Many rallycross fans recognize her as the lovely and energetic pit reporter who stands out as a blonde breath of fresh air among the dirt, grit and testosterone of the paddock at Red Bull Global Rallycross events. Others may recognize her as the beautiful host of the new hit reality show, Altered Course, on the Golf Channel. No matter where fans might recognize her from one thing is obvious, Kristen Kenney is serious about her work, well versed and more deeply involved in the sports that she covers for both NBC and Golf Channel.
Most television sports commentators never actually get behind the wheel of the cars on which they report. But last month Kenney took on the challenge of learning to pilot a rally car at DirtFish Rally School in Snoqualmie, WA. The last time Kristen was at DirtFish was in 2014 when Red Bull GRC held their ninth round event at the school twenty minutes from Seattle. Kristen was there hard at work talking with the drivers behind the wheel of the rallycross cars. But this time, it was all about her and having fun behind the wheel, cranking turns and blasting through the forest of the great Pacific Northwest.
Rallycross360 had the pleasure of talking with Kristen about her experience at DirtFish Rally School.
Rallycross360 had the pleasure of talking with Kristen about her experience at DirtFish Rally School.
RC360: Have you ever attended a driving class before?
KK: "No, this is literally my first time getting behind the wheel of this type of car. Other than being in Charlotte last year and going karting with Joni [Wiman] and Patrik Sandell last year, I had never done anything like this."My boyfriend and I had talked about our desire to go. I have really embraced action sports and motorsports because of Red Bull Global Rallycross. Before covering Red Bull GRC I really had no background in motorsports. My background was in basketball, college football and soccer. So I really embraced it."The adrenaline I get from being at the GRC events and then going to the Long Beach Grand Prix with everybody made me and my boyfriend look at each other and say, 'we've gotta do this'. If you really want to take lessons then the best place to go is DirtFish. GRC has races there typically and that's where I did my ride along last season with Bucky Lasek." (Kristen's ride-along with Bucky Lasek at DirtFish 2014)
RC360: When you went to DirtFish, did you go with expectations about what it would be like?
KK: "You realize that what you hear from the drivers is very different than actually being behind the wheel. I have a greater understanding of what goes on with these drivers and the cars because of the lessons that we had in the classroom and what each of the instructors were able to show us.
"I was also nervous because I have never driven stick. I emailed Tanner Whitten (GRC Lites driver and DirtFish instructor) and asked him if I was going to be okay because I had never driven a stick shift before."
RC360: How much information do they throw at you in the classroom and in the car?
KK: "Day one was really overwhelming. It was information overload but it's good because they give you everything and you start to feel what they had said in class. Day one I was called the "cone slayer" because I would leave cones in my trail. By day three I was up shifting, down shifting, hand braking and so on... There is so much that goes on. It was overwhelming on day one because a few times I hit cones and spun out. I was thinking it wasn't bad to hit the cones because at least I'm not stalling or spinning out. However, by day two they tell you that those cones will become trees.
"The information starts to settle in and you realize it's just a natural thing if you don't think too much. For me I started with my hands kind of swatting flies. You're supposed to have that nine and three position so that its very subtle movements with the wheel. All of your movement comes from braking, gas and throttle. Knowing when to push the gas so that's whats going to move the car is your approach. Trail braking and weight control, so when you trail brake it's going to naturally swing your car and gas on with your wheels straight its going to get out of that hairy situation so that your not over driving or over steering so you have to use that gas. It's about starting to feel that natural feeling when you brake of where the car moves and throttle on and you think, oh wow that's scary do I really want to put on the gas because I'm over steering but the gas with the wheels straight is what is going to save you from going off road.
"Another thing they cover is vision. Vision is something they talk about from day one. Its not like driving on the road and looking at the car right in front of you. They teach you to look way ahead at your next move. So for instance, as we approach a sweeping left hander, we would brake and one would think your eyes would go to the right or look straight ahead. You literally are turning out with subtle turns of the wheel left and looking at your left mirror as your car is still going straight. You look opposite of where your car is going. We are taking a left turn and my car is still going straight and it looks like it could be going to the right but I'm looking left and brake and my car is going to flip around and I accelerate and it's going left where I need it to go."
RC360: We spoke with GRC Lites driver and DirtFish instructor Tanner Whitten a week before you arrived. He told us he would be your instructor for the first two days before he left for the race in Detroit. How did that go?
KK: "I did some hand braking with him. The first time we actually went around portions of the Red Bull GRC track that was used last season. It was really cool having Tanner, who is racing in GRC Lites this year, as my instructor doing the same track we raced last year."
RC360: What was going through your head when you got behind the wheel of the rally car for the first time?
KK: "I was nervous because I have never driven stick. I got so nervous because if you're not a hundred percent mentally into it and strong, you're not going to do well. The first part of it was just getting into the car and learning how to get it into first gear without stalling and trying not to grip the wheel too hard. I had butterflies in my stomach for sure. We had different instructors from morning to afternoon sessions. I just remember looking at them and thinking, 'Oh my gosh, I can't believe I'm doing this and I'm sorry if I mess up the car'."
RC360: Did you realize how physically demanding it would be?
KK: "Yeah, we got into a car right after the morning session on the first day and did a lot in the car. That was more fun. I learned that it was not so much about speed but instead learning the car and learning more about precision and where you hit your marks. We went a bit slower as we learned more about the car on days one and two. By the time day three came around you are so active in the car. There are about 2.5 mile courses and we are doing that four times. There is so much seat time and it's hot. I started getting really tired and fatigued. After three laps I looked over at my instructor and said, 'Oh my gosh, I'm getting a little delirious right now'. They say that is pretty common.
"It really reminded me how hard it is for these guys in our series doing a Daytona double-header and it's 150 degrees in the car and their out there all day, all weekend. I was drenched in a tank top. I also ended up with all these bruises on my left and right arm. I couldn't figure out what it was until it occurred to me that because I'm so petite, the buckles on the harness were up really high. As my arms were kinda of shifting with the wheel, not dramatic moves, just little moves, they were hitting those buckles. It didn't hurt but it was taxing and it made me appreciate much more what our drivers go through."
RC360: What did you learn about yourself after your experience at DirtFish?
KK: "I learned so much and have a greater appreciation for what our drivers in our series have to overcome and do and drivers in general because there is so much more going on than what we see. Through these classes I now get how each driver is approaching various turns or when there is no grip and how you need to adjust to no grip but you have to do it so quickly and adjust to ever changing conditions. You get what is thrown at you, you don't have anything consistent and constant around our tracks. Combine that with wheel-to-wheel combat. You're fighting for a corner and you seem to know what line you want but have to fight the guy next to you for that same line and remember all those things.
RC360: Was it difficult to coordinate all the simultaneous hand and foot movements?
KK: "There is just so much that goes on, it's ridiculous. [The GRC drivers] are pros, so obviously it's all a much more natural movement for them. Their mind must be working every second. I've walked away now with a greater understanding. It really helps me when I'm looking at the cameras in the cars. Last weekend at Detroit , I could look at it very differently and see the movements when people are using the hand brake and if one driver is more active in the car with his pedals and foot movements. Some of the more traditional guys are very smooth and fluid, not using the hand brake a lot."
RC360: As a non-racer, what is your main take-away from your time on the track?
KK: "I wish I would have taken a class like this at a younger age. You can really see the value. It teaches you all the mechanics, whether or not you're racing professionally or just wanting to appreciate your car and proper ways to drive. It's so great from an educational stand point. One of the biggest things I learned was that when you go out full throttle and just hard core, you're going to make mistakes. You have to hit your marks. It's more about reading and being precise, feeling the car and feeling the weight control ,or you're going to hurt your time. They teach you to not be so lead footed out of the gate. Just be precise and know when to brake and read the car."
RC360: What are your final thoughts on the experience?
KK: "This course was so worth it. We really want to come back and do this again. It was the best thing ever. I was so scared at first and was worried about how they pay for damage and who is responsible if I roll over. But, of course, none of that happened. You leave feeling so much more confident in your abilities. It's a feeling you can't describe unless you get behind the wheel yourself. Its empowering and invigorating. With the proper instruction, patience and listening to the people who are professionals, you can come out of there with a whole new understanding of something you never thought you'd have the opportunity to do."
RC360: Our final question is about something that we know is near and dear to your heart. You are the founder of a charity organization that helps get life saving medicine to kids suffering from malaria in Tanzania. Can you tell us a little more about this charity?
KK: "It's called Malaika, which means angel in Swahili. Our tag line is 'Buy a Bracelet, Save a Life'. The bracelets are made by a group of women in Tanzania and we sell the bracelets on our website and the procedes go back to buy lifesaving malaria medicine. So it is a malaria organization that also helps empower women in Tanzania through the bracelet making.
"I had malaria when I went to Tanzania for the first time in 2009. It was a pretty severe case of malaria. I had to be treated immediately and had to be in the hosptital for 3 -4 days. Milaria kills half a million children a year. So that was the motivation behind it. It is a very painful and horrible disease that can put you into a coma. There is a solution for it, although not permanent, it can help as long as people get the treatment. It's like the flu here which we can treat with medicine. But over there they don't have that option because they can't afford the medicine. It's all volunteer and we do what we can between our work schedules." Find out more information about this worthwhile cause by visiting http://kristenkenney.com/malaika-for-life/
Follow Kristen at: http://kristenkenney.com | Facebook - Kristen Kenney | Twitter & Instagram- @KristenKenney
Follow Red Bull Global Rallycross and get the latest news and event details: http://www.redbullglobalrallycross.com
Book a class at DirtFish Rally School: http://www.dirtfish.com/
Header Photo Credit: Larry Chen