Chili Bowl Night 6: Christopher Bell, Kyle Larson add another chapter to respectful rivalry

Since it’s 2019 and the world is an angry place, many of us have developed a negative connotation with the word “rivalry.”

When we think of rivals, we think of two people who spew vitriol and trash talk, going against each other not just on the playing field, but in Twitter burns and Instagram-worthy clips.

One has to win and rub it in. The other has to lose and pout or vow revenge. Competing with civility seems like a lost art.

Even when you bring up the word “rivalry” to Christopher Bell — referring to the one he shares with Kyle Larson — Bell momentarily cringes before agreeing on the definition.

“‘Rivalry’ is…well, I guess rivalry is the right term for what we have for what we have going on,” he said. “But we’re acquaintances, we’re friends — we’re each other’s biggest supporters. So it’s a very unique relationship we have.”

There’s nothing in the dictionary definition of rivalry that says the people have to dislike each other, and Bell and Larson clearly don’t. If you thought Bell coming out of nowhere to snatch Larson’s dream trophy away Saturday night at the Chili Bowl might finally change that (guilty as charged), you’d be way wrong.

Even though it has to be tough to swallow losing such a cherished race. to someone who consistently beats you, the only bitterness Larson expressed afterward was toward himself for allowing Bell to catch him.

Did Bell make contact in the process? Yes, Larson said, but nothing unwarranted. He opened the door for it and expected it. Fair game.

As a cloud of confetti surrounded Bell, Larson stood 50 feet away and stared blankly at the celebration stage for several long minutes. It’s been well documented the Chili Bowl is the race Larson wants to win more than any other, based on his dirt upbringing and the importance of the race — both personally and in the midget world.

Larson’s parents still sit in the same seats they did when they came as fans, before Kyle even started racing in the event. And Mike Larson, Kyle’s dad, was technically the car owner for the Chili Bowl this year — meaning father and son could have celebrated together in victory lane at a place they both hold so dear.

And it looked like it was going to finally happen, as Larson dominated the race and had a sizable lead in the final laps. But that all disappeared when Larson slipped up coming to the white flag, allowing Bell to gain ground, then made another bobble in Turn 1 of the final lap.

Bell scooted underneath and muscled his way by on the backstretch as Larson tried in vain to fend him off in the final turns.

The sold-out crowd exploded, Bell exulted at his third straight Chili Bowl win and Larson was left shocked at another Golden Driller that got away — and ended up in Bell’s hands, again.

You couldn’t blame Larson in the slightest if that turned into resentment rather than respect for his opponent. But that’s not what happened.

After composing himself and letting Bell do a victory lane interview, Larson strode toward the younger driver and offered an outstretched hand. They shook, then later entered the media center together and posed for the traditional podium photos. Larson even forced a smile as to not ruin the picture.

That’s not to say Larson was OK with losing — far from it. He was so devastated, he could barely raise his voice enough to be heard. But unlike many people in his position, Larson didn’t point the finger at anyone else and accepted responsibility for the outcome.

Meanwhile, Bell refrained from bragging about his own skills, humbly describing the method he used to catch Larson and expressing surprise he had the opportunity to win.

“It was very easy to slip, but he is the most talented race car driver a lot of us have ever seen,” Bell said later, after Larson had left the room. “So yeah, it’s pretty surprising he did slip.”

And so goes another chapter in the rivalry, which has now extended across years and various disciplines (midgets, sprints and stock cars) and even countries (they raced each other several times in New Zealand last month).

The two texted each other this week and expressed how remarkable it was that they always seem to finish 1-2 — in some order — when they’re on the same track. It’s already happened at least four times since the NASCAR season ended in November.

But no matter who wins or what the circumstances are, they always seem to remain on good terms.

That fact, as much as their talent itself, deserves applause in today’s day and age. Hey parents, want a good example of sportsmanship and class? Watch how Larson and Bell treat each other — and what they say about each other — even in the greatest moments of disappointment.

The 2019 Chili Bowl will be remembered as a great finish, but it will ultimately be just another addition to the Larson and Bell highlight reel. And the best is yet to come, when Bell finally graduates to the Cup Series and can go head-to-head with Larson on a weekly basis.

It’s a rivalry without animosity or hate, and you know what? That’s just fine. The world could use more like it.


Other Chili Bowl coverage this week:

— Night 1When anyone can enter Chili Bowl — even you! — it can be sketchy for top drivers

— Night 2Kyle Larson shines once again, setting up long-anticipated rematch with rival

— Night 3Cole Bodine is the best story of the Chili Bowl so far

— Night 4Christopher Bell impresses everyone but himself

— Night 5: After shop accident, Brad Loyet finishes career on own terms

Post-race podcast with Blake Anderson

Chili Bowl Night 5: Brad Loyet’s determination lets him finish career on own terms

When Brad Loyet was sitting in the hospital less than a year ago, right wrist shattered and his hand just hanging on as decoration, he knew he’d never race again. Loyet told his family as much at the time.

But as this year’s Chili Bowl approached, the 31-year-old made what he called a “selfish” decision: He called officials in Tulsa and told them he was getting back into a car one last time.

“If I would have known last year was my last race, then so be it,” said Loyet, who has five career Chili Bowl A-Main appearances. “But I wasn’t given that opportunity to say, ‘OK, I’m finished racing.’”

The thing is, Loyet still isn’t 100 percent recovered from his fluke accident last year. Actually, he’s not even close to healed.

Loyet had been inflating a tire in his team’s race shop last February when the wheel suddenly exploded and broke Loyet’s arm in multiple places. Two plates were placed into his arm, but the surgeon promised a full recovery — and Loyet was optimistic that would be the case. (Graphic photos of his arm are here, if you choose to look.)

It didn’t turn out that way. Six weeks after the surgery, Loyet still couldn’t even feel his hand. A specialist in St. Louis told him further surgery might only do more damage and suggested Loyet just learn to live with his handicap.

“I told myself, ‘Let’s just make the best of life at this point,’” Loyet said.

But Loyet ran into Tony Stewart at a race in Kansas early last summer, and Stewart asked how he was doing. Loyet told him doctors said he wouldn’t get any better; Stewart replied, “That’s bullshit.”

“I want you to go see one of my guys,” Stewart told him.

So with Stewart’s help, Loyet got in to see a specialist in Indianapolis — who promptly discovered the bones were not only still broken in Loyet’s arm, but the plate holding them all together was flexing and about to break.

Loyet had additional surgery on July 5, where doctors used a bone from his hip to strengthen the arm. And while it’s helped stabilize his wrist, Loyet still can’t bend it and thus has no grip strength in his right hand; he’s scheduled for another appointment next month, where the prospect of additional surgery looms.

With Loyet still dealing with the fallout from the shop incident in his daily life, the decision to stop racing was pretty obvious.

“I’m at the point where I have a wife and a kid and another on the way,” he said. “I’ve been a race car driver for more than half my life. It’s hard to walk away, but there are better things in life I need to focus my attention on.”

But three weeks ago, Loyet decided he didn’t want his driving career to end without a proper goodbye. So there he was Friday night, strapping into a car for his heat race at the world’s most prestigious midget race.

Loyet started seventh and finished third in the heat, then started at the front of a B-Main and nearly won it. His arm ached badly with every lap, and he mostly just rested it on the wheel rather than use it to steer.

“Every time my heart beats, I feel my hand take a hit,” he said.

Despite that, the mere fact Loyet made it to the A-Main was a victory. More than 70 cars were entered on Friday night, and a one-armed driver who hadn’t raced in a year made it to the top 24.

“Not too shabby,” Loyet said.

Now, regardless of how he does in today’s Chili Bowl Nationals, Loyet gets to leave racing on his own terms. He starts 10th in an E-Main today, but that’s more than he could have hoped for last February.

“There’s one thing I don’t do, and it’s give up,” he said. “Life throws you curves and you’ve got to figure it out. That’s just part of the game.”

Stewart, standing in the infield, was impressed as he watched Loyet race.

“That shows you how big of guts he’s got,” Stewart said. “He picked the toughest race of the year, where’s no spot on this racetrack to take a break.

“He was sweating like a pig when he was done, but I asked him, ‘Are you having fun?’ He said yeah, so that was pretty cool.”


Other Chili Bowl coverage this week:

— Night 1When anyone can enter Chili Bowl — even you! — it can be sketchy for top drivers

— Night 2Kyle Larson shines once again, setting up long-anticipated rematch with rival

— Night 3Cole Bodine is the best story of the Chili Bowl so far

Night 4: Christopher Bell impresses everyone but himself

Chili Bowl Night 4: Christopher Bell impresses everyone — except himself

If the Big Grin Emoji existed in human form — a giant smiley head, just with legs and arms — that would usually describe Christopher Bell at the Chili Bowl. Bell is in his element here, at his cherished home state race, exuding joy with every step he takes at the River Spirit Expo Center.

Bell gets to live his dream of racing against the best midget drivers in the world — in a race that means everything to him — and usually kick their asses in the process.

He did it again Thursday night in the Chili Bowl prelims, winning the A-Main to put himself in great position for Saturday while wowing both the crowd and his competitors in the process.

He’s unreal,” Shane Golobic said after finishing second. “He’s the best there is, hands down. I was pretty proud to be able to race with him.”

“He makes everybody better,” third-place finisher C.J. Leary said. “His car control is out of this world. A lot of guys are really good, but Christopher is on top right now.”

But one person wasn’t impressed with Bell’s performance: Bell himself. The human Big Grin Emoji was gone, replaced by a Worried Face Emoji who could barely force a smile in the postrace media session.

As it turns out, Bell didn’t have the feel he was used to on Thursday. He managed to win anyway, but the two-time defending Chili Bowl champion isn’t optimistic about his chances on Saturday.

He used words like “shaken” to describe himself after discovering he felt “rusty” on the track. He cited his Keith Kunz Motorsports teammates’ relatively easy wins in their prelims earlier in the week and openly fretted about not being able to hang with them.

At one point late in the race, he inadvertently popped a wheelie down the frontstretch and said he had flashes of leaving the building in an ambulance.

This wasn’t some sort of false show of humility or an attempt to be a perfectionist; Bell was seriously, legitimately concerned about how he ran, and it was written all over his face as he spoke. His confidence, he said, had taken a hit.

“The longer you’re on top, the harder it is to stay there,” Bell said. “I’m going to do my best to figure out why I didn’t feel as good as I normally do and why I didn’t run as good of a race as I normally do.”

Bell knows his chief rival, Kyle Larson, is “hungry” for a first Golden Driller trophy. The race means just as much to Larson, but he’s never won it.

Then there’s KKM teammates Rico Abreu — a two-time champ himself — and Logan Seavey, the defending USAC National Midget champion. Not to mention a host of other drivers who don’t happen to be in the same equipment as Bell but feel they can pull off an upset.

Bell might be the favorite in many minds heading into Saturday, but it’s no sure thing in his own head.


Other Chili Bowl coverage this week:

— Night 1When anyone can enter Chili Bowl — even you! — it can be sketchy for top drivers

— Night 2Kyle Larson shines once again, setting up long-anticipated rematch with rival

— Night 3: Cole Bodine is the best story of the Chili Bowl so far

 

Chili Bowl Night 3: Cole Bodine seizes opportunity, delivers for Clauson Marshall Racing

Tim Clauson was sitting in his office at the Clauson Marshall Racing shop in the fall of 2017 when a teenager named Cole Bodine walked in.

“Me and my dad race micros, but that’s about as far as we can get financially,” Bodine said. “What does someone like me have to do to get an opportunity?”

The answer was something no driver would ever want to hear: Give up racing for a year, work without pay in the team’s shop and see what happened — with no assurances of anything.

“I’m not going to promise you a ride,” Clauson told him. “But I can promise you a lot of knowledge and experience, and if you do your job right, you’re going to meet a lot of good people. And from there, hopefully things will happen for you.”

As it turned out, that seemingly unattractive offer was actually the first step toward what has been the best story of the 2019 Chili Bowl so far.

Bodine was seeking opportunity — not guarantees — so he accepted Clauson’s proposal and started wrenching on the cars without complaint. For six months, the Indiana native “worked his ass off,” as Clauson put it, and never once asked about driving.

“I didn’t know if it was going to work out,’” Bodine said. “The only thing I could do was put my head down and keep digging.”

Clauson, the father of the late Bryan Clauson, was paying close attention. Eventually, he found room for an extra car in two midget races and gave Bodine a chance to drive.

Bodine charged from 20th to seventh in his second start, showing he had ability — but it looked like that would be the only shot he might get. In the meantime, Bodine went back to wrenching on the cars.

“People were like, ‘Man, that’s awesome. You got a job at Clauson Marshall,’” Bodine said. “But I let people know: I work here, but that’s not my end goal. I’m here to be a race car driver.”

Opportunity knocked again last June, when Zeb Wise — the team’s promising young racer — got hurt while sitting third in the USAC Midget standings.

Clauson compiled a list of available replacement drivers. Bodine’s name made the list, but it was at the bottom.

Three people met to decide who would drive the car: Clauson, Wise and co-owner Richard Marshall. They each wrote a name on a piece of paper, then flipped it over to reveal their votes.

All three picked Bodine.

“I thought I was going to be the only one of three,” Clauson said with a laugh.

Bodine had impressed everyone with his work ethic, and those around him thought he should be rewarded with the opportunity. And he delivered, finishing second to USAC champion Logan Seavey in just the sixth midget start of Bodine’s career.

Then, when Justin Grant parted ways with the team last fall, it was sponsor NOS Energy Drink who suggested Bodine should get the chance to drive the car again.

Fast forward to the Chili Bowl, where Bodine, 20, has been working all week on the fleet of his teammates’ cars. He was allowed a reprieve on Wednesday, though — because that was Bodine’s prelim night.

Incredibly — and beyond even Clauson and Marshall’s expectations — Bodine ended up winning his qualifier race, got the pole for the evening’s A-Main and finished third to two-time Chili Bowl champion Rico Abreu and World of Outlaws driver David Gravel.

Now Bodine will head into Saturday night’s Nationals at the front of the B-Main, with the chance to achieve a once-unlikely goal of making it to the big show.

“It was a dream just to make it into the prelim A-Main; to make the Saturday A-Main would be unbelievable,” he said. “Hopefully, this is just the first step of many, where you work your way up the totem pole the old-fashioned way and talent and hard work gets you to where you want to be.”

After seeing what Bodine has accomplished so far, Clauson wouldn’t be shocked if it happened.

“I could argue this has the pressure of the Indy 500 when you roll out and you’re in this fishbowl with 10,000 people,” Clauson said. “To come here with a kid like Cole, you don’t know where it’s going to go. You just hope he has a good showing. So far, he’s had a magnificent showing.”


Other Chili Bowl coverage this week:

— Night 1When anyone can enter Chili Bowl — even you! — it can be sketchy for top drivers

— Night 2: Kyle Larson shines once again, setting up long-anticipated rematch with rival

Chili Bowl Night 2: Kyle Larson dominates, but matchup with rival Bell looms

Let’s start out by acknowledging here that Kyle Larson is one of the great American racing talents ever to strap into a car.

Hyperbole? Nah. At age 26, Larson is already a winning NASCAR driver, one of the top sprint car drivers and the second-best midget racer in the world. That’s a combination few can claim.

Of course, he’d prefer to be the best in a midget — and he was probably on that path until Christopher Bell showed up and started beating him regularly. Now Larson has found himself in the unusual position of trying to raise his game instead of simply relying on his natural abilities.

Bell has pushed Larson to be better in a midget, and Larson is ready to push back.

“I’ve worked really hard to become a smarter racer and make better decisions — in a way, think like he might think — so instead of being a step behind, maybe be at his level,” Larson said. “You have to always work on your game and try to get better, because he’s getting better and better every race.”

Larson certainly didn’t look like he had much competition Tuesday, when he waxed the field on his prelim night for the Chili Bowl Nationals. It was Larson’s fifth career prelim win.

But Bell — his Keith Kunz Motorsports teammate — hasn’t run his prelims yet. They did race together in the Race of Champions on Tuesday, but it wasn’t a true head-to-head test — Bell started 15th by random draw and Larson started fourth. Even so, Bell only finished one spot behind Larson.

The true showdown, widely anticipated for a year now, is shaping up to take place once again in Saturday night’s 55-lap A-Main. That’s assuming Bell doesn’t have trouble making the big race — though that would be a shock, considering he’s the back-to-back Chili Bowl champion.

Larson had no problem with declaring Bell as the driver to beat again.

“I’ve got zero (Golden) Drillers in my trophy case,” Larson said. “You just look at his track record — not just in this building, but any racetrack in a midget — and his win percentage is crazy over the last four or five years. I would definitely say he’s the favorite anywhere he goes in a midget right now.”

That said, Larson actually got the better of the two when they raced midgets recently in New Zealand. It was Bell who finished second to Larson on a couple nights rather than the other way around.

Larson suggested it was because they were in different equipment, but added: “Maybe I’m just making excuses for him.”

“It’d been a long time since I beat Christopher in anything — at least on dirt — so that was good,” he said.

The question is: Can Larson do it again?

SPONSOR WOES IN OFFSEASON

Larson’s firesuit at the Chili Bowl is still sporting a DC Solar patch, though the company won’t be on his NASCAR ride this season after an FBI raid on its headquarters. When it became clear the funding was gone, Chip Ganassi Racing had to shut down its Xfinity team — which was going to be fully sponsored by DC Solar — and is scrambling to find a new sponsor for Larson’s Cup car (DC Solar was the primary sponsor for 12 races last season).

Larson said going to race in New Zealand when the news came out was a helpful distraction to the sponsor troubles.

“It’s nice to go to New Zealand because I don’t talk to anybody in the States, really,” he said. “I kind of get away from everything that’s going on here. I don’t even really know what all has gone on or how the future is going to look.

“Unfortunate that it happened. (DC Solar owners) Jeff and Paulette Carpoff have been nothing but great to myself, so I hate that it all happened. I know my team is probably working really hard to fill those races — because it’s a lot of races they were on the car — but I don’t get into NASCAR mode until Sunday (after the Chili Bowl). So I’m still not really thinking or worrying about it yet.”

Kyle Larson is interviewed by Ralph Sheheen after winning Night 2 of the Chili Bowl Nationals. (Photo: Jeff Gluck)

Other Chili Bowl coverage this week:

Night 1: When anyone can enter Chili Bowl — even you! — it can be sketchy for top drivers

Chili Bowl Night 1: Prelim nights bring potential dangers for top drivers like Logan Seavey

Logan Seavey arrived at the Chili Bowl Nationals on Monday and scanned the list of names who would be competing with him that night.

He didn’t recognize about half of them.

At a normal race, that would come as a shock to Seavey; after all, you’d figure the USAC National Midget Champion would be quite familiar with other midget drivers.

But this is the Chili Bowl, which is perhaps the ultimate open event in sports. Anyone can enter, regardless of previous racing experience, and compete against the likes of Seavey, Kyle Larson or Christopher Bell.

Yes, even YOU — the person reading this — could be out on the track tonight. You could pay the $150 entry fee ($200 if you waited until the last minute) and rent a low-tier midget car for about $3,000-$5,000. Or, if you wanted one of the best rides in the field, you could go big and pay $10,000-$12,000.

You’d draw for a heat race position along with the other drivers who have chosen to run their prelim that night and maybe even line up next to a big name when you take the green.

Have no idea what you’re doing? That’s OK! You’ll get a few minutes of practice to figure it out.

Two years ago, the affable World of Outlaws videographer Ross Wece decided to enter the Chili Bowl with no previous racing experience. Other than the fact he flipped during his prelim night (it happens!), Wece got to make laps and be part of an iconic event in the dirt world. If you look at the Chili Bowl Saturday results from 2017, Wece’s name will always be there — albeit in the O-Main.

That’s not to say the majority of the 360 entries at the Chili Bowl are amateurs. But there’s certainly a wide variety of skill levels and motivations scattered throughout the field — some people just come for the party — which can be a scary thing for someone like Seavey, who is taking this week quite seriously.

“We race the same 40 midget guys all year and then you come here and there are 340,” Seavey said. “You don’t really know who you’re racing with or who you can trust out there. It puts some unknowns into it and makes it even tougher.”

Imagine being a driver who has dreams of winning the Chili Bowl, not just competing in it. Heat races are only eight laps, and if you have a bad heat race, your Chili Bowl is potentially over — at least in terms of any realistic chance of making it to the A-Main on Saturday.

There’s no qualifying for the heats, so your starting position is just a random draw. A top driver could line up alongside a far lesser talent — and see their week completely ruined by someone else’s mistake.

“It’s definitely different here at the Chili Bowl,” said Knoxville Nationals champion Brad Sweet. “Sometimes you’re starting behind guys whose cars aren’t super up to par or they’re beginners, so you’ve to got pay attention for sure.”

Sweet said his philosophy is to let everyone get through the first corner, hope they get single file and then be patient, knowing his car is good enough to start making passes. But a glance at the lineups will dictate how aggressive he can be — and eight laps isn’t much time to make moves.

Other times, drivers can just look at the cars and tell which ones are going to be potential dangers. But that’s getting harder these days, said Oklahoma racer Brady Bacon.

“Ten years ago, you could look at someone’s car and know you’re going to have to watch out,” he said. “But now, there are a lot of nice cars here. There are only 15 or 20 cars where you’d be like, ‘Uh…’ So it’s harder to know if they’re going to be slow or fast.”

Fortunately for Seavey, Bacon and Sweet, each of them made it through Monday unscathed (though Sweet had to boot another driver out of the way during his heat race).

Seavey won the A-Feature after also winning his heat race and A qualifier race, locking himself into Saturday’s big show. Bacon finished second and also secured a spot in the Saturday A-Main, while Sweet finished third and was forced into a B-Main on Saturday.

“It’s a unique format, but the best guys always seem to get through it and be right there on Saturday night,” Seavey said with a grin.

On Monday, he assured he’ll be one of them.

Logan Seavey, who drives for Keith Kunz Motorsports, locked himself into the Saturday A-Main at the 2019 Chili Bowl. (Photo: Jeff Gluck)