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Pair strives to keep building on success

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The annual happening that is the Chili Bowl has comprised the major portion of January for most, if not all, of Keith Kunz’s adult life.

Pete Willoughby hasn’t been wrapped up in it for quite so long.

However, on his route to the big leagues of motorsports, he developed an extensive set of talents that are always needed and seldom present in a racing business. It seemed like destiny that the two would get together to run a racing business.

Kunz grew up in a racing family, specifically a midget racing family. He knew the mechanics of a midget from one end to the other, and that served him well as a manager and mechanic. Any gaps that experience left in his education were filled by Keith’s elder brother, Rusty.

However, more importantly, he knew drivers. And most of the drivers knew and respected him.

When Willoughby made a trip to California in 1997 to hire Kunz as his manager and mechanic, Kunz was managing John Lawson’s midget team. Anyone who knew Lawson would have to assume that Kunz was ripe for the picking.

From that point, Willoughby and Kunz have built a racing team and shop that is almost certainly the envy of midget racing as Kunz eventually became Willoughby’s partner. I have often commented on the insanity of midget racing. However, this only makes their accomplishment all the more impressive.

Their success makes a ride in one of their midgets one of the most sought-after gigs in any national series. To understand the importance, you only need look at their graduates, including Jay Drake, Jason Leffler, Bryan Clauson and Kyle Larson. Consequently, a trip to the Chili Bowl generally winds up being a recruiting trip as well.

Last year’s primary driver, Rico Abreu, likely will return. Abreu was shorter on experience when he joined the team last January, but they were impressed by his natural ability and were satisfied with the progress he made last season. He finished the 2012 season seventh in USAC National Midget points. For a rookie to finish that well in a series that rich in talent and funding represents a very strong performance.

The owners’ hot prospect for 2013 is Christopher Bell, an 18-year-old Norman, Okla., native. Bell first became widely known when he won the 66 Mike Phillips Memorial micro sprint car race in Marion, Ill. In addition, he finished second to Paul McMahn in the 2012 American Sprint Car Series sanctioned Short Track Nationals.

While Pete and Keith will have first dibs on Bell’s time, he plans to attempt to pick up some 410-cubic-inch sprint car rides on off nights.

Belli joins Panther/Dreyer

In 1984, Tino Belli joined March Industries and was Michael Andretti’s aerodynamicist on the Kraco team in 1987. He has continued to hold positions of increasing responsibility throughout all of open wheel racing.

This past week, Panther Racing and Dreyer & Reinbold Racing announced that they had hired Belli to head the teams’ engineering departments and the collaboration between race engineers David Cripps (J.R. Hildebrand) and Panther DRR Jeff Britton (Oriol Servia), as both drivers look to make improvements in the championship standings during the 2013 season.

Belli said, “I’m very much excited about the opportunity to work with Panther Racing and Dreyer & Reinbold Racing. I have to thank John Barnes, Dennis Reinbold and Robbie Buhl for giving me the opportunity, as both teams have very strong programs in place; and I believe collectively we can accomplish some great things together. J.R. and Oriol make up a strong driver lineup; and I look forward to getting started with the both of them and the rest of the team right away.”

John Barnes of Panther Racing commented, “For Panther to sign one of the top three guys in the world at his profession is a huge compliment for all of us. Tino has been a close friend of mine since the mid-1980s, and our relationship goes way back. The whole reason he’s here is to help our two teams work together, and from the start of this search he’s been our top choice.

“Last year we started our collaboration with Dreyer & Reinbold Racing in the middle of the season, and we had two separate engineering teams working on their own pathways; and this is what we needed to maximize our relationship.

“Tino’s been successful doing this with so many other teams and in so many other opportunities that we realize how positive this move will be for both our teams, drivers and partners.”

Tim McKinney is an auto racing columnist for The Republic. He can be reached at 379-5632.

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