It was a frustrating start to what would prove to be a frustrating season for NASCAR rising star Kasey Kahne.
The 27-year-old racer from Washington, was coming off a 2006 season during which he had conquered the sport’s best, capturing a race-series high six victories and finishing eighth in points in his No. 9 Dodge.
The 2007 season didn’t start out quite as well. A seventh-place finish at the Daytona 500 in February was followed by an engine failure and 38th place finish at Fontana, California. That was followed by a crash at Las Vegas Motor Speedway that led to a 35th place finish.
Even though the season had just started, Kahne needed a get-away to clear his head. He found it with a Polaris RMK snowmobile, riding in the mountains near his west-central Washington home.
Home for a cousin’s wedding last spring, Kahne escaped into the back-country. His identity hidden beneath his helmet, Kahne found his escape in the powdery meadows he’s explored since his youth.
“It’s so much fun to go riding,” Kahne said, “whether you’re jumping or trail riding or up in the sand dunes [on an ATV] or up in the mountains on a snowmobile in 25 degree weather, it’s just a blast.”
Kahne is a lifelong snowmobile and ATV rider. Because he spends so much time driving and promoting auto racing, he doesn’t get as much time to ride as he’d like these days. But his garage in his hometown is filled with powersports toys, and they get used.
Raised A Motorhead
Kahne’s boyish good looks and status as a rising star in NASCAR have made him a fixture on television, in commercials and in magazines. It’s also made him a wealthy young man.
Kahne was just another farm boy 20 years ago. His parents own a ranch outside of tiny Enumclaw, Washington, about 50 miles west of Tacoma, and the family was into motorized recreation.
Kahne grew up riding snowmobiles in the mountains in the winter and spinning laps on an ATV in the summer on a homemade track at the family ranch in rural Washington — he jokingly refers to it as “Kahne Speedway.”
“It was mainly a family thing on the snowmobiles,” Kahne said. “On the four-wheelers, we had cousins and friends that we’d ride with, whether we were racing around a track we had at home or going up into the mountains just trail riding, a lot of times it was just family and friends or family and cousins.
“I really enjoyed it. A lot of my best memories growing up are on a four-wheeler or a snowmobile.”
It probably comes as no surprise that a family who turned its son into an auto racing superstar loved anything that burned gas and oil.
“My dad was just always into that kind of stuff, so I grew up riding four wheelers, and he had snowmobiles so I grew up riding snowmobiles that were stored at our house that we’d have to take up into the mountains,” Kahne said.
Now, as an adult, the toys belong to Kasey. He explained that he’s got RMK and Dragon snowmobiles as well as a handful of ATVs.
“Either way, it was cool being on a four-wheeler going fast or a snowmobile going fast. I enjoyed the speed and the excitement.”
Racing Debut: On An ATV
While you shouldn’t expect to see Kahne show up with a bright red No. 9 race sled at a snocross or snowmobiling oval track anytime soon, his first competitive race was in the powersports world.
“Actually, the first thing I ever raced was a three-wheeler,” Kahne said. “My cousin had a three-wheeler, he raced it in the pro class and I raced it in the intermediate class … that’s the first thing I ever officially raced with a real flagman and things.”
Training for that event, and later for a racing career that started out with dirt track modifieds and sprint cars, occurred at “Kahne Speedway.”
Throughout his teen years, Kahne’s snowmobiling adventures took him to some awesome backcountry destinations with family and friends.
“We did hillclimbing, we did powder riding. We rode up through some logging roads up into the mountains and went off into some awesome country where you could go down into big valleys and back up the other sides of them,” Kahne said. “I mean, there is just some great riding up in the Cascades doing that kind of stuff.”
Long before Kahne was the subject of insurance commercials featuring googly eyed soccer moms, he was going on dates and family outings on snowmobiles.
“I remember going on some pretty neat snowmobile rides from Cle Elum east in Washington, being over there and getting on snowmobiles and going riding in the mountains for a while and then coming back and there was a big pig roast going on and some campfires.
“I remember being at White Pass,” Kahne continued, “and having a motorhome that we stayed over night in for a few nights and then getting on the sled first thing in the morning up in the mountains, coming back and riding at night.
“I remember once taking a girl, she got on the back and we went up into the mountains,” he said. “You know, it was cool and it was different than just taking somebody out to dinner to take them up in to the mountains.”
Growing Up, But Not Moving On
Kahne’s fun times with engines soon became more focused. His dad got him involved in auto racing at age 14, and his primary focus switched from powersports toys to race cars.
He progressed quickly through the dirt track ranks, winning championships in Washington and throughout the West before catching the eye of longtime motorsports guru Steve Lewis, the same man who discovered NASCAR greats like Tony Stewart, Ryan Newman and Jeff Gordon.
Some of the skills learned on ATVs and snowmobiles crossed over to his dirt-track auto racing.
“It was somewhat similar to a sprint car, in a little way — you know, sliding them around, turning them right when you’re actually going left,” Kahne said. “Yeah, dirt racing is dirt racing, and it’s similar to a dirt car if you’re on a little four-wheeler.”
In 2002, he hooked up with NASCAR powerhouse Robert Yates to drive a limited Busch Grand National schedule. In late 2003, he was selected to replace NASCAR legend Bill Elliot in the Evernham Motorsports No. 9 Dodge.
Never one to buckle under pressure, Kahne earned five second-place finishes in 2004. He truly broke out in 2006 with his six victories in the most competitive form of auto racing.
Now, Kahne calls North Carolina home; he has to stay close to the heart of NASCAR and the Evernham Motorsports headquarters. When he’s back in Washington, the restrictions of Kahne’s NASCAR contract have slowed him a bit on the motorized toys.
“A few years back I didn’t care if I was going straight up the hill or dropping off a mountain or a rock down a hill, I would just do whatever looked good,” Kahne said.
“Now, it’s more like, ‘Man, I don’t know if I should do that, maybe I’ll just cruise over here and ride where this nice little powder is at.’”
In 2008, Kahne will be the new face of the Budweiser car, replacing Dale Earnhardt Jr. as the spokesperson and face of arguably the most heavily promoted sponsorship package in the sport. The pressure will be on, meaning Kahne may need more pressure breaks back home in the Cascade Mountains. And you can bet that long after Kahne hangs up his auto racing helmet, he’ll wear his snowmobile helmet for years to come.
“I don’t ride quite as much anymore, but I still get to ride here and there, and in the wintertime I get to get on the sleds and go up into the mountains, which is probably one of the funnest things I do all winter long,” Kahne said.
“It’s just a blast, I really enjoy snowmobiling.”