Take a detailed look inside of the Columbus, Indiana dirt racing operation
Keith Kunz Motorsports is a powerhouse dirt midget operation. The dirt racing team has backing from Toyota Racing Development and acts as a stepping stone into the NASCAR world for up and coming talent.
View the Keith Kunz Motorsports shop tour video below.
Today, the team fields countless full-time cars in the USAC National Midget Series as well as the POWRi National Midget Series. But, the dirt racing team wasn;t born overnight.
Kunz started fielding cars with his brother Rusty in 1994. Soon after, he won his first of many Chili Bowl Nationals events with driver Andy Hillenburg.
In 1996, Pete Willoughby put together a team of his own. He hired Kunz to come work for him out of Columbus, Indiana. They partnered and set out for the national tour.
Pete handling the business end. Kunz was the mechanical guy that put the cars at the front of the field. Together, they were set to build a powerhouse.
In 1997, the team opened up a second car. Jason Leffler and Jay Drake piloted the machines.
“Jason was real feisty. When he came to us I’d been racing out on the West Coast, so I’d kind of seen a lot of him. He crashed a lot. He tore a lot of stuff up,” Keith Kunz explained in 2016 during a personal blog post via The Drivers Project.
“When Pete hired him it had a lot to do with my brother Rusty, who was kind of helping him at the end of the year before. Jason was determined.”
“He knew what he wanted to do, he wanted to be a race car driver. That’s all he was going to do. He worked hard at it and was very talented.”
In the first year, they won the national title.
In the late 90’s, Pete closed his trucking company. That was the backbone of the race team. However, the two decided to double down on the race team anyway and attempt to make a business out of it.
Kunz recalled, “At the time I didn’t really think it was realistic. I was actually thinking about going to Stealth or trying to find someplace else to find a job. It was kind of late in the season and Pete said, ‘Let’s just race a little bit.’ “
Birth of Keith Kunz Motorsports
At this time, Pete was trying to get out of the racing business. Keith started up his own operation and all the main sponsors from the old team transferred over.
At this time, Keith and Pete had less than $10,000. Winning was the only option.
Jay Drake proceeded to win about 25 races. 16 of those were in a Keith Kunz powered machine.
However, Kunz struggled to pay the bills. Several guys like, Cory Phillips would float Kunz on back payments. When they won, Kunz would take care of the outstanding bills.
“So we kept going and then it going to the point where a lot of people started asking us what it would take to get their kid in one of our cars. ‘How do I get my kid to drive your car?’ “
“It was how we were surviving so the bottom line was that the answer was money,” Kunz added.
Rent a dirt car
The team was winning. Drivers like to be in winning equipment. That created an eye opening opportunity.
Keith Kunz Motorsports began renting dirt cars. Sarah McCune was the first driver to rent a ride as her father searched for race-winning equipment.
“We realized right away that this was how we could make it all work. I really believe that it’s cheaper for people to race with us than it is for people to try to do their own start up team and learn how to do it. It’s even truer now that we’re established,” Kunz stated.
“At the same time, though, we’ve always hired drivers. We started with Jay and he got hurt there for a while before going to Tony Stewart’s team”
” So we were always looking for different guys. We had Tracy Hines, we’ve had Dave Darland and all of these guys just came in to win races. We would hire them strictly to win races and make us money.”
In the mid 2000’s, John Godfrey sold Stealth Chassis. Instead of switching manufactures, Kunz decided to start building his own chassis. Three or four guys were solely focused on building cars.
In 2008, Cole Whitt came into the scene. Year one, he won the USAC National Championship.
In 2009, Toyota came into the picture, specifically because they wanted to sign Whitt.
Keith Kunz Motorsports began running Toyota powerplants. All of the engines were built by Toyota and leased to KKM.
However, new, rarely means fast. There’s a development stage in new technology. KKM dropped from the front of the field to mid-pack. The push-rod engines didn’t have the power to get off the corner on the bullring dirt tracks.
In 2010, Gary Stanton took it upon himself to improve the Toyota engine. TRD then took it and copied it. KKM and driver Bryan Clauson made their debut with the new engine in the Turkey Night, they won.
“It was a big turning point. All of the sudden we had a motor and we were back contending.”
Later in 2010, Clauson parted ways as he wanted to run his own equipment. KKM was back on the driver search.
In the 2011 Chili Bowl, drivers took to the track for hot laps. Pete saw Larson’s run, “That’s our guy.”
“Kyle was probably the most gifted driver we’ve ever had. Everything came easy to him and he made everything look effortless.”
“Even today when you watch him whether it’s Chili Bowl or whatever, he can go away for a year and after two laps back in the car you’re blown away,” Kunz said of Larson.
At this time, Toyota moved their engine program to Rick Long at Speedway Engines.
In 2013, Kyle Larson signed with Chip Ganassi Racing. That’s a Chevrolet, Toyota was rocked just as David Wilson took over as TRD president.
“David is a big open wheel fan and when they saw Kyle move on they committed to that not happening again,” Kunz stated.
“They kind of went to work with us and Kyle Busch and Joe Gibbs and it’s taken them a few years to get there but they’ve kind of tried to create a path to give these drivers opportunities.”
After Larson departed, Christopher Bell was hired to fill his shoes.
In 2020, Christopher Bell is set to make his full-time debut in the NASCAR Cup Series. Bell climbed from dirt cars at KKM to stock cars at the Joe Gibbs Racing affiliate of Leavine Family Racing.
From dirt midgets, to the NASCAR Xfinity Series and now to the NASCAR Cup Series, the pipeline is working.
“They’ve always under-promised and over-produced. They kind of have a plan worked out. It’s still up to the drivers.”
“You have got to go produce, but they’ve created some opportunities to put these drivers in some pretty good rides and good situations that hopefully will help them move on.”
“It’s pretty neat and gratifying to know that I’ve helped these kids get to where they are today. It’s good for our business because everybody out there sees their success and feels that we are the path to NASCAR. Everybody is looking for the path to NASCAR but it’s so hard.”
“On Sunday, there are still only 42 cars in the whole country that get to race. So you have to put yourself in the right place at the right time, have the right connections and create the right opportunities.”
“I feel like that’s what we’ve done here with Toyota. We’ve created the opportunity for these guys to showcase their talent.”
“For some reason the path has become midgets. It’s not sprint cars, it used to be Silver Crown but right now it’s midgets. All of the guys down South are watching what’s going on in midget racing. All of the crew chiefs know Kyle, Christopher, Tony and Kasey and they know these guys came from midget racing. They’re all big fans.”
KKM has continued to expand over the years. More cars, more haulers and now a massive race shop.
Rico Abreu runs his operation out of the shop. Recently, we gave fans a walk through of the Keith Kunz Motorsports garage.