TERRE HAUTE —
The success of any sporting franchise often rests with the ability of owners to find and mold talent into a winning combination.
In the stick and ball sports, that can come from drafts or potential trades. In motorsports, the situation is probably more direct and less complicated.
As a car owner one is constantly on the look for new talent. When the opportunity to garner available talent appears you waste little time in making your ride available.
It’s the path Pete Willoughby and Keith Kunz have followed over the years and probably no two car owners have enjoyed more success in USAC racing in recent years than the Columbus combination.
The list of drivers that the pair have fielded winning rides for over the years represents a who’s who in open-wheel racing: names like Tony Stewart, Jay Drake, Dave Darland, Steve Kinser, Sammy Swindell and the late Jason Leffler. Most recently, Kyle Larson and Bryan Clauson.
Their latest find, young Chris Bell, only adds to the pair’s lofty reputation, as the newcomer won two features in the last week’s USAC Indiana Midget Week en route to the five-race series title.
The familiar black No. 71 machines of Keith Kunz Racing set the standards, whether it be in the sprints or midgets, for the competition to follow.
Willoughby, the former successful late-model racer, spends the bulk of his time away from the track handling the business side of the racing with Kunz overseeing car prep and race-day setups and strategy. Race day they work their magic in the pits.
Longtime motorsports writer Tim McKinney of the Columbus Republic knows first-hand the everyday operations of the team and offers an insight into their success.
“Pete and Keith have been so successful on the strength of both selection and development of their drivers,” praised McKinney.
“I often refer to Keith as the Karl Kinser [famed World of Outlaws car owner] of midget racing,” says McKinney. “If you give Keith the opportunity to adjust a car during the race he’ll probably beat you. The efforts of Pete and Keith make for a strong combination.”
Opportunity appears to be the key word when describing Kunz and his approach to race day and locating talent. His recent discovery of Bell pretty much follows the successful script.
Moments after taking the checkered flag last week at Lincoln Park Speedway, Kunz revealed how he landed the services of his newest star.
Facing the probability of losing the services of Larson to NASCAR, Kunz and Willoughby were on the lookout for a replacement and the performances of Bell in the PowrI midgets and sprints drew their attention.
“We saw Chris run the wheels off of Kyle one night in a car that wasn’t great and that caught our eye. Then he started running the winged sprint stuff and went to the short-track nationals and almost won the thing. That really caught our eye,” exclaimed Kunz.
“We knew we would have to have a replacement for Kyle because he was going on to do different things. I told Pete, ‘Hey, we’ve got to get this guy [Bell]. We’ve got to give him a shot.’ It’s worked out great for us,” said Kunz.
His formula for locating talent? “I really can’t describe it. You watch them one night and you see that natural talent and desire to win. There’s no secret to the thing. You just know,” he answered.
From the driver’s perspective, Bell says he welcomed the opportunity the run for the team despite the pressures associated with stepping into the highly successful ride.
“Everybody expects Pete and Keith’s [cars] to do good. I just go out there and drive my own race. You know you’re going to do well because the way Keith and Pete prepare their race cars. You expect to win. It’s nice to get my first USAC win with them,” offered the Oklahoma driver .
n Busy weekend — It will indeed be a busy weekend for racing at the Wabash Valley Fairgrounds this Friday and Saturday.
The Action Track will play host the USAC sprints on Friday night for the makeup of the previously postponed Hulman Classic, while Crossroads Dragway has two big days of racing scheduled.
Randy Peters at Crossroads says his 1/8-mile NHRA-sanctioned strip will offer the always popular, very quick Super Quick 32 series. Billed as Crossroads Dragway 500, the show is expected to draw a large field of cars that could reach speeds in excess of 160 miles per hour.
“We started a Fast 33 at the 330 series a few years ago, running at 330 feet or half the distance of the 1/8, which continues to be a popular attraction for the racers and fans. Realizing the community connection to the 500, we feel the time and place is right to introduce the 500 to drag racing,” voiced Peters,
Activities at the dragstrip get under way with Friday Fun Night and Saturday with the gates opening at 9:30 a.m., time trails at 2 p.m. and eliminations at 5.
Joe Buckles can be reached by email at email@example.com.