TULSA, Okla. — Fifteen-year-old Jesse Love is set to finally experience something this weekend at Port City Raceway that he’s been waiting on for more than two years.
Love will make his NOS Energy Drink USAC National Midget Series debut for Keith Kunz/Curb-Agajanian Motorsports during the T-Town Midget Showdown after “jumping in the deep end” last year with KKM through a string of non-sanctioned and POWRi midget starts for the team.
This, however, is more to Love. Hitting the USAC level, in his mind, means reaching the top level of midget racing — with the top team in the discipline — in the United States.
It’s a shot the Menlo Park, Calif., teenager is ready to take full advantage of.
“I’m excited about this weekend, for sure,” Love told Sprint Car & Midget. “Obviously, it’s a cool opportunity, just to be doing what we’re doing with Keith (Kunz, team owner) and his whole crew. Being in the iconic (No.) 97 car, one of their most famous numbers, just obviously adds to my enthusiasm. It’s super cool and I’m blessed and fortunate to be a part of it; hopefully we can go out, put together a great night and really show these guys what we can do. That’s the goal, at least.
For a young driver, one might think that nerves would be heightened ahead of a USAC debut, but that’s not the case for Love. He’s calm, cool, collected and ready to race.
“I’m not nervous at all. I know what I’ve gotta do and I just have to be smart about it, when it comes to making passes and just playing the right game throughout the whole night,” Love tipped. “The way I look at it, I feel like if we play our cards the right way and race hard the whole night, so we don’t give anything away, we’ll be in a good position when it comes down to the end.
“I’m just planning to go out there, race my heart out and, hopefully, set myself up well for the future with the KKM guys and everyone around me,” he added. “Hopefully, I can put together the best 30 laps that I have so far.”
Love’s USAC debut was initially planned to be during the Kokomo Grand Prix in late April, but that race — like many others through the spring — was lost due to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on sports across the world, including the racing industry.
That doesn’t mean he hasn’t been busy, however. Love has spent his time racing a winged sprint car in his home state of California, doing his best to keep his skills sharp while waiting to get behind the wheel of a KKM midget again.
Between that and his past midget experience with Kunz’s operation, Love noted that this weekend brings to the table some different emotions than what he had going into his POWRi debut last fall.
“I think it’s more that I’m a lot more confident going into this race. I know what to expect, unlike last year,” Love tipped. “Last year, going into my first race, I probably had a little bit of ignorance from the standpoint that I didn’t really know what to expect. I’d won so much the year before (out west) that I didn’t really know exactly what we were going to do, and it was a grind at first in the midgets. But I kind of know what to expect now and I know what it takes to win the races and to be at front, as far as putting yourself in position to win and being fast throughout the whole night.
“The emotions are a lot easier, to be honest, but I’m a lot different upstairs (mentally) than I was last year,” Love added with a smile. “My preparation is a lot different this year than it was last year, which is a good thing. It’s always good to learn and improve. It brings a lot of confidence to the table for me.”
Love admits that bullring-style racing — such as what will be found at Port City this weekend — isn’t necessarily his strong suit, but he’s hoping to adapt and figure out the key to being successful at the eighth-mile Oklahoma dirt track.
“I grew up racing on smaller tracks in California, but I just like the big tracks. I feel like they’re more fun for me and sometimes make for a little bit better racing,” said Love. “But after watching the (Port City) race last year, I’m probably going to be a little bit wrong about that this weekend. It was a really cool race then, so hopefully I can make myself like the small-track style and we can go to work.”
While Love is still a relative newcomer in the national midget field when you consider the likes of Tyler Courtney, Kevin Thomas Jr., Dave Darland and more, he carries confidence into Port City and believes that he can make a splash on Friday and Saturday if the right breaks come his way.
“Man, I know I’m fast and I know I can keep up with those guys, so I’m not going to be satisfied with anything less than a win,” said Love. “That’s what we’re going for, both this weekend and in every series I run with. That’s what my expectation is. At the same time, I understand it’s going to be tough and that I have to keep my head level and keep on working every weekend.
“My plan is to stay charging forward and not just trying to run top five or top 10 every weekend, but showing that we can run for wins from here on out.”