- British star Tom Harris gets to grips with the clay oval during his Chili Bowl qualifying night. Photo: Colin Casserley

CHEERS AND TEARS AT THE CHILI BOWL NATIONALS

3w ago

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Small margins can have a huge impact when racing on a fifth-mile clay oval inside the Tulsa Expo Raceway against the very best oval racers in the business,

Take NASCAR star Kyle Larson in the main event at this year's Chili Bowl Nationals.

In the Saturday night 55-lap A-Main feature, with the trophy awarded to the winner of the Chili Bowl – the Golden Driller – on the line, Larson was starting his last lap and just 300 yards aways from achieving one of the goals of his racing career.

But Larson was under pressure from his main rival, Christopher Bell, who was closing behind him. He briefly glanced up at the giant live TV screen inside the arena to see where his main threat was, and in so doing made a crucial mistake. In that moment Larson, who had led for the majority the race, drifted wide at the centre of the first bend and left a gap on his inside on its exit.

It was just a car width, but it was enough to give Bell, gunning for his third successive victory at the Chili Bowl in his home state of Oklahoma, the one opportunity he needed.

And he grabbed it. Diving up the inside of Larson, Bell took the lead for the first time in the race down the back straight. Larson, desperate to make amends for the error, tried to force his way past on the final bend. The pair made contact, but Bell took the hit and was able to pull away again and take the chequered flag.

Christopher Bell fends off Kyle Larson on the last bend to take his third straight Chili Bowl victory. Photo: Colin Casserley

An amazing race had ended an incredible week.

For his day job, Bell drives for legendary team owner Joe Gibbs in the NASCAR Xfinity Series. He finished fourth overall last season after seven race wins, including three on the bounce mid-season, having won the NASCAR Camping Truck Series in 2017.

Larson, for his part, is one of the most popular drivers in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, a five-time race winner and drives for Chip Ganassi Racing.

But at the start of the year, both 24-year-old Bell and 26-year-old Larson race midgets at the Chili Bowl, the Super Bowl of midget racing. They take the event very seriously, to the point where they both raced in New Zealand prior to the Chili Bowl to gain valuable seat time.

Many famous names in American oval racing began their careers in these cars – A.J. Foyt, Mario Andretti, Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart all made their mark in the miniature rocket ships. Stewart went on to win the Chili Bowl twice.

Nowadays, it is Bell and Larson who fly the flag for NASCAR, but there are plenty of top-line oval racers from around the world who come to Tulsa to try and make the 'Big Show'.

For Bell, winning the Chili Bowl was time to celebrate with a series of donuts – which ended with his Keith Kunz and Pete Willoughby-owned Toyota-powered Spike/Bullet chassis on its side. No-one cared. For the car's owners, it was their fifth straight success at the Chili Bowl.

Christopher Bell raises the Golden Driller aloft, as runner-up Kyle Larson (right) and third-placed Justin Grant force a smile. Photo: Colin Casserley

But for Larson, once the dust and the fumes inside the arena had settled driving the McDonald’s Keith Kunz Motorsports car, it was a bitter pill to swallow. The year before he also led the race ahead of Bell, before his engine blew with 15 laps to go.

"I could see the big screen and saw he was close," Larson says. "I glanced at the monitor and hoped he wouldn’t be there. He was. I missed the corner and he got inside me. I ran 53 and a half good laps and just didn’t close it out.

“It’s just disappointing to be close to winning a race like this, feeling like I did everything I could until the very end. I just gave it away.”

But he will be back for another try next year.

As will Britain's BriSCA F1 stock car star Tom Harris

For Harris this was his sixth Chili Bowl, and his participation stands out from the crowd because the only time he ever drives a midget car is during the Chili Bowl itself. The first year he took part, just figuring out how to get on and off the track was an issue. Each year he has a brief opportunity to acclimatise to the car during Monday practice – then it is straight in to the event itself.

For most of the year he competes in a completely different form of motorsport. BriSCA F1 stock cars are brutish single-seater, open-wheel, V8-powered 750bhp battering rams that race on quarter-mile shale and Tarmac ovals in Britain and also in The Netherlands. The sport is brash and loud – and uniquely for high-profile short oval motor racing, it is full-contact.

In Britain Tom Harris competes in his 750bhp BriSCA F1 stock car on both Tarmac and shale surfaces. Photo: Neil Randon

So, while in most other forms of motorsport finding a gap to pass someone needs patience, in BriSCA F1, where the grids are based on a handicap system – the best drivers start at the back in a race of 30-plus cars over 20 laps – a driver can legitimately use force get by.

It may be one reason why Harris has found success at the Chili Bowl when he has needed to start at the back of the grid. He is adept at passing cars in a short space of time.

The 30-year-old has improved in leaps and bounds with each Chili Bowl, and this progression resulted in a historic moment at last year's event. Out of more than 350 competitors over five days of competition, Harris became the first European driver in the event's 33-year history to qualify for the 'Big Show', the Saturday night A-Main feature.

It was a stunning achievement that went relatively unnoticed in his own country. Driving for a Bob East team that included top-line World Of Outlaw stars David Gravel and Brady Bacon, the most inexperienced driver of the team was the only one to make the A-Main.

Tom Harris started from pole position in the 2018 B-Main feature and qualified for the A-main. photo: Colin Casserley

To get there he had to qualify via the B-main feature, where he needed a top-six finish from pole position – he got fourth.

In the main event he started at the back of the 24-car grid and finished a highly respectable 16th.

“We had a four-car team and I was the only one who made the show," Harris says. "At the beginning of the week you would have put your money on Gravel or Bacon. Not me.

"After the B-Main on Saturday night we had some oil issues with the car. Well, Brady Bacon and David Gravel were under my car to help try and fix it!"

And prior to that result he also was handed the Hard Charger award during his qualifying night for passing the most cars in that evening's A-main feature.

“To make the A-main on your preliminary night with 97 cars is good really good, but to make the Saturday show is out of this world," Harris says. "People don’t realise that getting to the B- C- or D- Main on Saturday night you’ve done something pretty special.”

A collision cost Tom Harris dearly as it resulted in a flat tyre and a DNF in his opening heat. Photo: Colin Casserley

This year's event did not start so well. Competing for a new team, PPM Racing, driving a different car to the one he had become accustomed to in previous years, but still supported by his main sponsor J.Davidson Scrap Metal, Harris suffered a flat tyre on the opening lap of his heat.

A DNF was not the way he wanted to begin his Chili Bowl Nationals, as it meant he had to start near the rear of the grid in the C-Main feature that night to try and progress into the B-Main and then the A-Main feature.

Top-four finishes were needed in both and he got them. Using his F1 stock car experience to the fore, Harris cut through the field from the back in both the C- and B-Mains to finish second and fourth respectively.

He was into the night's A-Main, but again had to start at the back of the 24-car grid. He finished a commendable 16th.

But what a difference a year makes.

The flat tyre cost him dearly. Whereas a year earlier he finished just one slot away from automatic qualification into the 'Pole Shuffle' and a chance to highlight his skills in a 12-car battle for pole position for the A-Main feature, this year he had to try and go through feature 'alphabet soup'. This meant starting in the D-Main feature to try and and qualify for the C-Main, from the C-Main he had to finish in the top five to get into the B-Main, then hope to get the rub of the green to make into from the back of the B-Main into the A-Main. A tall order.

Last year Harris was the only one out of himself, Gravel and Bacon to make the Big Show, this year they made it – and he didn't.

Tom Harris flies the flag for Britain at the Chili Bowl Nationals along with his sponsor Jamie Davidson (blue jacket) and family. Photo: Colin Casserley

Prior to the D-Main the track was regraded and watered. It meant a decision had to be made on set-up, and Harris' crew chief – with agreement from Harris himself – believed the car needed less grip for the track. They were wrong. They needed more, and as a result Harris struggled for traction as the track became slick and dropped to 16th and out of contention.

But it was a lesson learned for when he returns in 2020.

"During qualifying I got more and more comfortable with the car,” Harris says. “And the guys got it better and better every time I hit the track. We had a good run considering the DNF in the heat.

"Then on Saturday they reworked the whole track and put plenty of water on it. They then wheel-packed it in just like a fresh track. But it went slick and blew dust after only a couple of laps, so we completely misjudged it. The car was way too loose.

"But for all of that, I can’t wait for next year."

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