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Young racing talent piling up wins

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It may be a little early to be thinking about whether Keith Kunz and Pete Willoughby’s latest prodigy is heading for NASCAR Sprint Cup. But then again, maybe it isn’t.

Christopher Bell is in his second season of racing midgets out of the Kelly Street Shop. Last year he won the USAC midget championship, and he’s the odds on favorite to do it again. Also, it looks like he might win the POWRi championship as well.

I really hadn’t thought too much about it until last week when he dominated the race co-sanctioned by USAC and POWRi. Earlier in the week he won the World of Outlaws winged sprint-car feature at Jacksonville Speedway in Illinois.

He was driving for the Fox Brothers out of Bloomington, and they can twist wrenches with the best of them. However, they had never won a World of Outlaws feature. And, they outran Steve Kinser, Donny Schatz and a track full of other good drivers.

It’s never a surprise when a Keith Kunz Motorsports driver wins. Kunz and Willoughby are amazingly perceptive in evaluating talent. And, any driver interested in winning (Is there any other kind?) would love to drive for them.

In addition to Bell, Rico Abreu and Tanner Thorson are driving midgets for Kunz and Willoughby this season. The three drivers will all finish in the top five most of the time. And, this is against the best midget racers in the land.

When they are selecting a driver, they look beyond a driver’s skill in the cockpit. They look at the driver’s character as well. Their drivers often make their homes with Willoughby or Kunz during the racing season. This gives them a stable environment while they race. Many of them have never lived away from home before, and the last thing that they need is the temptations available to a racing star. The work ethic that they can pick up by living and working with Willoughby and Kunz gives them the kind of example that no amount of preaching could ever provide.

Again, it’s a little early to predict NASCAR stardom for Bell but, in a lot of ways, he is running even better than Kyle Larson did at the same point in his career. Keep an eye on him.

Grand Prix a success

Nobody really knew what to expect from the Grand Prix of Indianapolis. Everybody wanted to regain the magic of “the month of May.” However, qualification procedures that seemed to be designed to keep cars on the track all month really weren’t providing the fan interest necessary to fill the stands for qualifications.

An estimated 40,000 fans found their way into the track at 16th Street and Georgetown Road to witness IRL’s debut appearance on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course. While the crowd seems pretty skimpy for a venue that is said to have 300,000 seats, they had to start somewhere, and this seemed a good way to build on track excitement as a prelude to the Indianapolis 500. In addition, it got some use out of the road course designed and built for the U.S. Grand Prix.

Frenchman Simon Pagenaud started fourth in the Sam Schmidt Motorsports car and used a fuel management strategy to get his first victory at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

It looked as if Helio Castroneves was on track to bring another Indianapolis Motor Speedway win to the Captain (Roger Penske). However, as the race wore on, it appeared that there would not be enough yellow flag laps to allow him stretch his fuel to the end.

Pagenaud, on the other hand, was able to stretch his fuel and still run fast enough to maintain the lead to the checkered flags.

The start of the race turned into a melee when pole-sitter Sebastian Saavedra’s mount failed to start; and he was left setting in the middle of the track until he collected Carlos Munoz. The crash sent chunks of carbon fiber everywhere. One of them struck Mayor Greg Ballard who was waving the green flag to start the race. Fortunately, Ballard was not seriously injured.

Tim McKinney writes a weekly racing column for The Republic. He can be reached at 379-5632.

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