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 4: Clauson-Marshall Racing brings hospitality to dirt

After walking down a red carpet-covered path, guests munched on chef-prepared food, grabbed a drink and found a comfortable spot to watch some of the racing action on a TV.

They hung out, laughed and perhaps talked a little business, then walked out to the racetrack for a better view.

That’s the kind of scene that would take place at a major-league race, like NASCAR or IndyCar. But this slice of the hospitality experience is actually in the pits of the Clauson-Marshall Racing team at the Chili Bowl, right in the middle of the action at the River Spirit Expo center.

Tucked in the back of the work area for the team’s eight cars, the Clauson-Marshall party area might be a glimpse into the future of dirt racing. After all, series like NASCAR have excelled in part because of the marketing platform it provides to sponsors, who want to bring guests and employees to the track.

“What we wanted to do is showcase our sport,” said co-owner Tim Clauson, father of the late Bryan Clauson. “The Chili Bowl and the Hahn family (founders of the event) give us the venue to do that. We made the decision a couple years ago to go that way, to try and attract bigger sponsors not only to our team, but hopefully to other teams in the sport.”

It worked. With the help of a company called Spire Sports and Entertainment — which represents drivers like Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Kyle Larson — Clauson-Marshall was able to get a six-figure commitment from NOS Energy Drink to sponsor all eight of its Chili Bowl cars.

“It’s a viable marketing platform,” Spire’s Joey Dennewitz said. “That type of investment into dirt shows you there’s marketing value in the grassroots. We just had to clean it up a little bit and show it to some of the corporate partners we’ve been working with for NASCAR stuff.”

But the hospitality area has made Clauson-Marshall catch some side-eye from other teams. The other pits all up and down the expo center building are nothing more than a trailer with a car out back and a bunch of crew members working away. No other team has a party area in its pits — even powerhouse Keith Kunz Motorsports.

Co-owner Richard Marshall said the team heard “a lot of complaints” last year when it first set up the hospitality zone, because “it’s dirt racing, and everybody ought to have greasy wrenches laying around everywhere.”

But I don’t care, because as far as I’m concerned, this is the way you should take care of your sponsors,” he said. “That’s the way it should be done.”

The sponsorship has allowed the team to continue to make gains on Kunz, whose cars have been dominant as usual heading into Saturday’s main event.

Kunz-prepared cars driven by Kyle Larson, Rico Abreu and Christopher Bell won the first three nights of the Chili Bowl prelims while Clauson-Marshall drivers Tyler Courtney and Shane Golobic locked in A-Main spots but didn’t win.

On Friday night, though, Clauson-Marshall driver Justin Grant beat out KKM’s Spencer Bayston for the A-Main victory to give the team some momentum heading into the night that really counts.

“I think we’ve got a pretty good chance,” Clauson said.

As Grant took pictures on the stage with his winner’s plaque, the platform became filled with a couple dozen people who joined in on the celebration. Not only crew members were encouraged to come up, but their families as well.

It’s like our Christmas and Thanksgiving. Why not?” Marshall said. “It’s the way I’ve done business my whole life. I want the employees to feel like they’re important. I want their families to be involved. And it’s a culture we enjoy.”