TULSA, Oklahoma – With more than a dozen cars competing in the 2023 Chili Bowl at the SageNet Center, Keith Kunz Motorsports (KKM) couldn’t miss it.
Even without absolute numbers, KKM’s presence at the Chili Bowl is well known. In 2017, Bell won the first of his three Chili Bowls at KKM. It was the organization’s sixth win at the Winter Classic. Andy Hillenburg won their first title in 1994. Bell’s winning streak, as well as KKM’s, ended last year when Tanner Thorson knocked him out. They didn’t miss much, however; Bell finished second.
Bell and Kyle Larson disappeared this year, in part because of a disagreement over the size of the Chili Bowl purse. But that’s one of the biggest strengths of this team. KKM had no trouble finding a replacement to fill out his roster.
For 2023, KKM has brought together some of the biggest names in small racing and a lot of up-and-coming talent.
“We seem to have the ability to see someone out there,” team owner Keith Kunz told NBC Sports. “We don’t just look at our sport; we look at other sectors.
“We watch these kids drive sprint cars and stuff. [We look for] The man who carried the car. …to be able to adapt when you get to the track. “
The Chili Bowl runs for six days, with a full schedule of events for each day. Saturday’s 55-lap race was seeded based on the results of the preliminary evening, with 24 cars in the field. KKM has 15 cars pitted this year, so getting every driver into Saturday’s A-Main requires very special circumstances.
“The most stressful thing is preliminaries night; getting yourself either locked in, or if you’re not locked out, getting yourself a good spot to turn in on Saturday,” Kunz told NBC Sports ahead of Alphabet Soup, the final day of over 13. The hour-long competition features a six-day exhibition. “You need to get done – really need to get done – either lock A or lock B Main to shoot.”
Gavan Boschele finished sixth in Monday’s qualifying night special and failed to make it straight into Saturday’s 55-lap A-Main. The following night, Kaylee Bryson finished sixth in Tuesday’s special. But the tone of the week changed dramatically on Wednesday, as Rico Abreu claimed a record eighth preliminary night victory to ensure the team would be in for Saturday’s big show.
KKM only locked up one driver for Saturday’s A-Main qualifying night, but they are ready to have more drivers for the big races. Bryson (eighth in one of the two B-Mains) and Boschele (ninth) made enough runs to seal the last-chance game. They were joined by Tanner Carrick (No. 7), Ryan Timms (No. 12), Taylor Reimer (No. 13) and Kyle Spence (No. 14). Two other drivers will start on one of the C-Mains, five of them attempting to progress from D and one from F.
family is what you make it
It’s no accident that so many riders are in a good position to make A-Main.
The team has created and fostered an environment that attracts both established and young riders. They have been instrumental in developing riders such as Michael “Buddy” Kofoid and last year’s Chili Bowl winner Thorson, who raced with KKM from 2015 to 2017 and cameoed thereafter.
KKM is the main team on this rung of the Toyota Racing Development (TRD) ladder system. Its success at races like the Chili Bowl has been instrumental for Larson and Bell at NASCAR’s highest level.
“[The young drivers get] experience,” Kunz said. “Fortunately for our team, as a high-profile team, we get a lot of attention, whether it’s from manufacturers like Toyota TRD, or all NASCAR drivers see Christopher Bale, Kyle Larson, Tony Stewart, Casey Kane, all these guys from the sport. So many people have come here from here, they’ve accomplished another thing.
“They depend on our experience. We talk to them when we go to the track. We watch movies of previous races; tell them what has changed, help them realize these things when we re-watch their races, That way they know how to act during the game.”
Veterans know their reputation won’t be tarnished by poor quality equipment. That brought back riders like Rico Abreu and Bell.
“Others recognize where we are in motorsport. We’re also a safe place for people like Rico or Christopher to know they’re going to be able to run smoothly.
“Compared to driving their own car, they’re able to get right in here and go faster,” Kunz continued. “They could be years away, we’re used to traveling around the country and racing that night.”
The family size is large. Sometimes the kids move away, which is also in line with the team’s philosophy.
“We’re kind of like a university for these kids. They’re here to develop a specific set of skills.
“We’ve been very lucky and we’ve brought on some drivers that we’re proud of. When someone like Buddy [Kofoid] Going forward and doing more this year, we did our job. That’s one of the reasons they came. “
The 2022 season will be a breakout year for Kofoid. He won some of the biggest mini races on the dirt track at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in the BC39 Driven to Save Lives and took victory in the Hangtown 100. That success paved the way for the next step up the ladder, and Kofoid had already found success in sprint racing. In August, he won the inaugural High Limit Sprint Car Series race at Putnamville, Indiana’s Lincoln Park Raceway. He has 13 starts in the 2022 World of Outlaws Sprint Car Series and won his first race in his fifth.
Cannon McIntosh brought his success back to the home team this year and immediately won Monday night’s qualifier.