One year ago, Kyle Larson sat in the post-race press conference for the Lucas Oil Chili Bowl Nationals making no attempt to hide his profound disappointment. In his mind he had just thrown away his chance to win the Chili Bowl, and next to him sat a smiling Christopher Bell, who was gripping the cherished Golden Driller trophy for the third year in a row.
Larson has raced, and won, on the biggest stages in the land. He was now wealthy beyond his wildest dreams. One simple appearance along any stop on the NASCAR trail could be more lucrative than the total amount of cash Bell had hauled out of Tulsa over the course of his three previous Chili Bowl appearances.
It wasn’t the money that mattered now. This was a matter of pride.
No single event in American motorsports boasts a more diverse field of accomplished racers. In sheer numbers alone, the chance to stand at the top of the podium and know you were the best among 340 peers is a staggering accomplishment. And with each passing year, the event seems to get bigger and bigger and, concomitantly, gain in stature.
That this race got away cut deeply. Worse yet, he was going to have to wait a full year to gain redemption.
Now everyone was back, and all were prepared to endure the many steps needed to get to Saturday’s main event. As irrational as the thought was, it seemed as if every single moment, beginning with the first heat race on Monday to Saturday’s pre-race festivities, was perfunctory.
In the back of nearly everyone’s mind was the thought that this was all a dance that led inexorably toward another showdown between Bell and Larson.
Some things were different. Bell had left Keith Kunz Motorsports to join the suddenly-expanding Tucker-Boat Motorsports team. Meanwhile, Larson had formed his own squad, with talented Paul Silva turning the wrenches. Yet, as the old saying goes, the more things change, the more they stay the same.
When all the work had been completed, the 34th running of the Chili Bowl Nationals stayed on script. Once again, the two men who may be the best at their craft at this point in history were poised to go head-to-head once again.
If you are a newcomer to the Chili Bowl, the entire event has to be awe-inspiring. The uniqueness of the building, the overall ambiance, and the non-stop action is nearly head spinning. If you’re a veteran, it’s still amazing to watch how the event has evolved.
There was a time when only Tony Stewart, or others from the NASCAR world, felt a need to cordon their pit area off with barriers. Today, even those whose best finish in 2019 was fourth in a B-Main feel a need to create a degree of separation.
From a time when a folding table with an assortment of lunch meat and white bread was considered a fine spread, now we find teams that appear to offer gourmet food. When gussying up your trailer once meant an occasional inflatable pink flamingo, now comes disco balls and a post-race party featuring dance hits of the 1970’s.
Regardless of the accoutrements, the mere fact that all these race cars and people fit under one roof is still and engineering marvel. After fighting his way through the crowd, Rico Abreu, in a humorous moment remarked, “It is intriguing to me that you can fit 400,000 people in a 400,000 square foot building. It feels like there is that many people in here.”
Reigning BOSS sprint car series champion Matt Westfall is no stranger to the Chili Bowl, having attended the event since 1998. He has had good success here, but he knows the climb gets harder and harder.
“It has changed a lot,” Westfall said. “The competition is a lot tougher now. Everybody has a lot better equipment. It’s cool. It’s a bucket list race. Everybody wants to come to it once, but once you come you want to come back. It gets more packed, but they do a great job keeping everything in order.”
Dave Darland is one of the most popular Chili Bowl participants. Even one as accomplished as “The People’s Champ” knew how difficult it would be to make it to Saturday night’s finale.
“My actual thought is that it used to be better for my situation when there were just 110 cars here,” he said with a laugh. “The cars today have high horsepower and big tires and wear the track out quicker. But it is a great event, and it has come a long ways. It draws a lot of people and interest, and it is certainly good for our sport.”
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