Six years ago, Chippewa Falls dad Jason Swan found his daughter, Kennedy, in the garage, doing something not many eight year olds can say they do in their spare time: taking pictures of her race car.
“What are you doing?” Jason Swan questioned his daughter.
She responded, matter of factly, “There’s a boy that doesn’t think I race.”
And, as it turns out, that’s common for now 14-year-old Swan, who last year took home first place in the WISSOTA Midwest Modifieds features race – a feat even lifetime local racers can’t say they’ve accomplished. Yet until a feature by Nick Tabbert detailing her racing accolades was broadcast in mid-May on WQOW News 18, many of her friends and schoolteachers didn’t even know she raced – let alone that she was one of the most talented racers in the state of Wisconsin and the Midwest.
“Most people, they don’t even know what a Midwest Mod is. Like, they don't know any kind of that racing. If people ask, What are my hobbies? I'll tell them. But they don't think it's actually this cool.” –Kennedy Swan, race car driver
The high school freshman said she often doesn’t tell her friends about her racing. “Most people, they don’t even know what a Midwest Mod is,” Kennedy confessed. “Like, they don’t know any kind of that racing. If people ask, What are my hobbies? I’ll tell them. But they don’t think it’s actually this cool because they don’t know. So they don’t really care. Or, they just think it’s stupid because it’s easy or whatever. But it’s not.”
I saw your race accolades on the news this morning, reads a letter from Chippewa Falls Middle School principal Derrick Kunsman. So cool. Congratulations on your feature win at Red Cedar Speedway. I used to go to a lot of stock car races as a kid and know how big of an accomplishment that is. Keep up the amazing work. Thanks for making Chippewa Falls Middle School proud.
Her English teacher, Stephanie Schemberger, emailed the article to “everybody,” Kennedy said. She printed out the WQOW article and hung it up in her classroom.
“The humbleness side of her is what we want to carry and carry forward forever,” Jason said. “I used to ask her, ‘What do your teachers say at school?’ ‘They don’t know I race.’ She’s raced for eight years. What do you mean they don’t know? They don’t know. Until the TV-18 thing, that’s when it all came out.”
REVVING HER PASSION FOR RACING
At the age of three, Swan was placed on her first four-wheeler. “I had to actually put a throttle stop on it just to slow her down,” her dad fondly recalled.
When Kennedy turned five, the Swan family journeyed to Thunder Hill Speedway in Menomonie, where a daughter of Jason’s friend also raced. They bought Kennedy her first go-kart and spent three to four weeks piecing it together. When they first went out to practice with the Cummings family – who owns Thunder Hill – Kennedy found she didn’t like racing. At. All.
“We couldn’t get her in it,” Jason said. “She bawled and said she ain’t getting in it.”
Summer transitioned to winter, and – after Bloomer Pond in Bloomer froze over, Jason’s cousin called to see if the family would be interested in ice racing. After seeing her family zooming by, Kennedy agreed to give it a shot.
As she and her fellow racer came down the chute, they pulled up in last place. “I could see she was already crying,” Jason said. “I figured it was pretty short-lived. And she pulls up, and she says, ‘My four wheeler is not fast enough.’ And I’m like, ‘Do you really want to do this?’ And she’s like, ‘Yeah, I do.’”
STEPPING ON THE GAS
The next week, the family purchased two Polaris Outlaw 90 ATVs – in pink and white. The rest of the winter, she raced. By the time the ground thawed and the birds chirped, marking the start of spring, she agreed to give go-karting another try at the speedway.
“It was wide open,” Jason recalled. “Sometimes you have to build up to it, but with her, it was wide open, and (she had) a big smile on her face. And the rest is history now.”
From the age of five to seven, most youth racers compete in the Rookie Cage, progressing to the Junior Wing from the ages of eight to 14. But, at age 13, Kennedy got the necessary approval to jump in her first B-Mod and began competing in the Intermediate class. In the next few years, she hopes to level up to the toughest competitive rank in racing: Outlaw.
“As parents, we pushed her a little bit,” Jason said. “What’s the fun for those other kids when it’s the same kid that keeps winning? … You’re only as good as your competition, and the better competition you have, you just get better.”
FUELING UP A NEW GENERATION OF RACERS
Racing is in Kennedy’s blood: her own father, Jason, raced. After giving up alcohol on the path to sobriety, Jason found himself with spare money and a desperate need for a new hobby. “I always watched and enjoyed going to the races, whether it was Menomonie, Rice Lake, any local tracks around here,” he said. “I always wanted to do it, and all of a sudden I had all this money from not drinking, so I went and bought a race car.”
Mike Anderson, a fellow racer and good friend who races a 57 Modified, told Swan he was stupid for buying the race car. “But that’s what most racers say,” Jason said with a laugh.
Jason began racing a Midwest Mod, then leveled up to racing a Modified with a pal out of Cameron. After a while, the pair decided to split, and wanted to give their sponsorship funds back to their respective sponsors, but their backers insisted they continue to race.
At the same time, Kennedy expressed interest in go-karting. When she transitioned into Junior Wing, Jason decided with his wife that he would race on Fridays and Sundays, and Kennedy would race Saturdays, balancing the family’s race schedule. After her first night of karting, the family planned to buy their second race car.
“It was a Saturday night,” Jason recalled. “She came off the track in second (place). And where I stood, when I see her coming down the chute, I could see her smiling through that helmet. I walked up on that hill, I looked at (my wife), and said, ‘I’m done. I’m going to put everything into her.’ I hung my helmet up and bought a new one for her.”
“She is the real deal,” Jason continued. “She doesn’t realize that. You just don’t do it at that age. There’s guys out there that have been racing for years and never won. I raced seven years and never won a race. I won a lot of heat races, but I never won a feature. For her to do it in her first year ...” He shook his head, at a loss for words.
BALANCING LIFE – ON AND OFF THE TRACK
Every Monday night, Kennedy and Jason spend hours washing up and preparing her car for her next races after Kennedy wraps up a day at school and doing CrossFit training. She pressure washes the car, scrub it down, pressure washes the tires, checks the tire rotation, changes the car’s oil, fixes any dents and dings from her last race, and makes sure everything is in place for the next one.
“I usually don’t get into too many crashes, so nothing’s really broken,” Kennedy said, then added, “most of the time.”
Oftentimes, the pair of racers stay in the garage until 10pm.
On Tuesdays, Kennedy either has softball practice or a game. On Wednesday, she works in the garage and does more CrossFit. Thursday is another softball night. Then, on Friday, the family gets loaded up to race in Menomonie, Rice Lake, or at a select few regional races, through Sunday, when they return home and do it all over again.
On racing days, Kennedy said she wakes up excited. “When I walk through the pits with my fire suit and the way that other people look at me, I really like that,” Kennedy said. “I’m not winning every week. It’s very competitive. It’s very competitive.”
If you ask Kennedy what it’s like to know how to drive a manual transmission race car before driving an automatic transmission automobile – or what it’s like to change the oil in her car by hand without even having a drivers license – she’ll be puzzled by the question.
“I don’t really know how to explain it,” she said.
“It’s normal for her,” her mom, Autum Beal, said. “That’s her normal. To everybody else, it’s not.”
Many times, spectators don’t even know the driver in the 18-S race car is a 14-year-old girl. In one race, Jason recalled an announcer misgendered Kennedy as male, so the audience was led to believe she was an older, male racer. When she stepped out of the car, “the crowd went nuts,” he said.
As a youth driver in an already dangerous sport, Kennedy has a car equipped with thousands of dollars of safety equipment –made possible through generous sponsorships and the family’s T-shirt embroidery business. She has a five-point harness, a HANS device head restraint, child-sized fire suits, and seats that grow with her – though her family suspects she won’t grow much more than her slender 5’4”, 108-pound frame.
“I smoke a lot of cigarettes when she’s on the race track,” Jason said. “I get nervous. And it’s not so much nervous of her doing something wrong; it’s nervous of is the car good enough for her? You have a driver that’s above average. And making sure that we give her everything that she needs.”
It’s easy for Kennedy to stay focused on her driving, she said. “If I’m more in the back, I’m watching all the cars in front, making sure I’m not getting in any crashes. But if I’m up towards the front, I just try to run my line. If there’s a good car in front of me, if I’m not catching them, I might try to run their line. If that’s not working, (I) do something else. (I’m) just focused on running a good line, not hitting anyone. I’m mostly just worried about finishing.”
“The only time I get a little excited, like I say, I might win this, is maybe if I’m in third, second, or first, and I’m right up there with them,” she added.
Every racer has different ways of staying focused, Jason said. When Jason raced his 45c, he would sing. The family is convinced Kennedy has her own unique way of staying focused: making cat noises.
“Do your cat noise,” he prodded her, mid-interview.
“No,” she giggled. “What is wrong with you?”
“Yesterday, all day, she’d just make a cat noise,” Jason explained, laughing with his daughter.
Oftentimes, Kennedy is so focused on finishing a race that she doesn’t even realize she’s winning. It goes right in line with her motto: You have to finish a race to win a race.
HITTING THE CHECKERED FLAG
Though, Kennedy has done her fair share of winning races. Out of over 600 Midwest Mods across the Midwest (including Minnesota, Wisconsin, North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Wyoming, Canada, and Idaho), she is currently ranked in tenth place. The competitive nature of the races keeps her humble, she said, as earlier this season she was ranked second.
“The highs and lows of racing,” Jason said. “You can win one night and the next night, you could be dead last. You could get in a big wreck the next night and have to take the next week or two off just to get your race car back together. But racing teaches more than just how to race,” he said. “It’s teaching respect – to respect your equipment, to respect the other racers out there.”
Kennedy was recognized this year as Rookie of the Year for the Midwest Mods, and currently ranks in second place out of 130 rookie WISSOTA Midwest Mod racers from across the country. Earlier this year, she cruised in first place, demonstrating the tough competition in the sport.
“She’s wide open,” her dad said. “Don’t even lift, just turn the car. As a racer, (and) racing before, the mindset to have that is hard. … Your mind is telling you to do it, but your body will not allow you. The mindset it takes to do that is where the raw talent comes in.”
She’s also up against other odds: Namely, she’s one of only a few female racers, and one of even fewer youth racers – and her dad notes she often gets nasty comments from people who believe she shouldn’t be out there, or that she’s a bad driver. “And you’re always going to have that,” Jason said. “Whether you’re 50 or 14, or whether you’re male or female.”
Despite Kennedy being a woman of few words, she affirms she’s always learning. One day, she leads her category. Another, she’s racing to catch up. The tough nature of the sport teaches her lessons beyond the track, her family affirmed.
“For one, stay humble,” she said. “Even if some racers don’t like you or don’t say ‘good job’ to you, go over there and say ‘good job’ to them. Just be a bigger person.”
“The day that we can all say that we’re not learning anymore is the day that we walk away,” Jason added, “because our heart isn’t there and our passion’s not there. We’re always learning.”
Family friend Trent Trubshaw created an incredible video, which demonstrates Kennedy's incredible talents first hand. Check it out on the 18-S Facebook page here.
Watch Kennedy racing in her 18-S on her Facebook, 18s Racing, or most Friday nights at the Red Cedar Speedway in Menomonie. You’ll know her by her iconic orange fire suit, her braided brown hair, and her iconic name printed on her clothes: Kennedy Swan.