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.”
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