By Jordan Delucia
CONCORD, NC (Dec. 21, 2023) – Seventeen national Midget series championship trophies line the showroom of the Keith Kunz Motorsports (KKM) shop. But the 2023 Xtreme Outlaw Midget Series presented by Toyota trophy may be one of the most unique in the collection.
The three-foot-high display is much more than another centerpiece greeting visitors in the lobby of the Columbus, IN facility. It’s a symbol of the unprecedented feat in motorsports history achieved in 2023 under American open-wheel dirt racing’s most decorated team owners – Keith Kunz and Pete Willoughby.
Their hand-picked driver – 17-year-old Jade Avedisian from Clovis, CA – is the first female in motorsports history to win a national dirt racing series championship.
And that accolade isn’t lost on them.
“It’s pretty rewarding because we’ve been trying so long to get a girl to that level that is right up there with the best of them,” Kunz said. “Two or three years ago seeing Jade come up through, we knew that she was probably going to be that one exception that was gonna take it to the next level. And, of course, she has.”
In KKM’s 30 years of operation, it’s fielded cars for several female talents, dating back to the early 2000s when Sarah McCune raced alongside multi-time champion and present-day KKM team member Jay Drake. More recently, the team has seen success with former full-timers Holly Shelton and Kaylee Bryson in the seat, but Midget racing had yet to meet its first female breakthrough star.
Enter 15-year-old Avedisian, who sprung onto the national Midget scene for her first full campaign in 2022 after several years in the Micro Sprint ranks. She won two Xtreme Outlaw Series races that year for car owner Chad Boat before signing with KKM in February.
Endorsed by Toyota Racing, Avedisian was given a primary goal of winning the 2023 Series championship with KKM and did so on the back of five Feature wins, 16 top-fives and 26 top-10s in 29 races. Her efforts captivated the attention of the entire open-wheel racing world, and even some of the country’s most high-profile names in motorsports.
“Jade has been, I would say, one of the first [women] to [contend for wins] on a week-in and week-out basis,” said Christopher Bell, current NASCAR Cup Series star and former KKM graduate. “I think that she’s just going to continue to improve as she matures and learns how to harness that speed and know when is important to be pushing and when’s not important to be pushing. She’s done a great job and is certainly different than the girls we’ve seen in the past.”
Bell captured the 2013 USAC National Midget Series championship during his three-year tenure at KKM before ascending into the NASCAR ranks. He, like another of his fellow KKM graduates, drew some comparisons to Avedisian and her full-throttle, race-all-out, driving style.
“She definitely became more patient as the year went,” said Willoughby, who was a frequent team presence around the track in 2023. “I think when we got Jade, she was racing at 102 percent every lap.
“In that respect, she’s a lot like Kyle Larson. He was going for a new track record every lap he ran.”
Her breakneck tendencies and love for the top lane at any racetrack did get her into trouble a few times throughout the year – most notably her two-flip incident during the Feature at Clyde Martin Memorial Speedway in August.
“She’s able to shake those off and get right back on the horse and go again; it doesn’t slow her down, and that’s the big thing,” Kunz said. “It’s easier to reign them in; it’s harder to get them to do that.”
However, building discipline inside the racecar was a focal point of Avedisian’s training in her first season with the team.
“We’ve kind of got her to back down, where she was running 110 percent every lap, and that’s just the natural racer,” Kunz said. “We’ve got her to back that down to make her understand that you’ve only gotta run 90 percent, and then turn it up when you’ve got to.
“In racing for a championship, also just making sure that you finish races. If you can win the race, that’s great. But you’ve gotta take your seconds, thirds, fourths, and accumulate points. You have to be there at the end of the race. I think she learned that more and more as the year went on.”
Avedisian was paired with top KKM crew chief Jarrett Martin at the beginning of the season, and the two began work on her skills immediately. Kunz said her willingness to learn from the team’s mentorship was key in her development as a driver throughout the year.
“She’s kind of a student of it,” Kunz said. “She wants to know what she did. She’s always wanting advice; she’s always watching videos to learn from what’s going on. And that’s good huge with the ones we always see coming up that are really good – they’re always trying to watch the videos.”
“She’s not one that comes in, gets out of the car and goes away. She’s constantly wanting to learn and figure out how to do something better.”
Since their partnership was forged in the late 1990s, Kunz and Willoughby have seen some of the sport’s brightest stars come through their program and be a student to their mentorship. They’ve broken numerous records and made several historic moments in Midget, Champ Car and Non-Wing Sprint Car racing, and their alumni know best – that success didn’t fall from the sky.
“I think they’ve just hit the perfect chemistry,” Bell said. “It takes multiple people to do it, and the way Keith and Pete have set up their system with Keith managing the car side of things and Pete managing the business side of things, they’re able to stay in their own lane and really get along well for a really long period of time now. You don’t see that in most teams.”
Avedisian recently took the next step for her career, signing a multi-year agreement with Toyota Racing to continue her progress in the Toyota Driver Development program. She’ll take on a variety of national Midget series events in 2024 for KKM while also dipping into road course racing, piloting the Toyota GR86 for Nitro Motorsports on the entire Toyota GR Cup schedule.
For Kunz and Willoughby, Avedisian will also hold a special spot in the team’s history. And the three-foot tall Xtreme Outlaw Midget Series championship trophy in their lobby will forever be a reminder of that.
“I’m like Toyota – I believe in her, and I think she will be the best female we’ve had yet,” Willoughby said. “When she’s out there racing, I don’t think of her as a girl. She’s just one of the guys.”