The Absence of Bell, Larson is Felt, but Chili Bowl Keeps Rolling

The promotional group had added to the purse, expects both winners to return.


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"They say the best in the business come to this race so where are they at?"

To become recognized as one of the best in the business, and certainly amongst the best in this building, Tanner Thorson had to defeat Christopher Bell head-to-head and he wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.

It’s how he would have wanted it this year too.

"I don't want to say too much and burn any bridges, but I'm here," Thorson said. "I'm a little bit sour about it to be honest. I wish those guys were here. I have a really good race car again, and I want to race the best, and if the best are supposed to be here, why aren't they here?"

As expected, Kyle Larson and Christopher Bell, winner of five of the past six races before Thorson broke through last year, are not amongst the 370 entrants set to do battle over the next six nights in the Chili Bowl Midget Nationals.

For Larson, especially, it’s the continuation of a year-long point to prove about the purse of the race which stills pays $10,000 to the winner in an era where there are million-dollar races for both Sprint Cars and Late Models.

The 2021 Cup Series champion chose instead to race the Wild West Shootout at Vado Motorsports Park where he can race a Super Late Model for $10,000-to-win five nights in a row before a $25,000-to-win race to close out the week.

Larson has been adamant that he believes the purse should pay more throughout the week, while also conceding that he also just wanted to do something different after 17 consecutive Januarys in the Tulsa Expo Center.

But it’s also true that he rubbed some within the industry the wrong way with how he chose to express that sentiment.

That includes his long-time car owner in Midget Racing, Keith Kunz, the winner of eight Golden Drillers over the past two decades.

"It's kind of a mess," Kunz said. "Christopher, there are some other reasons he's not here. He's gotten drug into it. He's not boycotting this place like Kyle is. Kyle's forgotten where he's come from.

"Same guys are going to be up front -- Buddy (Kofoid), (Tanner) Thorson and Justin Grant. It's a good field of cars."

To that point, it’s hard to imagine Bell not having ultimately raced his hometown dream event if entirely up to him. It’s no secret that Joe Gibbs Racing has grown hesitant of his drivers racing open wheel cars again in the aftermath of the DJ VanderLey incident at the Texas Motor Speedway Dirt Track.

Bell did say in July that he ‘absolutely’ wouldn’t be back if the purse didn’t improve, but the purse has improved, even if not what it pays as a baseline to the winner.

Chili Bowl co-founder and event promoter Emmett Hahn took exception to Larson’s stand, mostly on the basis that he never called to talk about it, before making it a public talking point. During a press conference on Monday, Hahn touted his purse increases throughout the field while expressing hope that Larson would soon return.

He also says Bell reached out personally to let them know it wasn’t entirely his decision. Kunz was also present for the press conference and said he understood why Bell couldn’t race too.

"Christopher is at the point of his career, in NASCAR, to where he is such a valuable asset for their team, and Joe Gibbs Racing is protecting their assets," Kunz said.

But Hahn, always a showman on the stage, turned his attention back to Larson.

"I've got to say this though -- first it was about 'it didn't pay enough' and then the story became it was about the guys in the back of the field," Hahn said. "He bought himself a jet plane, a two and a half million-dollar motorhome and if he really wanted to help these back of the field guys, he would."

To be fair, Larson and Brad Sweet have taken great strides to increase purses in Sprint Car racing through their promotion of Silver Dollar Speedway and the High Limit Sprint Car Series.

And Hahn is genuinely aware of that too.

"I just wish, if Kyle was that mad about the purse, that he would have called me," Hahn said. "But listen, we've had $34,600 added to the purse this year. It still pays $10,000 to win, but it used to be $1000 to start and now it's $1500 to start. We've added B feature money and to the C on back."

And Kunz added a bit too.

"It's not about the purse here."

"That's right," Thorson said, sited between them.

"It's about everyone else out here," Kunz said. "It was a big deal before Kyle and Christopher and it's going to continue to be a big deal."

To Kunz point, this was a race built on the winningest family in the event, the Swindells. Kevin Swindell says the Golden Driller is still just as prestigious today as it was before this storyline.

"You don't think any less of it if you win," said the four-time winner. "As a competitor, you want to beat everyone, but you've also seen people come and go over the years. It's just part of it. They want to do something else for a while, so be it."

There's ultimately two ways of looking at it, too.

On one hand, everyone wants to beat Bell and Larson because they set the bar in this building in the decade after the Swindells set their own bar over the previous two decades. At the same time, this is an opportunity for someone to make the A feature.

And once they get to the A feature, that's two less hurdles to get there.

Rico Abreu has won this race twice by going through them, but doesn't view Thorson, Justin Grant or Buddy Kofoid as pushovers either.

"I don't think anyone looks at it any different," Abreu said. "I look at is as the Chili Bowl. The two years I won, they were here. They were up front, and things happened. Now they've gone a different direction and it's a chance for someone else to build a legacy and win this race.

"Really, I just think about how impressive their streaks were that they were top-five here every year no matter what the circumstances were. I really respect that but this race will create opportunities for someone else to establish their legacy too.

Back to the press conference, Hahn expects to have both Cup stars back in their building.

"Kyle said he's going to be back," Hahn said.

"Where's he parking," Thorson interjected with a wry smile.

"Not where you are," he fired back with a laugh.

"That's what I wanted to hear, got to protect my spot."

He did beat them for it, in a sense.