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Racing midget cars not easy — or cheap

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Early last week Pete Willoughby and Keith Kunz left Columbus with two haulers, five midgets and enough spare parts to keep them on the track for three USAC National Series midget races.

They were scheduled to run midget programs Friday and Saturday nights at Canyon Speedway in Peoria, Ariz., as well as an open practice Thursday night.

The final race will be the Turkey Night Grad Prix, and it will be run at Perris Auto Speedway at Perris, Calif. The movement of Turkey Night to Perris will take the race back to a dirt track like the tracks where the series’ history was made.

Most midget owners would probably look at you as if you’ve taken leave of your senses if you told them that you intended to run three midgets for three nights and drive across the country to do it.

Midgets are likely the most expensive cars to be run on short tracks across the country. The chassis is expensive because of the material and labor necessary to construct it. However, the real money goes for tires and engines.

The tires used are mostly pretty soft, as the goal seems to be to have them be worn out by the time the checkered flag waves.

The real big dollar item, however, is the engine. They can cost in the neighborhood of $40,000; and they can cost $1,000 or more per race to keep them freshened.

The cost of hiring a good driver is pretty similar to the cost of a driver in most series — 40 to 50 percent of the purse. However, car owners compete for drivers not with the percentage that the driver is paid but with the quality of the ride.

Willoughby and Kunz are respected among the fraternity for their ability to show up at the racetrack with a car that can win. Kunz has been involved in midget racing for most of his adult life. He has long been known as the “Karl Kinser” of midget racing.

Karl still holds most of the records in winged sprint cars. In the event that a red flag halted the action in a sprint-car race, Karl could walk onto the track, pick up a handful of dirt and run it through his fingers. He would then take a couple wrenches from his hip pocket and make some adjustments. His drivers then could be expected to take the checkered flag first. Kunz has been said to have a similar talent with midgets.

Willoughby, on the other hand, brings management skills to the party. Prior to getting into the racing business, Pete had run his family’s trucking business. However, he was also a pretty fair dirt late-model driver, and he had manufactured and campaigned his own go-kart chassis.

Pete buys components, schedules travel and takes care of dozens of other details that insure the success of the race team. Since starting the midget team, Pete has built a mental database of knowledge that has proven helpful in keeping the team up front.

This season the Kunz team is providing a ride for development driver Rico Abreu from California. Rico had little experience when he joined the Kunz team, and the experience that he did have was mostly in winged sprint cars.

However, over the past season, Abreu has proven to have a lot of talent. In the Western Classic last weekend at Canyon Speedway Park, Abreu had a good outing. Among 29 of the best midget drivers in the nation, he was the second-fastest qualifier, finishing third in his heat race and finishing third in the feature. He had an exceptional rookie season.

The primary Kunz driver from last season was Kyle Larson. He had a tremendous 2011 season with Kunz, and he has continued to drive for Kunz when he had room in his schedule. In fact, he would prefer to race every day.

Last weekend he drove to a third-place finish in the NASCAR Camping World Truck race at Phoenix International Raceway. He also won the USAC Western Classic midget race for Willoughby and Kunz.

Their third driver is two-time USAC National Driving Champion, Bryan Clauson. Clauson has a sizable lead in the race for a third driving championship. He finished fifth in the Western Classic driving for Willoughby and Kunz.

Kunz and Willoughby had three of the top-five finishers Saturday night against the best midget teams in the nation. Even though only one of the Kunz teams is a full-time effort, they lead the owners’ points and have all three teams in the top 10. They will wrap up the 2012 season at Perris Auto Speedway at Perris, Calif., with all three drivers in competition.

Tim McKinney is an auto racing columnist for The Republic. He can be reached at 372-3936.

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