Christopher Bell looked and sounded bummed. He described himself as “heartbroken.” He lamented the fans being deprived of what they deserved to see.
Wait, was this the same guy who just beat 344 other drivers to win his second straight Chili Bowl Nationals in his home state? It sure was.
But as much as Bell was thrilled to win — and he’s certainly proud to have claimed another Golden Driller trophy — he fought through sincerely mixed emotions on Saturday night.
That’s because Kyle Larson, his chief competition, suffered a blown engine with 13 laps to go. And it turned what was a sensational, memorable battle between two of the country’s best dirt racers into a runaway victory for Bell.
“Man, I’m disappointed,” Bell said. “That’s the right word. I feel like Kyle got robbed, I got robbed and the fans got robbed. I wanted to race it out. I’m disappointed we didn’t get that.”
Still, why should he care? Many drivers wouldn’t. A win is a win, and he had the trophy. He was the champion. Plus, had Larson’s engine not blown, Bell might have lost (Larson was leading at the time, after all).
“That’s the health of the Chili Bowl,” Bell said. “If the fans leave here disappointed or not happy, then…”
Bell’s voice trailed off for a moment.
The thing is, Bell and his fellow racers genuinely care about the Chili Bowl. It’s like their version of a community garden — they all want to nurture it and grow it into the best it can be, welcoming visitors to gawk at its beauty.
It’s not a coordinated effort, nor is it contrived. Their love for the Chili Bowl runs deep in their bones and in their blood. It’s quite remarkable to see race car drivers, who are taught to be selfish, put the well-being of an event above themselves.
“It’s extremely important to me that (fans) leave here excited to come back,” Bell said.
Bell has no financial stake in the Chili Bowl. The race doesn’t even pay well — he only got $10,000 to win it. So it’s not about the money.
It might be hard to believe in this age of cynicism, but Bell’s motivations are entirely driven by passion for what he believes is the greatest event in racing.
Refreshing, isn’t it?
For example: Look at what Bell said about the pole shuffle — a head-to-head race which he lost after contact with Larson. It cost him the pole, and he was the only driver with the preferred lane to lose his match race.
“I wasn’t frustrated at all,” Bell said. “Whenever I idled around there after the pole shuffle and saw the crowd on their feet (cheering after he spun out), that made me happy. I was glad the crowd thought that was exciting.
“I was bummed I made that decision and spun myself out, but it was cool to see the crowd enjoyed it and got excited about it.”
It’s not that Bell isn’t competitive or doesn’t want to win. He does — quite badly. And he has two Golden Drillers to show for it.
But at 23, he understands the Chili Bowl is bigger than himself. He’d rather have to work harder and risk losing while putting on a good show than blow out the competition for another trophy.
And Bell is not alone in that sense of putting event over self when it comes to the Chili Bowl.
After changing into street clothes and taking a few moments to collect himself following an immensely disappointing outcome, Larson emerged from his hauler to speak with a pair of reporters who sought his thoughts.
Larson’s eyes were red, and he was unable to manage a smile. Unlike Bell, he doesn’t have a Golden Driller — and he was so close. This stung. This hurt.
But after answering all the questions and starting to walk away, Larson stopped and turned back.
“Thanks for coming,” he called out. “I hope you had fun.”