Story By: NICK GRAZIANO / XTREME OUTLAW SERIES – CONCORD, NC – Walk into Bundy Built and you can’t miss it.
Residing atop the tallest toolbox in the center of the 3,000 square-foot shop, a Mona Lisa amongst silver tools and plastic bottles, is the inaugural 2022 Xtreme Outlaw Midget Series presented by Toyota championship trophy.
Mesmerized by the hardware, Bundy Built Motorsports team owner John “Bundy” Mitchell asked, “You know the best part about it?”
“It’s not with one of the high-dollar teams. It’s here, in our little shop. That’s f**king cool.”
The road to that accomplishment was far from linear. More like a mountain side rally. Twists and turns came up regularly. A near death experience came into play. But overall, there was a passionate team at every segment, eager to help push Mitchell’s dreams into reality.
When Mitchell began that journey, Midget racing was never the destination. Car racing wasn’t even on his radar.
Growing up in Chattanooga, TN, Mitchell developed a passion for dirt bikes around 10 years old. He tried racing them, but it didn’t take long for him to realize he didn’t have the funding, (or the talent, as he said) to make that dream a reality.
Instead, he turned to working on them. Unable to hire someone to do the work for him, he had to learn on his own. Eventually, he made it a skill and became good enough that others started paying him to work on their bikes – all before he turned 16.
Through his little business, Mitchell met fellow Tennessean Nathan Ramsey – now a World Supercross champion. The two sparked a friendship and Mitchell became Ramsey’s go-to mechanic for his bikes – a relationship that would launched Mitchell into his wild journey.
Ramsey got hired to ride for the Factory Suzuki team and because of Mitchell’s stellar reputation as a dirt bike mechanic, specifically for Ramsey, they got called to the team together. The next day, they moved from Tennessee to California.
After a year with Suzuki, Ramsey got hired by Kawasaki to join the pro circuit and, again, brought Mitchell with him. In their four years with Kawasaki, the duo brought the team a championship in 1999.
Then, Mitchell got the rare opportunity to help develop a new engine when Ramsey went from Kawasaki to Yamaha (the two had been so successful together that Ramsey made sure it was in his contract that where he went, Mitchell could go with him).
“Yamaha was the first to build a four-stroke engine,” Mitchell said. “Back then, everything was two-stroke. Nathan was known to be a really good test rider. So, Yamaha hired him to test the four-stroke. I got to go to Yamaha with him to test it. The way it works in Japanese culture, they send a team of five engineers to live in America for the entire season to go to all the races and support the new projects. So, I got to work with these engineers on this bike.”
Eventually, Honda entered the ring with their own four-stroke engine and stole Ramsey and Mitchell from Yamaha to help develop it. So, Mitchell got to work with another set of five engineers on perfecting 250cc and 450cc engines.
“I got a really cool head start into, basically, F1-type four-stroke engine technology,” Mitchell said.
Then, in the early 2000s, a twist in the road. A new opportunity emerged. Mitchell was hired by Coy Gibbs – Joe Gibbs’ son – to work in Joe Gibbs Racing’s motocross vertical, building engines, establishing an amateur motocross team and basing it all off a retail business.
TWO TO FOUR WHEELS
After 20-plus years of living in California, Mitchell moved his family to Mooresville, NC – NASCAR land. However, he’d never seen a NASCAR race (and to this day has never been to an asphalt race).
His first day on the job, the first person that walked through the door was Mike McLaughlin – who won multiple NASCAR Xfinity Series races for JGR and is in the Northeast Dirt Modified Hall of Fame.
“Coy is like, ‘Whatever you do, take care of this guy. Treat him like gold,’” Mitchell said. “Of course, I didn’t know anybody. I was still living in a hotel room.”
And while McLaughlin was looking for help with his CR125 motorcycle engine, it wasn’t for a dirt bike. It was for his son Max’s kart he was racing at Millbridge Speedway – a 1/5-mile dirt oval.
Knowing nothing about the car or dirt oval racing in general, McLaughlin invited Mitchell and his son, Ethan, out to Millbridge to see what it’s all about. From there, Mitchell and McLaughlin grew to become best friends and Ethan sparked an interest in racing at Millbridge.
With an abundance of resources at Joe Gibbs Racing, Mitchell turned the business into one of the biggest vendors for Outlaw Kart engines, selling them around the world.
“They completely took off,” Mitchell said. “They dominated everything. That’s when Coy was like, ‘Dude, I’m giving you a business.’ It didn’t go toward the motorcycle direction; it went more toward Outlaw Karting and other stuff. So, he was like, you can have the whole thing.”
Not wanting to be in the retail business anymore and seeing what Mitchell built their program into, Gibbs paid Mitchell and the two employees under him three months’ salary and gave him all the tools and equipment from the shop to help him set up his own business. Gibbs’ only request was he couldn’t use the Joe Gibbs Racing name.
“Someone said, ‘Well, it’s all going to be built by Bundy now. Just call it Bundy Built,” Mitchell said. “All the sudden, Bundy Built was created.”
The business continued working on engines for motocross and supercross teams – and continues to today, including riders like motocross star Josh Hill – along with engines for dirt oval racing, now highlighted by Midget engines.
Ethan rose through the ranks at Millbridge, along with Max. When it came time to move up to a bigger class, Max found his way into the Big Block Modifieds – currently a full-time Super DIRTcar Series driver for Heinke-Baldwin Racing – while Ethan searched.
He ran a couple races in a UMP Modified, including a race at the World Short Track Championship for Nick Hoffman. And got to try a Crate Late Model. Neither fit his style.
It was dirt Midget racing that finally piqued his interest.
“I didn’t know anything about Midgets,” Mitchell said. “That was so far out of my league.”
They bought a $9,000 car that came with everything but a motor. And with a high dollar on the top-tier Midget engines, Mitchell decided to build one himself.
“I was taking all the money the business was making and sinking it into this $9,000 Midget,” Mitchell said. “Mainly the motor. I was trying to save up money and trying to figure out what we were going to do. Every night I was reading, studying four-cylinder motors, deep dive into the engineering of them all.
“I knew we had kind of an advantage over most engine builders because we are double overhead cam, four valve specialists. That’s what I got taught by those engineers.”
While initially based off a Honda engine, Mitchell engineered something that’s become his own creation – a true Bundy Built engine.
“It made like 365 (horsepower) to the rear wheels on Engler (Machine & Tool) and Cozzolino’s (Motorsports) dynos up in [Indianapolis],” Mitchell said. “And both guys, Cozzolino and Engler were both like, ‘Holy shit, this dumb redneck, this guy’s got some f**king juice!’”
The car sat for a year, before the father-son duo had everything in place to attempt their first Midget race. They were able to test it a couple times at Millbridge and with the confidence it would hold together, they planned their trip: the Kokomo Smackdown in 2018.
“I was like, ‘OK, first race, here we go!’” Mitchell said. “That was obviously a mistake.”
Knowing nothing about the cars, Mitchell tried setting the car up with the set up blocks placed under the frame. It wasn’t long until he realized there was an error, seeing his car sitting much lower than all the others.
Then, when Ethan went to make laps, the motor was only turning 6,000rpm, rather than the 10,000 number it should’ve been reaching. They tried gear combination after gear combination to no avail. Again, with help from others, they realized they had the wrong rear end in the car.
Each year, their knowledge grew. Their cars ran better, and their engines continued to perform. However, still on a limited budget, hindering the speed of their growth. With the help of Dennis Kiser, who manages the finances of the shop, the business never went in debt – even during times Kiser said he wasn’t sure if they could continue the Midget program.
The business stayed successful and with the Midget program building steam, it attracted the likes of Zach Daum, who went from only wanting to buy to motor to driving a second car for the team and bringing them the Xtreme Outlaw Midget Series championship.
“We showed up, got our ass whipped, came home and made changes,” Mitchell said. “Then, we went racing, got our ass kicked, came home and made changes. Went racing, got our ass kicked, came home and made changes. Now, we have a championship.”
However, before the season started, there was a grave uncertainty if Mitchell – and the team – would be around to see it.
In December, Mitchell suffered a heart attack that nearly killed him and left him out of commission for several months. Just now, in November, he said he feels he’s finally back to a state where he be maneuverable and have a coherent conversation.
When he went down, that left Ethan, now 20 years old, and Kiser to keep the business stable and run a Midget team – along with the help of volunteering crew members Brian Garlow and Chad Johnston.
“Dad’s heart attack… going through something like that, almost losing somebody, I think it changes a person,” Ethan Mitchell said. “I think it changed me for the better, I believe, made me grow up a lot quicker than I was expecting to. When he was down, obviously, Dennis here at the shop, and myself, had to step up and keep the business rolling, along with others that put in a lot of hours of work to keep the business afloat while my dad was down. On top of that, me and our helper guy, Brian, he’s been a big help, as well, helping me go racing without dad.
“It’s tough having to go through that. But, at the end of the day, it makes you appreciate a lot more and not take as much for granted and I think I’m a more knowledgeable person because of it. I had to learn more about chassis setup and more about life in general… All the little things you take for granted like a tight bolt. ‘Here, Dad, come help me. Come loosen this bolt for me.’ Well, when your dad ain’t there to loosen the bolt for you, you have no option but to loosen it yourself.”
As much as the credit is given to Daum for wheeling the car to a title, Mitchell also gives a lot of credit for the championship to Ethan, who also ran the Xtreme Outlaw tour. He helped lead the team all year, making sure they got from race to race with two cars, and while Daum worked on the car during the race nights, Ethan and Brian did most of the wrenching and maintenance throughout the week.
Though Ethan didn’t find Victory Lane and its not his name on the $10,000 championship check, the amount of work he put into making sure they could bring the championship trophy home to sit on top of their tallest toolbox is still a triumph he’ll always cherish.
“I’m equally invested in Zach’s car as I am my own,” Ethan said. “Zach will meet us at the race track and I’ll let him do his own thing at the race track, but as far as actual work that goes into his car and my own car, and the equipment, that’s all me and Brian here at the shop. I’m heavily invested in his championship I’d say. I felt proud about it, we could bring home the championship and get the win at Port City (Raceway). I was super pumped.
“Even though it wasn’t myself who got the win and the championship, I was equally proud to be the team owner I’d say.”
Looking at the large checks hung on the shop wall and then back at the championship trophy in the middle of the small shop, surrounded by a bare Midget chassis, parts and engines waiting to be assembled, the years, the sacrifices, the endless hours of work and the triumphs all flood together for Mitchell.
“I’ll start crying, I told you I’m an emotional person,” he joked when asked what it means.
“I worked my f**king nuts off,” Mitchell said. “So did my son. He endured a lot. My business endured a lot. I spent 18 hours a day for four years trying to figure out how to make a Midget go around a racetrack.
“It is something I am super proud of. I felt like I stepped into something that I had no idea about. And I literally was jumping up and down, stomping on my own dick. Just way over my head. Like, you have no business here whatsoever. But I wasn’t going to give up. I just wanted to do it. And we’ve done it.”