While Kyle Smalley suffered from Lyme disease, no matter how bad he felt on the inside, he rarely let it show on the outside.

That was the mark of a man whose most common expression was a smile, and most common question, “What do you need?”

Smalley, one of the driving forces behind Kernz and Kompany’s annual Kia of Duluth Drag Races and Car Show, died unexpectedly Monday. He was 57.

Area drag racers and hot rod enthusiasts will say goodbye to a legend on Saturday as part of a memorial service at 11 a.m. at Duluth Denfeld High School.

“I saw him just last week, and he was upbeat. You just never know,” said local dirt track racer Darrell Nelson. “Kyle was the type of guy who would help everybody, and anybody. From the Proctor race track, to the Superior race track, from our tranny shop to my race shop, to the end of my driveway. That guy would do anything for you. He lived for helping others.”

A procession of hot rods and classic cars will leave the Kmart in West Duluth and head for Denfeld about 9 a.m. Saturday, with Kyle’s wife, Terry, being driven to the memorial by their son, Jesse, in Kyle’s signature Kaiser Henry J street rod.

Expect traffic.

Kyle Smalley grew up in Duluth and was a gifted hockey player. His brother, Kevin Smalley, is Denfeld’s boys hockey coach.

Kyle Smalley lived near the Buffalo House and hosted car shows in recent years. He worked for the Duluth, Winnipeg and Pacific Railroad and the Western Lake Superior Sanitary District as a mechanic. Most recently he worked at Spirit Mountain.

Kyle Smalley was clearly popular. His online obituary has been receiving more views than anything else on the News Tribune’s website. A Facebook notice posted by Brainerd International Raceway, where Kyle used to race and worked as a pitman for Pro Stock driver Jerry Eckman, quickly got 440 likes, 39 comments and 63 shares, all with a common theme. Smalley had a passion for hot rods and helping people.

“Anything you need,” longtime friend Chris Pirkola said. “One time my son had a truck and the motor went bad, and I didn’t have another one lying around, and Kyle goes, ‘Oh, I’ve got a motor.’ Well, he took it right out of his own rig that he had at his place and gave it to my kid, just so he had something to drive.”

Smalley was proud of the popular Kia of Duluth Drag Races, and races on Garfield Avenue will continue as a lasting legacy.

Ryan Kern, president and founder of Kernz and Kompany, said there are already plans to honor Smalley’s memory at this year’s event on Sept. 12-13.

The drag races started out simply as a time trial and car show, allowing event organizers a chance to prove it was safe. It has evolved into what Kernz and Kompany says is North America’s only ⅛-mile legal drag races on a public street.

Kern, who came up with the idea for the drag races with Dave Cook about 10 years ago, initially went to then city councilor Russ Stover, a well-known muscle car enthusiast.

“I told Russ that I needed a board of advisors, and I needed people who could offer input and guidance, and the first name he mentioned was Kyle Smalley,” Kern said. “Then I met Kyle, and talked to him about my vision. I asked if he wanted to play a role, if he wanted to help, and Kyle gave an emphatic, ‘Yes!’ He just lit up, like a giant Christmas tree. He was gung ho. ‘Absolutely, whatever I can do to help.’ His enthusiasm was second to none.

“Kyle was a catalyst for it. He was my resource, the one I leaned on, because he knew so many people.”

Smalley used to drag race at the old Arrowhead Bridge, back when it was illegal, of course. He and his Henry J were nearly unstoppable.

“He built it to go,” Pirkola said. Local racing photographer Ken Johnson said Smalley was like a big brother to him, adding he was shocked upon hearing the news.

“Kyle put together car shows that could make the World of Wheels jealous, and those were just his friends,” Johnson said.

Kern described Smalley like something out of the iconic “Grease.” Smalley could make any car automatic, systematic and hydromatic. He was ingenious, Kern said.

Another one of his trademark vehicles was the blue and white Amsoil boat-car, which was used to drive around the Buffalo House buffalo statue at parades.

“The guy is a legend,” Kern said. “When I found out he died, I was just in disbelief. It was a sad moment. My heart ached.

“The one thing I’ve taken away from knowing Kyle Smalley, and I think it is important to say, is that he is one of the very few people I’ve ever met who would do anything, for anyone, was always positive, and never had a bad thing to say about anybody, no matter what ailment he was battling. Even if he wasn’t feeling good, he’d still go out and help. He put people before himself. How many of us say we’d like to do that, but Kyle actually did it.”

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