There’s a reason Toyota logos were on 10 of 24 Chili Bowl A-main starters in 2019, and why the manufacturer finished top four in the Daytona 500 in February, and even won the championship with Kyle Busch in the NASCAR Cup Series. Three letters – T-R-D, Toyota Racing Development.
Recently, that program has been funneled through one man’s mind and another man’s friendship. And as of now, more NASCAR eyes are on dirt racing than ever before.
Keith Kunz owns Keith Kunz Motorsports in Columbus, Indiana. Yes, the same town NASCAR Cup champion and dirt open wheel star Tony Stewart, who eventually went on to drive for Kunz, now resides.
Kunz’s right-hand man since officially starting the team is Pete Willoughby and the two have discovered more stars together than you could count on both hands.
Willoughby is out of the limelight. He travels with the team, occasionally turns down interviews all because he doesn’t want the credit, which is exactly the reason why he is so respected.
“Pete started his team in ‘96, and he was looking for someone to take care of it.” Kunz said on episode 26 of Rip the Fence. “He ended up hiring me to start the ‘97 season to take care of his stuff and we hired Jason Leffler and Jay Drake.”
Leffler and Drake were Kunz’s and Willoughby first stars. They won tons of races and championships together in the late 90s, and by 1999 they had a decision to make.
“Pete owned the cars through ‘99,” Kunz said. “We won the ‘97 championship and won a lot of races during that time. We put our first sprint car together.
“Around that time Pete owned a trucking business and he shut it down. We decided we were going to race full-time and we probably didn’t have five thousand dollars between the both of us. I called all my partners and told them Pete and I were starting a team in my name and they all agreed. That was when KKM was born, in 2000.”
Drake had a phenomenal year for the team in 2000, but the two struggled to make ends meet, living off of the winnings with a great deal of help from their partners.
“For the longest time there, you lived week-to-week and paid what bills you could,” Kunz said. “Late house payments, credit cards maxed out, you just figured a way to survive and put any other money back into buying parts. Four of five times we should’ve been bankrupt, but we never filed.”
The two friends had an idea.
“We had people come to us and had parents asking us how do I get my kid in your car,” Kunz said.
Kunz and Willoughby formed a business. As parents approached the likeable car owning duo – parents were renting rides from Keith Kunz motorsports in hopes their kid would become the next Tony Stewart or Jeff Gordon.
“Their kid got to race side-by-side with Jay Drake.” Kunz said. “We always had the house car, because you had to still win, and still pay the bills. Jay Drake and others down the line that raced in the house car became great mentors for those parents’ kids who were learning.”
The house cars continued to be successful, winning more championships with different engine manufacturers. They raced with Gaerte engines and won a championship with Fontana engines in 2006 and in 2008 powered by Esslinger, the team won a USAC championship with Cole Whitt.
It was at this time, Toyota started to take notice.
“Toyota had been in midgets with Steve Lewis at the time for a couple years,” Kunz said. “After we won the championship in 2008, Lewis decided to shut his team down. Gary Reed, who headed the midget program at the time for Toyota came to us and said we’d love to work with you guys.
“They wanted Cole Whitt on the Toyota program. At that time everything was being done at Toyota headquarters in California.”
The duo agreed to terms with Toyota and in 2009 the team went from a championship contender to winless. In 2010, they hired Dave Darland a popular dirt track racing ace to help turn their dirt program around. They also hired the late Bryan Clauson to drive their pavement midget.
“He won the championship, but we didn’t win a race all year until Turkey Night,” Kunz said. “I went to Toyota and I told them we just didn’t have the power we needed. They were in IndyCar technology and numbers and data. They just didn’t get our kind of power.
“Rick Long had been doing our sprint car stuff and I begged them to let Rick look at their engines. Finally I told them at the end of the year I’m not going to return in 2011 unless we did something.”
And Toyota listened. Already partnering with popular midget builder Gary Stanton, Toyota took Keith’s advice and hired both Rick Long and Stanton to build a midget engine.
“They gave us the engine at the end of 2011 season and we won Turkey Night Grand Prix with it,” Kunz said. “The following season, Clauson decided he was going to race his own equipment on pavement and we knew we had to find someone to compete with Bryan – he was kicking everyone’s butt.”
So the search began. Keith and Pete narrowed down a short list of popular candidates and their goal was to find their next talent.
“We had a list of five guys we were looking at, at the end of 2010,” Kunz said. “I was at Oval Nationals and I saw this little kid. Something just caught my eye, I was impressed with him. He ran 10th I think. It was Kyle Larson.”
“We went to the Chili Bowl in 2011 and I told Pete to go out to the grandstands and watch this kid in hot laps,” Kunz said. “Pete looked up all of his results and past history – he won King of the West sprint cars – we just didn’t know until we saw him. After one hot lap session Pete came back and said, ‘that’s our guy.’”
Larson ended up crashing during the week but it wasn’t enough to stop Willoughby and Kunz from hiring “their guy.”
“We talked to his parents – they were trying to find him a full-time sprint car ride and they decided this was the right move.” Kunz said. “In 2011, we had a new engine, he won races right out of the box. He started learning quickly.”
By mid-season Larson had won some of the biggest open wheel races in the country, the Belleville Midget Nationals, the Night before the Brickyard and the Front Row Challenge at Oskaloosa.
“That pushed him over the edge. That opened Toyota’s eyes.” Kunz said.
Larson began searching for a NASCAR team that would give him a chance. He toured Toyota and Joe Gibbs Racing and many other teams, and the same question was always asked of him.
“Who’s writing the check?” Kunz said.
“Chip Gannasi stepped up and signed him and put a deal together with him. After the first year in 2012 they put him in a Truck and he was amazing and that opened eyes at Toyota. They had a kid under their own roof and he slipped away. That’s really when Toyota and the upper brass was more involved in our program.
“That’s never going to happen again. They’re never going to let someone like that slip through the cracks again.” Kunz relayed what upper management at Toyota said.
So Keith and Pete were given another task by Toyota…find another.
“How do we find a guy to replace Larson?” the two asked.
After a second-place finish at the 2012 Short Track Nationals in Arkansas, Christopher Bell began racing in any big car he could get his hands on.
“He ran some POWRI Midget races against us, he ran the crap out of a couple places, ran second to Kyle a couple times. Kyle told Pete this is your guy, this kid is good.” Kunz said.
Bell was driving for Rick Ferkel at the time, a popular sprint car driver and car owner in Ohio.
“At the end of 2012 we asked him to run our car at Chili Bowl and he did good, he ran in the B-main, nothing flashy.” Kunz said of Bell’s performance.
“In 2013 we asked him to be our driver. He got better and better and started winning a bunch of races.
“Toyota really took a liking to him. They started giving him some stock car races and really developed their latest driver development program and shaped it after Christopher Bell.”
Kunz and Willoughby had found Toyota Racing’s next big thing.
“Christopher started winning in stock cars and they started to move him up, they didn’t know how to do driver development until Christopher Bell created that mold,” Kunz said. “Now there is a tree to get to NASCAR, it started in 2013 with Christopher Bell.”
In one of the biggest stories heading into 2020’s Chili Bowl, neither Larson nor Bell will race for Keith Kunz. The first time neither will contend for a golden driller with Keith in quite some time. It’s a period of reflection for two of open wheel’s greatest, who helped shape and develop not only Keith Kunz Motorsports, but Toyota Racing Development.
Kunz and Willoughby have drastically adjusted their Chili Bowl lineup for 2020 hiring the driving services of Zeb Wise, BC39 winner, Buddy Kofoid a young standout sprint car driver, another Oklahoma shoe in Cannon McIntosh. Tom Harris a popular New Zealand racer has come aboard along with Presley Truedson a great micro sprint racer. The team has returned only three, Chili Bowl champion Rico Abreu, Tucker Klaasmyer and Holley Hollan.
“It’s still all about performance, you have to get results, there are only so many spots at the top, and you can’t be good you have to be great.” Kunz said.
As for the team’s relationship with Toyota, it continues. After all, it was Toyota who believed in Kunz and Willoughby which have directly resulted in their success in midget racing. Toyota has also branched out to help fund Tucker Boat Motorsports based in Mooresville, North Carolina – the team Christopher Bell will drive for next week. They will also help power many other teams at the Expo Center.
“It’s pretty cool to be a part of all that, and see it from the beginning.” Kunz said
Despite not being able to win with Larson or Bell next week Kunz is still proud of what they accomplished together.
“The two of them are better than anyone, but when they race together, they raise each other’s level,” he said. “I’m a fan of theirs, it’s unbelievable what they are capable of.”