Bell Versus Larson Isn't the Only Chili Bowl Storyline

There is a record entry list, a dozen true contenders and debate about the purse

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The thing about the most compelling stories is that the obvious ending is just as rewarding as a surprise. The 36th annual Chili Bowl Midget Nationals have an obvious dramatic hook in Kyle Larson versus Christopher Bell, but a surprise winner would be a rewarding last chapter too.

But the entire book is worth reading.

Consider that only 10 drivers will have locked into the main event by Friday afternoon by virtue of finishing first or second in their qualifying race. That leaves 14 spots for the remaining 384 drivers -- a record total of 394 entries.

Everyone has a story within this larger story.

By now, you know the names of those realistically seeking the Golden Driller: Larson, Bell, Abreu, Grant, Kofoid, Seavey, Thorson, Courtney and McIntosh. Some of those other stories will end before the feature. Champions from other disciplines like Chase Elliott, or marquee pavement event winners like Travis Braden, are only just starting their stories on dirt.

For others, Tulsa Time is just a reason to turn laps and drink beer. But everyone has a story this week and that communion over competition story begins now.

Bell Versus Larson

Bell and Larson race for the win in 2018 (Teejay Crawford)

By now we know the narrative of the past five years. Christopher Bell won three in a row from 2017-2019, frequently at the expense of Kyle Larson. For his part, Larson broke through in 2020 and doubled-up last year with Bell in the mix both times as well.

They are the Chili Bowl Midget Nationals right now.

But there is more to the dynamic. While there has always been a tremendous amount of respect between them, their relationship has hardened somewhat.

Larson was always something of a prodigy during his ascent through the Dirt Midget ranks and wasn’t challenged in terms of pure natural ability until Bell came along. When Toyota lost Larson to Chevrolet after spearheading his development, Bell was seen as a second chance to not lose that caliber of versatile contender.

Bell and Larson have battled in Midgets, Sprint Cars and NASCAR, and have always offered tepid praise for each other over the past decade. Then came the NASCAR Cup race at Watkins Glen in August when Bell spun off the nose of Larson while racing for second. Larson went on to win the race, which was especially frustrating for Bell, who felt he had the stronger car and would have won the race.

Larson sent Bell an overnight text that simply read "Sorry, hate I spun you." When Bell didn’t immediately respond, Larson told SiriusXM NASCAR Radio that he felt Bell wasn’t willing to have a conversation, which only further irritated Bell.

They traded missed phone calls after that, but never talked about the incident, and it remained a kind of underlying tension throughout the fall. Both drivers don’t like talking about it, mostly in that they similarly prefer to avoid confrontations and rivalries, that last word especially jarring to both.

But it would not be a surprise to see their latest chapter in Tulsa written on Saturday night, as it has been for each of the previous five years. It’s a storyline that will surely continue in NASCAR and Sprint Car competition too, two of the biggest talents continuing to battle on the brightest stages, across various disciplines.

The Field

Justin Grant defeated Kyle Larson in the VIROC

Tyler Courtney loves Kyle Larson like a brother.

One of the coolest accomplishments of his career was celebrating dual Kings Royal victories with Larson. They shared a few beers that night before Larson had to jump on a late jet to New Hampshire to compete in the Cup Series race.

But it has to be a little annoying for the All Stars Sprint Car champion to continually answer questions about Larson and Bell. Sunshine has his own prodigious resume, after all, but he does because he’s a professional like that.

He acknowledges how talented his friend is and how motivating the challenge to beat him is.

And then there’s T-Mez, Thomas Meseraull, who chuckles at questions about the recent dominance of Larson and Bell.

"They put their fire suits on the same way we do," Meseraull said. "They're beatable. I don't feel like they're any better than we are. They're in great stuff and they bring the same package here every year and just continue to build off that."

T-Mez says having Justin Grant, Brad Sweet, David Gravel and Spencer Bayston as teammates will get their notebook on par to Keith Kunz and Paul Silva’s.

For his part, Grant was more diplomatic in conceding where Bell and Larson separate from the rest of the pack.

"When you race with Kyle and Christopher, it’s tough because they’re just so good at knowing where to place their cars and when to make certain moves," Grant said. "It’s a game and they’re the best players at it. And I say that as someone who feels like he’s pretty good at it, too."

It does speak volumes about Larson and Bell that there are 350 drivers in Tulsa every year, and at least a dozen that have a legitimate shot at the Golden Driller every year, and it comes down to those two every year over the past half-decade.

Before that, it was Rico Abreu who completed back-to-back wins, so he knows what it takes to be at that level.

"It’s just about reaching a point where you slow things down," Abreu said. "That allows you to put yourself in good positions."

Chase Briscoe says ‘they’re beatable’ too even if he doesn’t think he is quite at that point yet, but also pointed to Grant.

"Larson even said Grant probably would have beat him if it wasn’t for the video board," Briscoe said. "But, it’s really impressive what they’re doing right now.

You go back to when Sammy and Kevin (Swindell) were winning all those races, it was kind of a different era of Chili Bowl where they were really the only guys that had the special built cars. It wasn’t easy, but I think there were fewer guts who were capable of winning and I believe you could make the case that there are 30-50 cars that theoretically could."

The difference between the 30-50 and the two that have kept winning over the past five years, Briscoe said, is the guys behind the wheel.

"It’s very impressive," Briscoe said. "It’s not frustrating, even if I want to be at that level, but I really respect how long they’ve kept this run going and how they’ve been able to do it. They’re just really good drivers with good teams."

The Purse

During the Monday morning opening press conference for the Chili Bowl Midget Nationals, event founder Emmett Hahn was asked just how bigger the Chili Bowl could get with a race that literally can’t fit a single additional fan or another race car.

Sitting on the other side was Kyle Larson, who offered a suggestion.

"The purse is going to grow," Larson said with a I'm joking but not really kind of laugh.

"You’ve had your say," Hahn said back … also with a I'm joking but not really kind of laugh.

Hanh would go on to tout the increased contingency sponsorships that had been signed, but the point remains that the race still pays $10,000-to-win, a remarkably low number given the number of teams that participate every January.

With that said, rent for the Tulsa Expo Center for a month between the Tulsa Shootout and Chili Bowl is surely an astronomical amount, too.

At the same time, the event has a television rights and broadcast rights agreement for no small amount either. But while drivers and teams continue to chirp about the number, they also continue showing up in record droves each year, 395 to be exact in 2021.

"I make my living off of purses, so of course I would want it to be more," Justin Grant says. "If there's 400 cars coming through the gates, it probably should be more, but if I'm them, why would I if we keep coming?"

His RMS Racing teammate Thomas Meseraull was not as cordial.

"It’s absolutely unbelievable that we only race for 10k," Meseraull said. "It’s a sore subject for sure. The Chili Bowl has done so much for my career and I’ve been coming here for 21 years so I do appreciate what the opportunity to race here has done for me.

"But it does suck that it doesn’t pay more. Every prelim night has almost 100 cars. But I don’t feel like it’s ever going to change because they keep getting more cars. And again, if we didn’t have the Chili Bowl, we wouldn’t be racing. I make more off of shirts this week than I do the purse, but it is a sore subject."

There has casually been talks of boycotting the event amongst top drivers, but it was never unified enough to actually happen, and there are some drivers who simply don’t care too much about the purse.

To them, the race is about the prestige and fun, even if they wish the race paid more.

Perennial contender Logan Seavey tried to be diplomatic.

"There's arguments every direction, obviously," Seavey said. "I see their side. I'm sure this building's rent per month is unbelievable. But you look here on a Monday and this place is already packed. But he wouldn’t keep doing this if he wasn’t making good money off it.

"But, to win only win $10,000 for a race where you beat 390 other drivers, that kind of sucks but I’m not going to pretend to understand everything that goes into it either. At the same time, pit passes keep going up, too and the purse is still the same as its been for as long as I’ve come here."

Ultimately, Hahn says he’s genuinely going to keep looking at the purse as the event grows and he’s not entirely dismissive of the driver’s arguments.

But he wouldn’t elaborate much.

"We’ve grown the Saturday purses this year," Hahn said. "Last year, with COVID putting us down to 25 percent, and that was a challenge. That was an insurance thing, Kyle. I just don’t want to get burned."

Kidding not kidding.

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