Kingmaker: Keith Kunz finds recipe for enduring success in midget racing

Kingmaker: Keith Kunz finds recipe for enduring success in midget racing
Reid Spencer

VENTURA, Calif.--Perhaps it’s fitting to call Keith Kunz a kingmaker.

The winningest team owner in USAC midgets has enabled dreams to come true for many aspiring race car drivers. In 2022, Kunz scored a 12th national title—his second with Buddy Kofoid.

The 20-year-old from Penngrove, California, continues to rack up wins under the Keith Kunz Motorsports banner. On Tuesday night at Merced Speedway, Kofoid finished second to wrap up the Midget Championship. The following night, he picked up his 13th victory of the season—the first driver in more than three decades to score double-digit wins.

Kofoid and KKM’s success isn’t lost on David Wilson, president of TRD, USA.

“Congratulations to Buddy Kofoid on his second consecutive USAC national championship,” Wilson said. “At just 20 years of age, Buddy joins an elite company of back-to-back champions, including the likes of Bryan Clausen, Dave Darland and Jason Leffler, to name just a few.  For Team Toyota, Buddy becomes our first multi-time USAC champion and our ninth USAC champion in the last 10 years. 

“Of course, none of this would be possible without the likes of Keith Kunz, Pete Willoughby, and Keith Kunz Motorsports.  Sweeping the USAC and POWRi titles for the second consecutive year underscores just how special the entire KKM organization is and how much Toyota and TRD value this truly special partnership.”

Since Toyota joined forces with KKM, the Columbus, Indiana-based operation has become a powerhouse of young talent. Over the past decade, the KKM stable has produced superstars such as 2021 NASCAR Cup champion Kyle Larson and Christopher Bell, who advanced to this year’s Championship 4 Round. Bell, Rico Abreu and Tanner Thorson all won midget titles with Kunz prior to advancing to the stock car ranks.

Kofoid is the most recent KKM driver to test the NASCAR waters. He campaigned in a Kyle Busch Motorsports Tundra in the two Camping World Truck Series races on dirt in 2022. Kofoid had a shot at a podium finish at Bristol before he spun with 10 laps remaining.

Still, the talent Kofoid possesses is undeniable—and not lost on Kunz.

“He comes from that same mold as Kyle, Christopher and Rico,” Kunz said. “They come up running Sprint cars at a really young age and then we are able to spot that and pick them out just before greatness. Right before they got there—but they were really, really good. Then we were able to take them midget racing and after a couple of years…

“During this couple years that he's been with us, he's been out running sprint cars. He's won a World of Outlaws race. He's out in Pennsylvania, running winged-sprint cars. And he's gotten to go do some stock car stuff and a little bit of NASCAR stuff. When the guys go do all that and they come back to the midget, the midget just gets easier and easier for him.”

The reward Kunz receives from watching his drivers obtain their goals is immeasurable. There’s a sense of pride after knowing the time and effort invested on both sides of the process for a racer to reach the big leagues.

The perseverance that Bell displayed throughout the season, particularly in the Playoffs when he won the final races of the second and third rounds to advance, distinguished the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing team among the title contenders. Kunz realized Bell’s potential early on.

“The great ones, you just never count out,” Kunz said. “It just naturally happens for them. You look back when Tony Stewart won the (NASCAR Cup) championship. He really wasn't that good all year and then won five of the Playoff races. That's where those guys shine and that’s why they are where they are.

“Just to be able to keep winning the races when (Bell) had to, he was good. They had good race cars, they were fast all the way through. Just had some bad luck there in a couple of races which really got him behind. But just a great team to put him in the position, and then he would get it done.

“We're just really proud of what he's been able to do. The position that Toyota has put him in over the years and opportunities that they've given him, he's taken advantage of and proved his worth all the way along.”

KKM scored a record 134th USAC National Midget victory when Tanner Carrick won a Hangtown 100 prelim at Placerville Speedway on Nov. 17, topping the previous mark set by team owner Steve Lewis. Kofoid won the next two nights at Placerville—and again on Tuesday night at Merced to bring the total up to 137.

There will be plenty of KKM candidates hoping to add their names to the win list in the upcoming years. Kunz has high hopes for Gavan Boschele, Gavin Miller and Ryan Timms. But without the support of solid partners, especially Toyota Racing, cultivating young talent would be nearly impossible.

“We've been lucky,” Kunz said. “We've been with Toyota since 2009. They have given us the tools to work with—anything we've asked for, they’ve helped us. They have supplied it or helped us figure it out. When you have that kind of support, it enables you to attract good drivers. When we seek somebody out to come drive for us—and we feel like they're really talented—this is a great place for them to come because of the opportunities.

“It still comes down to performance. They have to perform. If they have the performance, when you have eyes on you, it’s hard to ignore it. So things can happen for you. But bottom line is, when you get these opportunities, you have to get the job done.”

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