Ronnie Midyette - Small in Name Only

By Jim Luikens

Ronnie Midyette (pronounced Midget) comes from a family of professional fishermen. He’s unsure of how the family name came to be spelled Midyette but he thinks it might have happened when his ancestors arrived in this country as immigrants and a harried official didn’t fully close the top of the “g” on their admittance papers. This is the story of Ronnie Midyette whose accomplishments in racing are anything but small.

As a kid Ronnie was fascinated by anything with an engine and he had his share of mini bikes and go karts. Working at the local service station during his high school years, he always liked to fix things. When he got his driver’s license he bought a 1965 Chevrolet Impala SS 327 to which he promptly added a 4 speed and other personal touches. Although the Impala SS was a street car, it wasn’t long until he bought his first dedicated race car.

He found a D/MP ‘63 Chevy II that was powered by a 327 with a tunnel ram. Even though the Chevy II was already a race car when he purchased it, he used his machining talents to significantly upgrade its components. This was actually the first manifestation of his other lifelong love, precision machine work. Racing it as a weekend warrior, the Chevy II was a solid 11-second performer. Knowing the car wouldn’t ever be nationally competitive, he used it primarily as a learning opportunity.

Since he was already hooked on speed it wasn’t long before the Chevy II was replaced by something even faster, a front engine, C/ED-style small block dragster. Ronnie always wanted to go fast and the little dragster was immediately quicker than the door car that it replaced. Although he never traveled with the dragster it was a regular winner at tracks that were near his home like Creeds and Suffolk.

During this period he held down a full time job in addition to his racing activities. His gas station days were followed by work in the repair department at a General Electric plant that made televisions. Following his stint at GE he moved on to a plastics plant that was owned by Foster Grant. That plant made the raw plastic that would eventually be used to manufacture a number of Foster Grant items. Ronnie worked in the maintenance department there and did a variety of mechanical jobs. His ingenuity and creativity had a chance to be exercised on a daily basis.

As time went by Ronnie came to fall in love with a new class of race car, fuel funny car, which was just starting to make its presence felt. Despite being a relatively new class there were eight funny cars based in the Tidewater area of Virginia where he lived. One of the local favorites, Leroy Worley, took Ronnie in and taught him the ropes of dealing with these early day monsters.

When Ronnie received a little money as the settlement from a motorcycle accident that he had been in, he did the wisest thing possible. He put the money away for a rainy day....NOT. He actually bought the Brutus Funny Car and went fuel funny car racing. Powered by an iron big block Chevrolet engine, the car ran 7.80 second elapsed times on bad tracks and was able to support itself, not counting the original investment.

Eventually Ronnie upgraded to the obligatory funny car of the day, the 1978 Chevrolet Monza. Wanting to go ever quicker and faster he sold the Monza and used the proceeds to purchase a Chrysler Hemi engine and Lenco transmission from Clayton Harris. With these components he formed a partnership with Mike Murphy and installed his newly-purchased engine and transmission in Murphy’s Dodge Charger funny car. For the next three years he drove the Charger and Mike wrenched as they turned times in the low seven-second bracket.

Leaving the racing world behind, Ronnie began using his natural machining skills to make an early day billet head that the top cars of the time like Don Gerardot, Danny Townsend and the Kentucky Gambler used. When one of his cylinder head customers, Kirk McKesson, offered Ronnie a temporary driving job sorting out Kirk’s new Captain Kirk Funny Car he didn’t have to offer it twice. Ronnie ended up driving that car for four years.

Just as that opportunity was winding down Willie Lawrence, a boat racer that wanted to convert to the asphalt quarter mile, came out of the stands at the Rockingham race and offered Ronnie a driving job in his new Freedom Racing IHRA Funny Car. Never one to take too long to answer, Ronnie was behind the wheel almost before Willie could finish asking the question. Amazingly, the team won the very first race they ever entered, St. Louis, defeating Mark Thomas in the final. They then went on to run the remaining 1989 events, finishing fifth or sixth as Ronnie recalls, despite only joining the tour midseason.

At the end of the year the team sold the car to Butch Kernoodle and Ronnie even drove a little for Butch after the sale. He then picked up a variety of limited driving engagements and drove a number of different cars. In all, Ronnie estimates that he has driven at least 17 cars. Thinking that his racing days were finally over he took a machinist course at the local community college to improve and certify his machining skills. Once again his natural talent shone through and the instructor would have Ronnie bring in side jobs from home just so that the other students could observe him at work.

After being out of racing for five years Ronnie received a call one Sunday from Mike Couch who asked him if he would like to go racing again. As usual Ronnie was quick to answer, but this time with a proviso: only if there was enough money to do it right. When Mike answered affirmatively the new K and W Racing Team of Kevin and Wendy Sims was born. The very next day Ronnie and Mike accompanied Kevin Sims when bought a used funny car from Lee Pappas that had been raced very little to begin assembling the K and W team.

Despite not yet earning his second IHRA Iron Man, a feat Ronnie greatly desires, the K and W team has been competitive. After finishing eighth and eighth in their first two seasons they improved to fourth last year. They were actually leading the points after the Milan event at midseason but eventually fell, as did everyone else in 2003, to the runaway Atchison Express.

This year, with new sponsor Kalbones Grillin’ Sauce on board, Ronnie and the Kalbones team are in third place after the season’s first three events, only 22 points out of second. Mark Thomas has been this year’s funny car thorn, winning all three of the races run to date. However if there is anyone besides Rob Atchison that can eventually prevail it will be the team from Virginia and their journeyman driver, Ronnie Midyette, who is enjoying every minute behind the wheel of arguably the best car he’s ever driven.