stock race going on just an hour’s drive away. Here come the Kelly Girl racers!

16 Replies to “The Girls (And Boys) Of The Kelly Girl Challenge”

  1. AvatarCameron Aubernon

    That theme song, though!

    I don’t know which car I’d race in this series; all of them are pretty damn cool.

    As for today, I think we could still run Mustangs, Camaros, and Challengers. Maybe throw in a Supra or two, some Camrys, some Accords, maybe a few Altimas. Good times!

  2. AvatarChris Tonn

    I vaguely recall a couple of these events – likely after the renaming from “Kelly Girl” as my first race was the Mid-Ohio CART event in ’83 – but I’m curious about the cars being run.

    Seems there is a no-longer-updated site dedicated to the series. Looks like they would have been full tube cars like the contemporary Trans-Am/GTO cars, but with six cylinders rather than V8s? Likely explains the lack of pace – probably 3000 pounds as raced with 220hp? Just a guess, though…

    • Jack BaruthJack Baruth Post author

      The cars changed over the years, starting as basically Showroom Stock full-sized coupes and sedans in 1979 and then switching over to tube-frame GTU-ish stuff by 1985.

      • AvatarCJinSD

        None of those cars look remotely like showroom stock cars, which were popular in the era and basically looked like new cars with stickers and often aftermarket wheels. They ran on shaved street tires that were many steps removed from today’s R-compounds too. The cars in the video might have been production based in the way that a 1980 NASCAR stocker was production based. They were clearly fully stripped to shells and then built up as racing cars with no interiors, modified bodywork, altered suspension, etc… Later they ‘evolved’ into full-tube frame silhouette racers, but they were never similar to showroom stock racing cars.

      • AvatarKevin Jaeger

        I don’t know about this particular series but I remember well my local stock car track of the 1970s and they certainly did race cars that were actually stock. Yes, they had the interior stripped and they used aftermarket wheels and tires but they were otherwise just cars that anyone could buy. Local small businesses often ran a car on the weekends as a hobby project – a relatively affordable thing to do at the time.

        But the past is indeed a foreign country and I guess you can’t go back. These races were well attended by spectators and had no shortage of local participants. It’s hard to imagine either happening now.

        • Jack BaruthJack Baruth Post author

          CJ, I think, is using the SCCA definition of “showroom stock” which by 2008 or so was leading to all sorts of crazed intersections between interior panels and custom roll cages. By that definition some (but not ALL) of the Kelly cars were not showroom stock.

          Showroom stock doesn’t always mean “keep the back seat and the dashboard”, however. Many places take it to mean “stock frame and suspension mounting points” and that was certainly the case for the Kelly cars. You didn’t see tube-frame stuff there until 1983-1984 from what I can see.

        • AvatarGeorge Denzinger

          Back in the 80’s, a HS buddy of mine and I raced in our local dirt track’s “Street Stock” series. The basic gist of the rules was: No compacts or subcompacts, any motor that would have been offered as optional equipment (i.e. a Dodge Monaco could come with a 440, but a Dodge Coronet generally didn’t), and factory wheel sizes; no taller or wider than stock. We had to have a 2″ round tube cage protecting the driver, a race seat, helmet w/tear-aways, neck collar, fire suit and a caged fuel cell with external electrical system shut off (like you would on a drag car) and tow hooks front and back. Now that I type that out, it seems like a lot. But you didn’t want to kill or get killed, either.

          We ran a series of mid 1970’s ex-Ohio State Patrol Chrysler products. They were super easy to find, as in our part of rural Northeast Ohio a used car dealer specialized in them. We could get “cop tires, cop brakes & cop suspension”, too. Many of them came with a big block, but we had a specially built 440 from a friend of ours that was “warmed up a bit”…

          I don’t know if young people still do this kind of stuff, it’s probably a lot easier and cleaner to do or something. Honestly, after kids came, I didn’t see the pit lane of any racetrack until they were 10 or so. And, even though I could jump back into it again if I wanted to, I haven’t. Priorities change too. But it sure was fun.

  3. Avatarstingray65

    As someone who has dabbled a bit in PC racing simulations, and generally lost interest in most “real” racing, I think a major problem with modern day racing are the circuits and cars used in the televised series. Using simulations to race on 1950-60s era Road America, Monza (including the banking), Nurburgring, or even the old beach course at Daytona is so much more exciting and interesting to drive and watch than modern circuits with their safety oriented layouts. Racing a digital racer is so much more fun when trees, stone walls, and houses are inches away from the race line, and pavement imperfections mean that suspensions need to be set up to work over bumps and jumps, versus the modern era with endless runoff areas, short straights (no drafting and no excessive speeds), and billiard table smooth pavement necessary for modern aerodynamics to work.

    The cars from that golden era are also so much more fun to drive with their skinny hard tires, excessive power, weak brakes, and minimal downforce versus modern racer cars with so many ugly wings and aero-aids to generate downforce, which together with very grippy tires means they don’t slide around. Modern racers are for the most part just plain ugly compared to golden era Jaguar C and D types, MB 300SL, Testa Rossa, P2, GT40, Lotus 49, Chapparal 2d, Gurney Eagle, Maserati 250, Watson Roadster, etc). Production (“stock”) based series in IMSA, German Touring Cars, NASCAR, etc. also visually suffer from their ever increasing distance from the actual stock shape and technical characteristics of the cars they are supposed to represent, while no longer represent popular models in the showroom. Most of these developments are driven by safety concerns and keeping the competition close, but they have taken the heart and soul out of real racing for the observer (if not the driver), which video game racing can relive in complete safety. I’m sure real racers still get a thrill piloting today’s ugly cars on today’s boring tracks and appreciate the high likelihood that they will survive the experience, but from a spectator viewpoint they leave a lot to be desired when vintage racing is available on your basement PC.

    • Avatarstingray65

      I can add that rapid advances in consumer grade virtual reality hardware and compatible racing software will make the realism gap between simulated and real racing even smaller, at the cost of a couple of sets of racing tires (or less). Given the generally declining ratings and attendance for real modern racing events and consequent decreasing sponsor interest, and rising costs to race, throw in some residual Covid-19 fears about sitting in crowded spectator areas and high ticket prices, and I am afraid the future of real racing might be pretty bleak.

      • AvatarScottS

        I agree, the future of real racing will be a lot different than in the past. Computers and the internet have changed the balance of entertainment available to average people. Couple that with changing consumer interest and war on the traditional automobile and I don’t see Millennials flocking to racetracks on the weekend. They are more interested in food and Apple watches. No wonder toilet paper is so highly valued. All most people want to do is eat and shit.

        • AvatarDirty Dingus McGee

          ” All most people want to do is eat and shit.”

          i find that I like to do both each day.

          Signed. Boomer

    • Avatardejal

      Joe Blow, pedestrian cars today are fast. The fast street cars are really fast. When street cars were slow unless you bought something exotic, you’d watch to get a vicarious speed rush. You don’t need that anymore.

      Running something with skinny bias-plies and drum brakes on a back road in an average car and pushing it would raise your “Pucker factor”. Now, it’s “Yeah, the race cars are fast, BFD”. When you could easily scare yourself on the road with moderately high speeds, watching racing meant more.

      I never found raw speed all that compelling.

    • AvatarBen Johnson

      My dump opinion: With every sport or game in it’s infancy, there’s a period of innovation and daring that eventually regress to a boring mean. Shaped Skis and modern giant-headed tennis rackets are tokens of this regression. Even mountain climbing lost some of it’s charm when GPS became a thing and the Communist Party of China will force slaves to pluck 800 fill down for and sell it cheap.

      That being said, I embrace the better equipment and conditions as it allows me to participate in many things that were unreachable – heck I can take my family car and have a blast at Track Night In America and know my brake rotors will keep up. SCUBA is cheap now. And you can blind-rivet your own plane for 80K and a few weeks of time.

      • Avatarstingray65

        The problem with auto racing is that when it began the most important element to winning was to find a driver with the skill set that allowed him to drive around the weakness of the car and maximize its limited potential. For the last 30 years the sport has been more about designing the car to minimize the weaknesses and limitations of the driver.

  4. AvatarGeorge Denzinger

    I can remember seeing a segment on (probably) ABC’s Wide World of Sports back in the day. I was enamored with the cars and the competition and Lyn St. James in particular. After that introduction, I followed her career, climaxing in her participation in open wheel racing.

    I’d forgotten that there was such diversity in the rolling stock of the series. Many of these cars look like they were campaigned by privateers… I mean, in what world word Ford Motor Company factory support a four door Granada in a race series? OTOH, you can tell when factory support started really taking off in the 80’s, as the cars have a polish that the earlier ones clearly do not.

    Ah, to have that Aeroback Olds Cutlass for Cars and Coffee…


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