This year’s 2020 Chili Bowl Midget Nationals in Tulsa, Oklahoma is just another coming out party for two of the greatest dirt talents we’ve seen this past decade. If wishful thinking has it, we hope the Kyle Larson and Christopher Bell rivalry continues to grow as it will be on display nationally on Sunday’s for years to come, starting in February.
From everything I know, this rivalry is civil. The two respect each other and always create the best racing at any race track and any surface, including the Chili Bowl.
The past three years, Bell, who hails from Norman, Okla., has bested Larson. One year ago at the Chili Bowl, Bell earned what he considers his biggest win of his career, scoring three in-a-row and beating Larson in Turn 4 on the final lap.
“That was probably the most exciting win of my career, I’ve never had a last lap pass on a big stage like that,” Bell said on Episode 28 of the Rip the Fence podcast.
When asked if Bell has gotten under Larson’s skin over the years Bell said, “I don’t know about that.”
“I don’t know if you guys see a different face of Kyle every time I see him we are on great terms. He’s beaten me plenty, and it’s not fun.
“When I beat him last year the press conference was tough. I felt bad for beating him, but i was heartbroken for him, because I do care about Kyle and that’s his number one race he wants to win, and he had it till the last lap.”
Piloting a midget for the best team in midget racing over the past decade, Bell and Keith Kunz Motorsports with Pete Willoughby have been the best car in the building come Saturday’s in Tulsa.
“Larson has been my number one supporter,” Bell said. “He spoke to the NASCAR media about me when I was upcoming, and even tweeted about me. He’s been my best supporter from the start. I’ll never be better than him, we’ve all witnessed what he can do in a race car.”
There’s a good chance he’s not wrong. Larson has been a close second in Tulsa over the years and both are riding tons of momentum heading into a 2020 NASCAR Cup Series campaign that features a series debut for Bell in Daytona for Leavine Family Racing.
Bob Leavine, owner of the team, that has recently acquired Bell’s racing talents through a partnership with Toyota, has been very supportive of Bell this off-season after a bad crash overseas.
— Bob Leavine (@BLeavine) December 28, 2019
Bell, according to team owner Leavine, on his own accord left the popular vacation destination this NASCAR off-season as it was first reported by racinboys.com. He decided to focus on the 2020 Cup Series schedule and prepare for the Chili Bowl.
Bell has recently moved dirt teams siding with friend, and all around good-guy, former Xfinity Series driver Chad Boat to not only compete in a midget at the Chili Bowl in 2020, but also the two built a sprint car together, and have recently talked Toyota Racing Development into creating a sprint car engine. Both Bell and Boat won a World of Outlaw race this past season in their first series event together.
Larson on the other hand has been just as busy and even more on fire as he’s been unstoppable since leaving the second-best car in the building at Tulsa one year ago. Bell’s former teammate at KKM, Larson, has beat him and the entire dirt community on multiple occasions, including a cool $32,000 pay day at Placerville Speedway, the Turkey Night Grand Prix, the Gateway Nationals and most recently a win at the Huntly International Speedway in New Zealand.
The decision to leave Kunz’s team was a tough one for Larson, who told the popular midget car owner in February and the two split on good terms.
“I’m so close to winning the Chili Bowl, I’d be stupid to leave the best team in the building,” thought Larson, “deep down you just don’t know unless you try. I thought the time was now to do something different.
“I believe Christopher’s comments about Keith and leaving the team came across wrong. Racing for Keith is awesome. You know your stuff is going to be amazing every time you’re at the track. I don’t feel any pressure.
“The hard thing for me, and I don’t know about the rest, but it’s managing so many teams,” Larson said. “They have done a much better job the past couple years. I kind of wanted to get to a more relaxed state, one car, laid back and having fun. I always had fun with Keith. I love Keith and Pete and still want to race with them.”
Rocking a black eye from a flip earlier in the week at Western Springs in New Zealand, Larson has been on a tear with Paul Silva, a popular sprint car owner and mechanic from California. Silva has housed Larson’s cars ever since his first move to Indiana and beyond. This is Silva’s first time ever wrenching on a midget, and it couldn’t have gotten off to a better start.
Larson says Silva and him have great chemistry.
“Before i worked with him I heard he was hard headed, and would get into drivers, and I’ve never experience that with him,” Larson said. “There’s a lot of times I make mistakes, and he just rolls with it and that’s the confidence we have in each other.”
If there are mistakes, there aren’t many and a win that has eluded Larson is the Chili Bowl Nationals. This winter would be a cherry on top of an off-season sundae that Larson has enjoyed nicely.
Larson was so close one year ago, which still haunts him after a lap 55 mistake.
“It definitely kept me up at night following some of the losses, but the pain goes away.” Larson said.
The wins surely have numbed the pain. Larson’s off-season has been incredible, winning in anything and everything he sits in.
You see, Larson and Bell are special. They’re a special talent, once in a decade – maybe even a generation – and we should appreciate any time they have the ability to race on dirt, in front of all fans, including NASCAR.
“Kyle has the rawest talent of any driver who has ever sat in a race car,” Bell said. “Watch video of him, chin up, floating around the track with no effort. I don’t have that ability.
“I drove for Rick Ferkel. He told me you have to drive hard. If they are lifting at the banner on the wall, drive one car length past the banner. Pete Willoughby, car owner with Keith Kunz taught me to calm down a bit, he would tell me it’s not about driving the hardest, it’s about winning. It’s effortless for Kyle, it’s not for me.”
After a tough tumble in New Zealand, Larson has been responding to naysayers on Twitter for saying he should not be racing on dirt.
His NASCAR owner Chip Ganassi has been nothing but supportive of Larson during his racing. Larson has a contract, which details how many dirt races he gets, and he honors it. He respects Ganassi a ton, after all the popular NASCAR owner has given Larson a chance in the Cup Series. Ganassi is most likely hoping the two will stay together for years to come, while sending his popular “I like winners tweets.”
— Chip Ganassi (@GanassiChip) December 22, 2019
It will be interesting to see what kind of NASCAR contract deals both Larson and Bell work in the future. Safety innovations continue to advance in dirt racing, and soon we will get back to the days of AJ Foyt running the Indy 500, the Daytona 500… maybe even combined with a Knoxville Nationals or Chili Bowl effort. We all appreciate different forms of racing for their value to motorsports and this scenario could certainly happen.
Larson has received support from Ganassi the past two seasons on a Michigan Cup weekend to run a preliminary night at Knoxville. Larson even flew back to Knoxville on Saturday two years ago to finish second to Donny Schatz in the Knoxville Nationals and then flew back to Michigan only to win a Cup race the following day. This is highly unlikely that will happen for Bell this season, but you never know.
With Bell in his rookie season and Larson going into his seventh full-time season in Cup, just sit back and enjoy what hopes to be motorsports best kept secret – a Bell and Larson rivalry that most of us have witnessed on a weekly basis for years.
If you’re a true race fan you’ll enjoy the fruits of Bell and Larson’s success. Whether you support dirt or asphalt, quit trolling them on Twitter about doing what they love and turn the TV or radio on Sunday’s and enjoy the drama that is big time stock car racing, because that kid in the living room rooting for Larson or Bell is some day going to show up at a speedway or dirt track and buy a ticket. Their parents are going to buy a beverage and a t-shirt just like I did with Tony Stewart, and Bryan Clauson, Donny Schatz, Steve Kinser and so many before them. Start by programming the Daytona 500 in February into your calendar and sit back and witness open wheel dirt stand outs who have finally made it to the Cup Series. Or just buy a pay-per-view subscription and watch this year’s Chili Bowl Midget Nationals. If it’s anything like the 2019 edition your money will be well spent.
Bell and Larson’s relationship continues to bud. They’ll be competing for rival manufacturers in the Cup Series and different teams at this year’s Chili Bowl.
“I felt awful, it was the most torn I have ever been.” said Bell about beating Larson a year ago on the final lap. “As excited as it’s been for me to win that big of a race, it’s more heart breaking for the guy sitting next to me.”
And would he have felt the same for any other driver?
“No definitely not.” he laughed.
The opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the positions of the Motor Racing Network.