The first rule of race club is that you absolutely talk about race club. After all, how else are you supposed to find it?
Indiana Midget Week is one of grassroot racing’s best-kept secrets. You’ve got to dig deep to uncover it, but what you find there is truly spectacular.
Driving down Indiana State Road 18, surrounded by endless farmland and the occasional rustic Midwestern whistle-stop, it’s hard to believe you’re looking for a race track that is set to play host to two of the most recognizable race car drivers in the country.
With a capacity of only 3,200, Montpelier Motor Speedway is equally unassuming, a quarter-mile buried in corn fields that could draw comparisons to the Field of Dreams. It was built in 1903 as a horse racing track and converted for motorsports use 12 years later — and indeed they came.
Montpelier served as the Indiana Midget Week opener this summer, an event headlined by national stars Kyle Larson and Rico Abreu. Always looking for any chance to return to his open-wheel dirt roots, Larson flexed his muscles and executed a perfect race by setting fast time, winning his heat and emerging victorious in the night’s 30-lap main event.
But the most remarkable aspect of that Tuesday night was just how non-invasive the fans were towards the two national stars. In any other setting, Larson especially would get mugged by fans clad in No. 42 gear, wanting an autograph or selfie.
At Montpelier, fans literally have no barriers separating them from Larson, nor did the driver need the protection. At home in a dirt track pit area, the 25-year-old isn’t ‘Kyle Larson, Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series contender,’ but is instead ‘our old friend, Kyle.’
“I think fans really enjoy it,” Larson said. “They can go hit a lot of good racing throughout the country every day of the week … I feel like the fans, I mean it doesn’t matter what day of the week it is there, they are going to have a lot of fun and cheer on some good racing. That’s all they care about.”
Indiana Sprint Week is a personal club of grassroots racing aficionados, noted for their respect of the game more so than the star-chasing efforts associated with big-time auto racing. Short track die-hard Dan Margetta made the trip from Wisconsin, to experience a discipline not prevalent in the Badger State.
“Not only did you make new friends but you left feeling like you discovered something special,” Margetta said. A place no one really knows. The USAC guys are racers too. It was neat to see crews working on their cars in the hotel parking lot only to load up and head down the road to the next event.”
Midget Week itself is a championship within a championship, taking place during the first week of June, in the aftermath of the Indianapolis 500. The series of six races in six days takes place within the second month of the USAC Midget National Championship, but also crowns its own champion by the end of the week.
For the uninitiated, Midgets are the cars most famous for their use in the famous Chili Bowl Nationals held each January. Each track scheduled for Midget Week is within a two-hour centralized radius of Indianapolis and includes Montpelier, I-69 Gas City Speedway, Lincoln Park Speedway, Bloomington Speedway, Lawrenceburg Speedway and Kokomo Speedway – each of them carrying the same Hoosier hospitality and charm.
“Another fun aspect of going to these new tracks is visiting the towns and talking to the local fans at the track,” Margetta said. “I know Bloomington has the IU Hoosiers but if not for the tracks, I would have more than likely never have visited there or Putnamville. The people I talked to seemed genuinely happy we came to visit and were glad to provide some history on the place and what to watch for. It’s a community.”
Current NASCAR Xfinity Series contender Christopher Bell won the week-long championship back in 2013 and says he most looks forward to the one-off entries, which sometimes draws from the dirt trackin’ hot beds of Australia and New Zealand.
“Midget week has a unique atmosphere about it,” Bell said. “The fields are always stacked and that brings out packed grandstands. It’s a fun week because you get a bunch of overseas race fans in town or the occasional driver, and it just creates great competition.”
That same competition has also proven to be an effective scouting platform for NASCAR and IndyCar manufacturers with officials often already in town for the Greatest Spectacle in Racing. In recent years, Toyota has increased its participation, partnering with super team Keith Kunz Motorsports to develop young prospects like Larson, Bell and Abreu.
The Midget is such a level playing field that true driving talent often shines above engineering. And with the younger drivers racing six nights in a row, their skills are at peak sharpness for all interested observers.
It was Jason Leffler that opened the doors for KKM to become a development empire. Kunz’s business partner Pete Willoughby had hired Leffler to race for the team and they won three-consecutive championships together.
It was during that time that he first met Roger Penske and Joe Gibbs Racing, eventually pointed him the direction to become a NASCAR regular. Since then, Kunz and Willoughby have launched the careers of Cole Whitt, Larson, Bell and Bryan Clauson.
Toyota became a team partner and began providing engine support for the team in 2009
“It naturally sort of happened,” Kunz says of the development program aspect. “Once they start moving on, and you see where they go, it kind of starts a reputation. But we never set out to start a development program. We just want to race and win races.”
Keith Kunz Motorsports is also an extended family of sorts.
The Kunz shop in Columbus, Indiana have televisions that are regularly tuned into Larson and Bell’s NASCAR exploits. Kunz and Willoughby view their success as their own in a non-selfish kind of way.
“The most rewarding part is following these kids as they go on to do great things elsewhere,” Willoughby said. “And obviously, these guys come back and race with us all the time at Chili Bowl or Midget Week. We’re a family and that’s important to us.”
One of the newest Toyota prospects, Spencer Bayston, captured top honors in Indiana this year and hopes to follow previous champions Bell, Abreu and Clauson into the national spotlight.
“Besides the Chili Bowl, Indiana Midget Week is our most hyped event of the year,” Bayston said. “Everyone comes head-hunting and you have to be really consistent. You have to go out and win too. So to win the championship, it makes a statement. The competition here is no joke.”
More than anything else, the racing product on display during Indiana Midget Week has a throwback nature to it. While there are a handful of prospects digging their way to the top, many of the drivers are simply there for the love of the game.
The same goes for the fans too — and you would have to be to find some of these tracks.
Matt Weaver – Matt Weaver is an associate motorsports editor at Autoweek. Before becoming a journalist, he was a dirt track racer and short track cheeseburger connoisseur.