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 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?


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: Kyle Larson shines in father-son racing reunion

Mike Larson sat in his usual seats in the River Spirit Expo Center on Tuesday night, watching the prelim races from the Turns 3/4 grandstand just like he always does during Chili Bowl week.

Except something about Tuesday was very different than normal.

“I hardly ever get nervous, but all day today, I’ve been nervous,” Mike said. “I’ve been clammy all day long. I kept saying to myself, ‘You never get like this!’ I could never just calm down.”

That’s because Mike was the car owner for a vehicle driven by his son, all-around racing star Kyle Larson, for the first time since 2008. Kyle was 15 back then.

After that, Kyle was in bigger cars that required a professional owner and a sponsored ride. So Mike was content to enjoy the races just like he always had — as a spectator.

But a couple years ago, Mike became the owner of a midget prepared by Keith Kunz Motorsports (the team Kyle usually runs for). The arrangement is similar to a Joe Gibbs Racing/Furniture Row Racing relationship in NASCAR, Kyle explained.

Mike hadn’t had much success so far, though. His car made the D-Main the first year it entered the Chili Bowl and then only got to the F-Main last year. Kyle could tell his dad was disappointed.

So this summer, Kyle came up with an idea: Since he was already locked in for the 2018 A-Main (based on his win in the 2017 Race of Champions), what if father and son teamed up to race together?

“I was like, ‘Why? Why would you want do that?'” Mike recalled. “He goes, ‘Because I’m locked in, Dad. And I can get your car in the main event.

“I was touched, really. I’m surprised he even thought of that.”

“Knowing my dad, he probably cried or choked up, at least,” Kyle said. “I’m sure it meant a lot to him.”

There was a significant problem, though. Mike had promised Kunz and co-owner Pete Willoughby he wouldn’t take Kyle away from their stable — and he had no intention of breaking his word.

So Mike told his son if he really wanted to do it, Kyle had to call them and broach the topic himself.

“I didn’t know he made a deal with Keith and Pete to not take me,” Kyle said. “That (conversation) was a little nerve-wracking.”

But Kunz approved it — likely on a one-time basis — and so there was Kyle on Tuesday, racing around the expo center for his dad once again.

The reunion ended with the best possible result, at least for a prelim night: Kyle held off future brother-in-law Brad Sweet for the win as Mike watched from his usual seats before running down to victory lane.

Once there, father and son greeted each other with wide grins and handshakes. Kyle got a plaque for being the winning driver; Mike got one as the winning owner.

Now they’ll go after a Golden Driller trophy on Saturday night. Together.

“On the stage, Pete told my dad, ‘Enjoy this moment, because he’s not racing for you ever again,'” Kyle said with a chuckle. “So I guess I’ve got to take full advantage of it on Saturday.”