He had one of the most improbable goals ever in sports.
Chris Kneifel came to the Speedway with the dream of winning the Indianapolis 500 and playing in an NBA Finals game.
He came as close as anybody could expect with that combination. He finished 12th at Indy in 1983 and was invited to the Indiana Pacers training camp. He is also the answer to a great “500” trivia question: Who was the last driver to make the field with a speed slower than 200 mph?
It came in 1984, when he was first alternate and Jacques Villeneuve (uncle to the 1995 Indianapolis 500 winner and former Formula One champion) crashed and was not cleared to drive because of a head injury.
“He had trouble counting to two,” Kneifel said. “I started 33rd and finished 15th, but we weren’t running at the finish. I was in the top 10 most of the day before a shaft broke in the gearbox.”
His four-lap qualifying speed was 199.830, thus making him the last driver to make the field at under 200.
He was colorful, so much that his PR rep, the late Lynda Havens, started an informal contest among media members on who could get the funniest quote from Kneifel.
Example, at Elkhart Lake: “This car is set up perfectly for a racetrack. But not this one.”
His height – 6-foot-6 – became a problem to solve along the way.
“They had to raise the roll bar for me, and they soldered pieces on to it to get it through tech,” Kneifel said. “Then I went to England in ’85 and went to both March and Lola. They both tried to fit me in, but they couldn’t do it.”
His basketball career suffered a setback from his racing career.
“I was invited to the Pacers’ camp, but unfortunately, it was the week after my accident with Rick Mears at Michigan,” Kneifel said. “I was too sore to go to it.”
He had been scrimmaging regularly in Chicago with some of the Bulls, including Scott Pippen and Reggie Theus. Although the NBA was not to be, Kneifel was not completely through with basketball. He was the only race driver to participate in the Foot Locker Slam’Fest in 1990 at the Breakers Hotel in West Palm Beach, Fla.
“It was really a neat deal,” Kneifel said. “Wilt Chamberlain, John Havlicek and Oscar Robertson were some of the judges for the slam-dunk contest. I lost in the first round to Ken Griffey Jr. They had some beer in the locker room, and I had my first one with Ed ‘Too Tall’ Jones, who also got knocked out early.”
Although he made just two starts at Indianapolis in 1983 and 1984 during his limited Indy car career, Kneifel switched to road and endurance racing and made his mark there, from Daytona to Le Mans. Later, he became the chief steward of CART.
“What Wally Dallenbach had decided was that he wanted to be done in January of 2001,” Chris said. “Wally called one day, and I thought he was going to congratulate me on Daytona. And he said, ‘Are you ready to do that?’ I said to give me a day or two to think about it. I had just signed a contract to drive, but that was my future.”
He had a vivid description of his duties as CART chief steward.
“I loved every torturous second of it,” he said, “and I can’t say that sentence without using the word ‘torturous.’’
Kneifel resides in Cave Creek, Ariz., where he has lived since the mid ‘90s. He dabbles in racetrack design work and recently spent two weeks in Singapore working with a client.
“I spent some time with them in 2007 and 2008,” he said. “They want to get a future motorsports venue in Asia.”
He is now 52 and he said (quietly), “I got an invitation to join the Oldtimers Club.”
Kneifel doesn’t return to Indy for the month of May.
“I haven’t been back since I stopped driving there,” he said. “I can’t just stand around.”