Why the Chili Bowl is the Kingmaker of American Motorsports

The Chili Bowl Midget Nationals is where stars are made.

It’s a kingmaker.

The most prestigious dirt midget race of the year only pays $10,000-to-win, but that’s not the point, because everyone who makes the annual exodus to the River Spirit Expo are not particularly concerned with the purse anyway.

The racers come for pride, communion and for the Golden Driller.

“That trophy is definitely very important to me and it’s nothing fancy,” defending winner Kyle Larson said. “It probably doesn’t cost very much money to get a bunch of these made, but it’s the meaning behind it that I think is so awesome.

“That’s why we all go there trying to win it. When you hold up that Driller, you’re the only guy holding it up that week.”

It’s a place where careers are launched, and where permanent legacies are established. There have been just 21 winners in 34 years, meaning this race is often won in bunches, with three drivers having a combined 12 wins.

That’s Sammy Swindell (5), Kevin Swindell (4) and Christopher Bell (3) by the way.

Winning the Chili Bowl once makes you a legend, winning it multiple times makes you a GOAT, and even coming close is enough to make you a star.

“It’s just knowing that you’re on that banner for the rest of time when everyone walks in is big,” the younger Swindell said. “It’s big and it’s definitely something you carry with you.

“Everyone knows who you are when you win this race. It’s one of the four or five things I’m going to always carry with me. It’s someone coming across you and remembering, ‘yeah, you won the Chili Bowl.”

That’s forever.

Bell and Larson have won the past four Chili Bowls combined, and the race has been decided amongst themselves each year during that span. They’re both NASCAR Cup Series contenders now, but their legends began in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in pursuit of the Golden Driller.

Larson making the feature in 2010 at 18-years-old in just his sixth Midget start placed him on the figurative map. He won the Belleville Midget Nationals a year later and started to appear on every top prospect list across the country.

He was making NASCAR Pro Series appearances a year after that.

Bell replaced Larson as the full-time driver of the Keith Kunz house car in 2013 and immediately validated the expectations with 15 wins and a third-place finish in the 2014 Chili Bowl Nationals at 18-years-old.

He became a Toyota Racing Development driver later that year — confirming the kingmaking prowess of this race.

Cannon McIntosh, 18, seems to be the next to inherit the title of next-generation superstar at the Chili Bowl Midget Nationals. He finished 10th in his debut in 2019 driving for his family owned team and then finished third in 2020 after winning a preliminary feature earlier in the week driving that same Keith Kunz house car.

“Anytime you can be on the podium of the Chili Bowl, you should treat it like it is, especially since it was just my second Chili Bowl,” McIntosh said. “You know, beating the record for youngest preliminary winner or the second youngest podium finisher.

“That was a win to me, understanding that Kyle Larson and Christopher Bell were the only ones stopping me from winning, and they’re just on another level.”

Buddy Kofoid, 18, finished third in his preliminary race last year, prompting Bell to draw comparisons to himself, with the younger Kunz driver finishing the feature in seventh.

“When I look at him, I literally, like, see me right here,” Bell said during the postrace press conference. “I’ve been watching him for a while now and he’s actually got a little bit of a head start on me as far as experience.

“He started in sprint car a little earlier than I did. When I started with Keith (Kunz), I was 18, and I sure didn’t finish third in my first Chili Bowl preliminary. I remember telling Keith and Pete that Buddy was the next guy and I’m just so glad Keith and Pete took a chance on Buddy, and the sky is the limit.”

Kofoid ended the season with three late-season USAC National Midget Series victories, including the November Classic at Bakersfield Speedway in California, where he outdueled Larson head-to-head.

That’s going to pay a lot more if he can do it next Saturday.

So, for anyone planning to watch the Chili Bowl next week, come for the names you know like Larson, Bell, Rico Abreu, Kasey Kahne, Ryan Newman and Santino Ferrucci. Stay for the names you may not, like McIntosh, Kofoid, Kaylee Bryson, Daison Pursley, Andrew Layser and Cole Bodine.

When Abreu won two in a row from 2015-16, the achievement caught the attention of Larson’s Cup Series boss, Chip Ganassi, who became a valuable friend and supporter during the brief NASCAR run that followed his two wins in Tulsa.

“Winning that race opens up so many different doors to so many racing worlds,” Abreu said. “It’s not just Sprint Car and Midget fans who are watching it. Everyone in racing watches the Chili Bowl.

“They understand how difficult it is to actually win inside the building so when you do, and they realize how young you are, or what your background it is, it just created so many opportunities elsewhere in racing for me.”

Even though Abreu’s NASCAR career didn’t quite take off, Ganassi still wants to enter his friend into the Indianapolis 500 someday.

That gesture doesn’t happen without Tulsa.

NASCAR Hall of Famer Tony Stewart comes back just to help groundskeeper Brad ‘Gravel’ Chandler maintain the racing surface each January. The VIP section includes executives from NASCAR, IndyCar and various other motorsport councils.

The Chili Bowl Midget Nationals features some of the best racing anywhere, but it’s also some of the most consequential races of the year, and it shows every time the past, present and future contenders unload in Tulsa.

It’s because the Golden Driller is also a crown.

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