TULSA, Oklahoma – With more than a dozen cars entered in the 2023 Chili Bowl at SageNet Center, Keith Kunz Motorsports (KKM) is hard to miss.
Even without the sheer numbers, KKM’s presence at the Chili Bowl is renowned. In 2017, Christopher Bell won his first of three consecutive Chili Bowl’s with KKM. That was the sixth win for the organization in the winter classic. Andy Hillenburg won their first in 1994. Bell’s streak, and with it KKM’s, ended last year when he was edged out by Tanner Thorson. They didn’t miss by much, however; Bell finished second.
Bell, along with Kyle Larson, is missing this year in part because of a disagreement about the size of the Chili Bowl purse. But therein lies one of the biggest strengths of this team. KKM had no problem finding a replacement to fill his roster.
In 2023, KKM features some of the biggest names in midget racing and a lot of up-and-coming talent.
“We seem to have the ability to see somebody out there,” team owner Keith Kunz told NBC Sports. “We don’t look from just in our sport; we look outside to other divisions.
“We watch these kids that run sprint cars and such. [We look for] somebody that’s carrying the car. … able to adapt when you get to the racetrack.”
The Chili Bowl is run over the course of six days with a full schedule of action each day. Saturday’s 55-lap feature is seeded by results in the preliminary nights, filling the field at 24 cars. KKM has 15 cars in the pits this year, so it would take extraordinary circumstances to get every driver into Saturday’s A-Main.
“The most pressure is on the prelim nights; getting yourself either locked in, or if not locked in, getting yourself in position for a good spot on Saturday to get transferred in,” Kunz told NBC Sports prior to the alphabet soup that characterizes more than 13 hours of racing on the final day of the six-day show. “You need to finish – really need to finish – to either lock into the A or get locked into a B Main to have a shot.”
Finishing sixth in Monday’s Qualification Night Feature, Gavan Boschele missed advancing directly into Saturday’s 55-lap A-Main. The next night, Kaylee Bryson finished sixth in Tuesday’s feature. But the tone of the week changed dramatically Wednesday as Rico Abreu won a record-tying eighth preliminary night win to guarantee the team will be represented in Saturday’s big show.
KKM locked only one driver in Saturday’s A-Main during qualification nights, but they are well positioned to advance more drivers into the big show. The runs by Bryson (starting eighth in one of two B-Mains) and Boschele (ninth) were strong enough to lock into a last chance race. They are joined by Tanner Carrick (seventh), Ryan Timms (12th), Taylor Reimer (13th) and Kyle Spence (14th). Two other drivers will start in one of the C-Mains, with five attempting to advance from the D and one from the F.
Family is what you make it
Getting this many drivers well-positioned to make the A-Main is not an accident.
The team has created and nurtured an environment that attracts both established drivers and Young Guns. They were instrumental in developing drivers like Bell and Larson. more recently, Michael “Buddy” Kofoid and last year’s Chili Bowl winner Thorson, who raced fulltime with KKM from 2015 through 2017 and continued to have a strong enough relationship to make guest appearances when his schedule permitted.
KKM is the primary team for this rung of Toyota Racing Development’s (TRD) ladder system. It was success in races like the Chili Bowl was instrumental in getting Larson and Bell rides at NASCAR’s highest level and that continues to be a focus of both organizations. Since the beginning of their partnership, KKM has won 269 midget races the beginning of the partnership in 2010. Bryan Clauson won their first race that year with Larson providing many of the victories the following season.
“[The young drivers get] experience,” Kunz said. “Fortunately, with our team, being a high-profile team, we get a lot of eyes on us, whether from manufacturers like Toyota TRD, all the NASCAR drivers have seen where Christopher Bell, Kyle Larson, Tony Stewart, Kasey Kane, all these guys came from this sport. It is so many people that have come from here that are through to another thing.
“They depend on our experience. When we go to the track, we talk them. We watch films from previous races; tell them what has changed, help them realize things when we rewatch their races so they know how to make moves when they get out there.”
Veterans know their reputation will not suffer from inferior equipment. That keeps drivers like Rico Abreu and Bell returning.
“Other people recognize where we are on motorsports. We’re also a safe place for someone like Rico or Christopher to come to and know that they’re going to be able to run well.
“They’re able to step right in here and get up to speed a lot quicker than if they are running their own car,” Kunz continued. “It might take them a couple years where we’re used to going and traveling all over the country and racing light that night.”
Families are large. Sometimes the kids move away and that fits into the philosophy of the team as well.
“We’re kind of like college for these kids. They come here to develop a certain set of skills.
“We’ve been very fortunate that some of the drivers we brought on makes us proud. When someone like Buddy [Kofoid] this year is going be moving on and doing more, we did our job. And that’s one reason they come.”
The 2022 season was a breakout year for Kofoid. He won some of the biggest midget races with the BC39 Driven to Save Lives, in honor of Clauson, at Indianapolis Motor Speedway dirt track and a Hangtown 100 victory. That success has helped pave the way to the next step on the ladder and Kofoid is already experience success in sprint cars. He won the inaugural High Limit Sprint Car Series race at Putnamville, Indiana’s Lincoln Park Speedway in August. He made 13 starts in the World of Outlaws Sprint Car Series in 2022 and won his first race there in his fifth start.
Cannon McIntosh took his success home to the family team this year, and immediately found success with a win in Monday night’s qualification feature.