Keith Kunz as Motivated as Ever to Mold Champions

The legendary USAC championship owner relishes his role as a development program.


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Arms crossed atop a hauler, wearing jeans and a t-shirt, the entire package looking like the front man from ZZ Top, this is actually one of the top driver development coaches in North American motorsports. You see, the path to winning championships across multiple disciplines frequently runs through Keith Kunz.

Keith Kunz Motorsports has operated in various forms since 1994, but really began to emerge as a powerhouse when it joined forces with Pete Willoughby Racing in 1997, and they haven’t stopped winning since.

"Pete is the business end of our team, and I'm the mechanical end," and the combined package is starting to make history.

Keith Kunz Motorsports broke a significant USAC Midget record last season and will seemingly own another by the end of this year. Buddy Kofoid delivered the 11th championship in team history -- snapping a record Kunz shared with Steve Lewis.

Kofoid also won the 125th victory in Keith Kunz Motorsports on Friday night at Bloomington, leaving the powerhouse eight behind what Lewis accumulated from 1979-2008.

A large number of those victories have come over the past decade since it aligned with Toyota Racing Development. During that time, Kunz and Willoughby have largely operated as a driver development program. Toyota Racing Development president and general manager David Wilson believes the best way to develop NASCAR drivers runs through a Dirt Midget.

Toyota lost a young Kyle Larson to Chevrolet and Chip Ganassi Racing in 2012 and Toyota tasked Kunz with finding The Next One. Those efforts produced Christopher Bell and both drivers are amongst the best in that discipline as well.

Larson and Bell have combined to win five Chili Bowl Midget Nationals in a row until that streak was snapped by Tanner Thorson in January. And before Thorson raced for Reinbold/Underwood Motorsports, he was a Toyota prospect at Keith Kunz Motorsports, too.

Playing no small part in developing young drivers means more to Kunz than the wins, championships or his eight Chili Bowl championship rings as an owner.

"Seeing Christopher and Kyle out there on Sundays is inspiring to everyone on our team," Kunz said. "I think we all realize, because of those two, there’s a lot of eyes on our team. … More than anything, these young kids drive me. Seeing them progress and get their first wins and everything that comes after it."

Kofoid appears to be the inheritor of that legacy after winning the USAC National Midget championship last season with six wins in 40 starts. He’s opened the 2022 season with three wins across the first six starts, while also contending for wins across Pro Late Models, Sprint Car, Champ Cars and Pro Late Models.

Widely regarded as a top prospect since he began racing Sprints on West Coast at 12-years-old, Kofoid really landed on the national spotlight when he finished third to Bell and Thomas Meseraull on his Prelim Night in the 2020 Chili Bowl.

That alone was enough to make you start paying attention to Kofoid, but Bell really put him on the map.

"When I look at him, I literally, like, see me right here," Bell said during the postrace press conference that night. "I've been watching him for a while now and he's actually got a little bit of a head start on me as far as experience.

"He started in Sprint Car a little earlier than I did. When I started with Keith (Kunz), I was 18, and I sure didn’t finish third in my first Chili Bowl preliminary. I remember telling Keith and Pete that Buddy was the next guy and I'm just so glad Keith and Pete took a chance on Buddy. The sky is the limit."

Since then, Kofoid hasn’t stopped winning.

The praise from Bell went a long way to growing a national reputation and he is grateful for the accolades. Since then, Kofoid has actually raced for Bell in an Outlaw Kart, with the two forging a close bond.

"I wasn't expecting that," Kofoid said. "He was there to compete, just like me, and trying to win … and beat me. To have a good prelim night my first time seeing the place opened up some eyes, but his words gave me a lot of confidence and new fans and I appreciated that so much."

It’s part of the reason Kofoid wants to someday follow Bell and Larson into the NASCAR Cup Series -- to extend the example and legacy they’ve established at KKM. Kofoid wants to win at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Dirt Track with an eye of someday winning races on the road course and historic oval.

"It's really special driving for Keith and Pete," Kofoid said. "They've done a lot for me and they have an incredible operation along with TRD and giving me a chance to drive their cars."

For his part, Kunz believes Kofoid is a generational talent, absolutely comparable to some of the other greats that have driven for his various teams. Typically, drivers start in Outlaw Karts and work their way up to a Midget and Sprint Car. Kofoid was racing Sprints before he was a teenager and driving a Midget has looked second nature from the start. There are times he looks like a prodigy.

"He's capable of being right there with Christopher and Kyle," Kunz said. "He's ventured out on the national stage with the Sprint Car and Stock Car stuff. There's big things coming down the road for him. It comes down to performance and if he keeps doing this, a lot of different things can happen for him."

In addition to Kofoid, the Kunz megateam also include fellow prospects Bryant Wiedeman, the 2021 POWRi champion, Taylor Reimer, Kaylee Bryson and Brenham Crouch. As long as there are no shortage of prospects to help develop into national superstars, Kunz doesn’t plan on sailing into retirement.

With the team based out of Columbus, Ohio, not too far from the shadow of the Indianapolis 500, it’s worth wondering if its architect has ever wanted to follow Jonathan Byrd’s Racing or Clauson Marshall Racing into the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.

"That's probably something I should have done when I was a lot younger," Kunz said. "I'm happy where I'm at. If the opportunity ever presented itself, it's something I wouldn't say no to. The Speedway is special to everyone here and it's just been a huge honor to even race there the past couple of years.

"And really, what Doug (Boles) has given our teams and drivers is the chance to race at the Speedway with the BC39. We have our chance to win Indianapolis and we don’t take that for granted."