With 10 racers on the Keith Kunz Motorsports Chili Bowl Nationals roster, there’s only one way for a driver to stand out from the masses—win.
And no other organization has won as often as KKM. Since 1987, team owner Keith Kunz has won eight golden drillers, including five of the last six Chili Bowls.
Once again, the KKM stable is loaded. While defending winner Kyle Larson left the nest last year—along with three-time Chili Bowl victor Christopher Bell—some of the best prospects in racing remain under the Kunz banner—and Kaylee Bryson is one of them.
“Keith Kunz Motorsports and everyone at Toyota has done a great job with their development program,” Bryson said. “The drivers get everything they need to excel. The cars are set up ideally, and every driver has an equal shot to prove what they can do.
“At the end of the day, it’s a lot of fun because it feels like one big family. We’re all friends, and it’s a lot of fun to be racing with these guys.”
The 19-year-old from nearby Muskogee will wheel the No. 71 JBL midget this week at Tulsa Expo Raceway—her third appearance in the prestigious event. Bryson was impressed with the condition of the quarter-mile oval inside of the Tulsa Expo Center after running the Shootout.
Coming off of a solid performance in there earlier this month, where she won a heat race and two C-Mains, Bryson can’t wait to get back on track.
“It was a pretty good Shootout,” Bryson said. “We brought some brand new cars, and (initially) they weren’t quite set up perfectly at our heat races—so it kind of buried us in a hole.
“But we got a lot of recognition for how hard we were driving. A lot of people noticed it. I think that helped get us ready for Chili Bowl.”
Bryson has been preparing for the Chili Bowl since she was nine years old. The Super Bowl of Midgets is now in its 35th running and holds a special place in the heart of Sooner State racers.
After finding success in go-karts, Bryson advanced to micros. At 13, she became just the seventh female to win a Golden Driller in the 2015 Tulsa Shootout. She credits Port City Raceway’s stout competition with preparing her to graduate to the national ranks.
“A lot of us—including my Keith Kunz teammates— grew up at Port City Raceway,” Bryson said. “I think it produces a lot of awesome drivers. In Oklahoma, everybody went there. There was always a high level of competition. It wasn't like you were going there to hang out and didn’t know what you were doing. Everybody knew what they were doing.
“It was a big competition from the start and I think it plays a big part in a lot of the success of drivers coming out of there.”
Under the Toyota Racing Development banner at KKM, Bryson entered her freshman season in a USAC midget in 2020. Teammate Buddy Kofoid won rookie honors but Bryson turned heads by advancing to the feature in 22 of 23 events and finishing 11th in the standings.
Bryson’s season-best performance landed her on the podium at Caney Valley (Kan.) with winner Tyler Courtney and series champion Chris Windom. With her result, Bryson became just the seventh female to record a top-five finish in a National USAC Midget feature in the series 65-year history. After topping time trials at Sweet Springs (Mo.) Motorsports Complex in Sept., Bryson became the fifth female to win a USAC midget pole.
Despite her accomplishments, Bryson still fights the stereotypical concerns of being aggressive enough or falling out of the seat as the race goes on. For Bryson, it’s important to be successful not just as a female racer but as a competitor in general.
“Throughout the season, I competed with a lot of drivers and some of them didn’t take me seriously to begin with,” Bryson said. “They thought they could drive me dirty and rough me up. I think that’s one of the challenges I had to face. Being a girl, you had to stand your ground and show that you weren’t there to mess around and prove that you’re here to stay.
“I think where I’ve improved the most would definitely be staying consistent in racing. I think I’ve been more on top of my game. The more I’m racing the better I’m getting, and that’s making me a better driver and being able to compete in a serious manner.”
Bryson is learning not to give the competition an inch—which should serve her well as Toyota still searches for a female to hang their helmet on in the NASCAR ranks. While plenty of women have infiltrated the NHRA ranks, finding a female to succeed in stock cars has been a chore.
On December 10, Bryson participated in a Late Model test at Hickory (N.C) Motor Speedway followed by time in the Toyota simulator.
“It was pretty awesome,” Bryson said. “Hopefully, we’ll see more of that in my future.
“All that matters to me right now is racing. I don’t have any desire to follow any other path. This is like going to college for me and I’m putting everything into it.”
For now, Bryson is focused on a successful run in the Chili Bowl.
“Obviously, every driver will tell you their goal for Chili Bowl is to win—and that would be awesome,” Bryson said. “I race Thursday, and it would be awesome to win Thursday. That would be super-cool. But my biggest goal is making the A-Main Saturday night.”