GAS CITY, Ind. — Toyota Racing Development reached, perhaps, its most impressive milestone in grassroots racing at the conclusion of Wednesday’s Indiana Midget Week feature at Gas City I-69 Speedway.
When Kyle Larson raced under the checkered flag, the brand secured its 300th national midget feature victory, continuing a record of excellence dating back to Jan. 22, 2006, when the late Dave Steele won the first midget race for a TRD engine.
Steele’s victory — which kicked off nearly a decade and a half of dominance for Toyota — came during the USAC-sanctioned Copper World Classic at Phoenix Raceway. He was driving for Steve Lewis’ Nine Racing team at the time.
Steele set fast time and took the lead from Bobby East on lap 14 of the 25-lap feature at the one-mile paved oval, going on to victory over Michael Lewis, Jay Drake and Cole Carter.
As it turned out, that triumph was only the beginning.
Once TRD found a new partner in Keith Kunz/Curb-Agajanian Motorsports to orchestrate the brand’s driver-development program, trophies started coming en masse.
KKM aligned with Toyota in 2009, and it took only four years for the two sides to develop a regular winning relationship that continues today.
In fact, the team helped Toyota earn three of its milestone victories, starting with Christopher Bell picking up the 50th midget victory by a Toyota engine on June 14, 2013 — appropriately during Indiana Midget Week at Lincoln Park Speedway in Putnamville, Ind. It was also Bell’s first USAC victory.
Win No. 100 came courtesy of Larson on a preliminary night during the 2015 Lucas Oil Chili Bowl Nationals and it took a little less than three years for the next century of victories to follow.
Brady Bacon, driving for the late Frank Manafort, earned the 200th win for Toyota’s engine program during the 2017 November Classic at Bakersfield (Calif.) Speedway — the first milestone victory for a team other than KKM since Steele’s Phoenix triumph 11 years earlier.
The trend returned to the KKM stable in March of 2019, however, when Logan Seavey picked up Toyota’s 250th midget win as an engine manufacturer at I-44 Riverside Speedway in Oklahoma.
That win was part of a single-season record 12 Lucas Oil POWRi National Midget Leauge scores for Seavey, who remains one of the more-successful drivers in Toyota’s midget racing history.
Wednesday night, the 300th win for a Toyota midget engine was secured in dominant fashion by Larson, who came from 14th to pass Tyler Courtney on lap 18 of the 30-lap feature at the quarter-mile Gas City track.
It was Larson’s 29th victory carrying a Toyota power plant, second only to Bell’s 56 victories with the brand.
Wednesday’s race also marked the first time Tucker/Boat Motorsports earned a milestone victory for the Toyota engine program.
In all, Toyota has won with 25 drivers at 70 tracks across the United States since dipping its name into the midget waters 14 years ago.
Among the list of winners with Toyota power are legends and young guns alike, including Bell, Larson, Rico Abreu, Tanner Thorson, Seavey, Zach Daum, Spencer Bayston, Tracy Hines, Chad Boat, Kevin Thomas Jr., Tucker Klaasmeyer, Brady Bacon, Tyler Thomas, Steele, Tanner Carrick, Michael Pickens, Cannon McIntosh, Bryan Clauson, Jerry Coons Jr., Carson Macedo, Dave Darland, Austin Brown, Caleb Armstrong, Buddy Kofoid, Jason McDougal, Jesse Colwell, Josh Wise, Jerry Coons Jr., Ryan Robinson, Thomas Meseraull, Gio Scelzi, Chris Windom, Justin Peck, Kody Swanson and Bobby Santos III.
It’s a group that is star-studded from top to bottom, with many that have gone on to success in higher forms of racing after starting their careers in — or at least passing through — the Toyota pipeline.
That said, TRD President David Wilson is more proud of the people who have passed through the program than the victories.
“It floored me when I realized we were getting close to this milestone,” Wilson told SPEED SPORT during a media conference call on Wednesday, just prior to the Gas City event. “It seems like just yesterday that Dave Steele won our first national feature and to think that just 14 years later, we’d have the number of wins and championships that we’ve had along the way is remarkable. I’m extremely proud of the investment and the priority that we’ve made and continue to make toward grassroots racing, and there’s no better example of grassroots racing than POWRi and USAC midgets on dirt tracks across the country.
“It fills me with a tremendous amount of pride, what we’ve done, and one of the byproducts of our time in grassroots racing is that it caused us to take another look at driver development and really make the decision to invest in these young kids,” Wilson added. “It’s because of that first win by Dave Steele that someone like Christopher Bell is now racing at the highest level of motorsports in this country. You can connect the dots. And that is awesome. That makes me smile and it gets me … almost emotional.”
For his part, Larson — who was first discovered by team owners Keith Kunz and Pete Willoughby in 2011 and became one of the Toyota grassroots initiative’s earliest success stories — was proud to be a part of the 300-win milestone and had high praise for the brand that helped launch his career.
“It’s really cool; I didn’t even know they were close to that (number of wins),” Larson admitted. “To earn (wins) 299 and 300 for them is really special. Toyota has meant a lot to me and to my career. They supported me when I was driving for Keith Kunz and we just weren’t able to make things work out after that moving forward … but I’ve always had Toyota engines underneath the hood of a midget.
“We’ve been able to give them a lot of wins and, hopefully, there will be many more after this one.”