Keith Kunz Motorsports developing a strong 2023 Chili Bowl run

Keith Kunz Chili Bowl
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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.

Keith Kunz Chili Bowl
With 15 entries, Keith Kunz Motorsports is hard to miss in the Chili Bowl pits. – Dan Beaver

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.

Roger Penske, Chip Ganassi bring their storied rivalry to a new level at Rolex 24

Ganassi Penske Rolex 24
Chris Owens/Penske Entertainment

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – To measure the impact of Roger Penske and Chip Ganassi squaring off for the first time in overall sports car wins (starting at the Rolex 24), look at the auto racing titans’ lineups.

There are 12 combined drivers across four entries representing Chip Ganassi Racing (competing as Cadillac Racing) and Team Penske (as Porsche Penske Motorsport) in the 61st Rolex 24 at Daytona.

And with the possible exception of six-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon, none of those behind the wheel is as famous and accomplished as the U.S. motorsports icons who will be sitting atop the pit stands at Daytona International Speedway.

In the NTT IndyCar Series, Penske and Ganassi are synonymous with success, having combined for 23 Indy 500 victories and 30 championships. They also competed in the NASCAR Cup Series for two decades with several signature wins for each.

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Until now, the rivalry never extended to the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, where they competed in different classes from 2018-19 and have competed in the top category in differing times over the years.

But the 2023 season opener at Daytona will mark the beginning of a new era in which Ganassi and Penske will compete for sports car overall victories on two continents. A Ganassi Cadillac Racing V-LMDh and Porsche Penske Motorsports Penske 963 will run full time in both the premier prototype divisions of IMSA and the European-based World Endurance Championship – whose crown jewel is the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Having two of the world’s biggest sports car races welcome the Ganassi-Penske battle seems only fitting in a season in which IMSA’s new Grand Touring Prototype (GTP) class is expected to introduce a stiffer level of competition.

“We obviously like beating each other,” Ganassi told NBC Sports. “I think if you beat Penske, you know you’ve beaten someone. You’ve accomplished something great. It’s going to be the same as always. Just another platform at another track, but the rivalry will be just as heated I’m sure.

“On one hand, he’s always the first guy to call us out for a penalty or something. On the other hand, he’s also the first guy to congratulate me on a win, so I think it’s a healthy rivalry, but we certainly pound each other’s heads into the ground on race day. Monday through Friday it switches to more of a good relationship.”

After starting his career in sports cars, Penske also is looking forward to having a new arena to race Ganassi.

“There is a lot of anticipation and excitement about the Rolex 24 and the upcoming sports car season overall,” Penske said in a statement to NBC Sports statement. “With the new hybrid prototype formula ready to make its debut, and some great competition expected on the track between teams, drivers and manufacturers, there is a lot of momentum building right now. Porsche Penske Motorsport is excited to compete in both the IMSA WeatherTech Championship, as well as the FIA World Endurance Championship, this season and I can’t wait to see the No. 6 and No. 7 Porsche 963s in action at Daytona this weekend. We also look forward to bringing some new rivalries and storylines to the sport.

Roger Penske confers with Chip Ganassi before the 2013 Honda Indy Toronto (Andrew Weber/USA TODAY Sports Images).

“In the new IMSA GTP class, there should be a good competitive balance between Porsche, Cadillac, Acura and BMW. We have seen how the rivalry between Team Penske and Ganassi Racing has developed in the NTT IndyCar Series in recent years, and that could certainly extend to sports cars as our teams and drivers continue to develop the new formula and push the production on track in both IMSA and WEC. We will see how the competition plays out, starting this weekend, as we always enjoy racing against Chip and his teams.”

Though there have been some fiery moments over the years (Dario Franchitti vs. Will Power, anyone?), Ganassi vs. Penske mostly has been a story of respect between two organizations whose main strengths are people.

“It’s just the depth of the organizations going up against each other,” Ganassi said. “It’s not just he and I. It’s at every level of the organization.

“We’re smaller. I’d like to think we’re a little more nimble. This is all I do is race cars. I don’t have 200 car dealerships or a truck rental company or a transportation company. I just have racing is all I have.”

Heading into Saturday’s Rolex 24 at Daytona, here are the thoughts of Ganassi and Penske drivers in the Rolex 24 at Daytona:

Earl Bamber, No. 02 Ganassi Cadillac: “When I grew up as a kid, I remember watching Chip Ganassi Racing and Penske battle each other for many years, obviously following Scott Dixon and his career in IndyCar (Bamber is a New Zealand native like Dixon). And when the opportunity came up to come and race for Chip, it’s a no-brainer. It’s one of those teams you want to drive for in the world. It’s one of the biggest and most successful teams in the world. And then we’ve got Porsche, where I used to drive, with Penske. It’s going to be a phenomenal rivalry over the next couple of years and that rivalry continues between two absolute legends of our sport. Two people who have been the most successful. I hope we can get Cadillac and Chip their first Le Mans win. That’s obviously the ultimate goal for us and beat his old rival, Roger.

“Those two powerhouses of the sport, they definitely raise the bar. You’ve seen it in IndyCar for years and years. One finds something and the next pushes it forward and forward. You’ll see the same in sports car racing. We all saw what Chip Ganassi Racing did back in the day with the GT program. So no doubt we can do the same again. It’s the ultimate highest level of motorsport when it comes to sports car racing, and there’ll be no stone unturned to make sure that we’re winning these races. It will be a really great fight, great for the fans and great for the sport, because both of them love winning.”

Dane Cameron, No. 6 Porsche Penske: “I think anytime you have Chip and Roger come to town to start fighting for wins, it raises the profile of the whole thing. Hopefully it brings a few more eyes to everything. Certainly brings a lot of expectation with it as well, and I also think it reflects really strongly on the championship to show how competitive it is. They respect the championship and challenge, but when they come to town, they come to win for sure.”

Scott Dixon, No. 01 Ganassi Cadillac: “The battle between Chip Ganassi Racing and Penske is always a fierce one. I obviously know it well from the IndyCar side. But I think it’s a lot more than that. It’s impressive to see a lot of the manufacturers that have come in for this battle. I imagine if it’s not from the first race but during the season that Penske and Ganassi will fight it out pretty hard.

“I think the rivalry between Chip Ganassi racing and Penske has always been strong and in a good way. There’s been some battles and the 2010s for me and other drivers when it gets fierce. Some disagreements here and there. But it’s always been a great pure battle, which is what I think these championships are made of and what brings the fans to the track. So I’d sum it up as a very healthy rivalry.”

Alex Lynn, No. 02 Ganassi Cadillac: “Even as a little boy (growing up in England), you knew exactly who Roger Penske and Chip Ganassi were. You knew what their teams represented. For me to represent Chip and his team is a huge honor. I’m extremely motivated to try to add to his legacy and be part of the fabric of this team. I think having the battle between Penske and Ganassi is iconic. Also Porsche and Cadillac as brands, respectively, just adds to the occasion. Makes me smile even thinking about it knowing what we get to represent when the flag drops.”

Felipe Nasr, No. 7 Porsche Penske: “I think it’s fantastic especially because we’re merging the IMSA and WEC Series and giving the opportunity for teams like Penske and Ganassi to fight for overall victories. You look at the history of those teams, they’ve been on top. We always hear it from the IndyCar guys or the NASCAR side, you’re talking two big names in motorsports. You expect nothing but them fighting for wins. For sure Ganassi has strengths, and we have strengths as well. I’m pretty glad I have the opportunity to be representing Team Penske and continue to write history with them and Porsche is a great opportunity.”

Richard Westbrook, No. 02 Ganassi Cadillac: “The chance for the two most famous teams in America to go head to head in the Daytona 24 Hours and also the Le Mans 24 Hours. I expect that rivalry to keep going up more notches.”

Renger van der Zande, No. 01 Ganassi Cadillac: “Obviously, it’s such the big houses of racing in the U.S. Penske and Ganassi are taking it at each other. The rivalry is big. The best of the best. The most famous ones in the U.S.

“Ganassi is part of Cadillac. We’re the race team that runs the factory program for Cadillac. Penske is running it for Porsche, obviously a high brand as well. Those teams have their little rivalry, but they’re working for a bigger company, a bigger brand, which is Cadillac and Porsche. So those two premium brands taking on each other and then two of the best teams in America taking on each other. It’s very simple: Cadillac got the best team in the U.S. and Porsche got the best team in the U.S. So let’s see what happens. It’s going to be a cool fight.”