IT HAS been called a Super Bowl on wheels. But the description doesn't quite do the Chili Bowl justice. To get a sense of what it truly is—more of a county fair on wheels, really—set aside six days in mid-January and find your way to Tulsa. Find the 76-foot-tall statue of an oil worker, called the Golden Driller, and walk past his work boots and into the River Spirit Expo Center, the place the Chili Bowl has called home for the last 29 years.
Take a lap to gain an appreciation of everything on offer inside the 354,000-square-foot building. Last month, fans packed the place 20,000 per day. At one end, Polish chicken-dog vendors compete for customers with a lineup of scantily clad women distributing drink vouchers from a local strip club. In the middle, hundreds of truck trailers sit parked in neat rows; behind some of them, men in airbrushed T-shirts hawk parts for midget cars—those 1,000-pound, 350-horsepower open-wheel hellions that serve as the Chili Bowl's feature attraction.
On the opposite end of the Expo Center stands the focus of the action, a quarter-mile oval of smooth clay. More than 300 cars compete there in a series of heats in hope of landing a spot on the grid for the Jan. 17 title race. Survival, let alone victory, is no easy task. To keep these rolling cages on course, a racer must apply aggression and a jeweler's touch in equal measure. In intensity, at least, the Chili Bowl does live up to comparisons with that other big bowl in Arizona.
The skill required to excel on the short track in Tulsa can elevate a driver to racing's major leagues. Once, IndyCar owners scoured this place for prospects. But in recent years, as IndyCar has become dominated by international drivers, the Chili Bowl has drawn more attention from the stock car world. Last month Kurt Busch, Danica Patrick and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. came to watch the races, and Tony Stewart even helped prep the track. For any driver auditioning for the big time, Tulsa offers a spot-lit, clay-covered stage.
For one young driver, at least, the Chili Bowl is more than just a profile booster. From the back of a Kunz Motorsports hauler, Kyle Larson, his fresh face and 5'6", 135-pound frame nearly lost under a black cap and matching hoodie, spins out a recap of his near misses over the past eight years in Tulsa, his passion for the event and its elemental form of racing clear in every word. A checkered flag at the Chili Bowl, the young man says, would mean more to him than winning racing's true Super Bowl—the Daytona 500. That proclamation might sound like naive hyperbole or an also-ran's rationalization were the young man in question not about to make his second start in the Great American Race.
TWENTY-TWO-YEAR-OLD Kyle Larson no longer needs to audition for anyone. He debuted last year while racing in NASCAR's Sprint Cup series. In his 36 starts behind the wheel of the number 42 Target Ganassi Chevy, Larson raced to eight top five finishes and placed among the top 10 on nine other occasions while running away with Rookie of the Year honors. This was after four DNFs, including one in February at Daytona and another in August at Michigan—where he quite literally crashed and burned when a blown right-front tire sent him screaming into the wall. That it wasn't nearly as spectacular as his wreck in a 2013 Nationwide (now Xfinity) race at Daytona—when his car lifted off the track, caromed into the catch fence and disintegrated, injuring at least 28 spectators (Larson was fine)—is a sign of how far he's come.
At the time of the Michigan flameout, Larson was on the cusp of making the Chase for the Cup on points, but the accident effectively took him out of playoff contention. Had Larson been eligible, he might have finished the year ranked no lower than sixth in the driver standings instead of 17th. His average finish of 9.9 in the 10 Chase races trailed only the 6.4 posted by fourth-place driver Joey Logano and series champion Kevin Harvick's 8.0. Larson might have finished even higher had Ryan Newman not nudged him out of the way down the stretch at Phoenix to lock up the final spot in the championship at Homestead.
Larson shrugged it off. "I was upset for maybe 10 to 15 minutes, and then I understood the situation he was in," says Larson. After considering how he might have reacted had he been in Newman's racing shoes, Larson said, "It's tough to say if I would do the same thing. I guarantee you a lot of people would've done the same thing or even worse."
It's tough to say whether Larson is so chill because he's from California or because he is so young. His ascendance comes at a time when NASCAR is in the midst of a changing of the guard. With the stars of the current era in or approaching their 40s, starting families and—in the recent case of Jeff Gordon, NASCAR's senior statesman—beginning to wind down their careers, a new crop of young stars waits in the wings (below). Larson has already garnered praise from old liners such as Gordon and Kasey Kahne. Stewart hopped on the bandwagon when an 18-year-old Larson swept a three-feature slate at Stewart's Eldora speedway in Ohio. But the kid is not all that comfortable with his peers' commendations.
Mike Hull, managing director for owner Chip Ganassi's IndyCar operation, practically had to twist Larson's arm to get him to compete in a Daytona kickoff event, the Rolex 24 on Jan. 24—an endurance sports car race. The prospect of sharing a ride with Ganassi heavyweights Scott Dixon, a three-time IndyCar series titleist; Tony Kanaan, the 2013 Indy 500 winner; and Jamie McMurray, the '10 Daytona 500 champion, intimidated Larson. Hull, though, felt Larson more than belonged in their company. "You don't really understand how good you are," he told his young pilot.
Hull was right. Larson helped guide the team's "star car" to a sixth championship for Ganassi. That victory and Larson's strong late-season run in 2014 have ratcheted up expectations for his sophomore Cup campaign. And why not? He has a formidable technical ally in Chevy, a fast and experienced teammate in McMurray, and one of the best crews in the business—which includes members from the vaunted Hendrick shop. Once Larson bags that first career Cup victory—which should come in the first quarter of the season, most likely on a 1.5-mile track—many more are sure to follow. All the while, he'll be called on to boost a sport whose popularity is waning.
A little more than 20 years ago, when the 21-year-old Gordon first climbed into a Cup car, the idea of tossing the keys to a young man who wasn't yet old enough to rent a car was insane. Now, every owner holds casting calls hoping to land his own Boy Wonder. Seeing all these telegenic young men strutting around the Xfinity and truck series garages with their wisps of facial hair and peppering their interviews with sponsor shout-outs, there's no mistaking their inspiration. "That certainly means a lot," Gordon says of his offspring. "But I'm not the perfect package. Who knows what the perfect package is? Sometimes it's controversy. Sometimes it's somebody who steps outside of his comfort zone. Sometimes it's someone who makes people go, Man, that was crazy—but I like it!
"But first you have to have the talent. If you can't drive the car, none of the other stuff matters."
Of Gordon's many imitators, Larson is the most spot-on. That may be because he was watching Gordon from the day he was born.
YOU KNOW how some music fans get possessive about the acts they "discovered" before they became famous? Mike Larson gets that way about drivers. He and his wife, Janet, will travel just about anywhere for a good race. Both are now retired, but in the mid-1980s, when Janet was a clerk for the State of California and Mike worked for a utility company in Sacramento, they would leave their house in Elk Grove, Calif., and go watch this kid from Vallejo kick up dust in quarter midget features around northern California. His name was Gordon.
The Larsons even followed Gordon to a sprint car event once, in 1985. Though, at age 13, the kid was still too young to race against an adult field, track officials let him go out by himself and turn a few hot laps. Afterward, Mike, who watched from the pits with Janet, turned to her and said, "Get a picture of that kid because he's going to be one of the greatest sprint car drivers ever." Says Mike today, "And then of course he went on way beyond that." Somewhere in their house, there's a picture of the young Gordon relaxing in a lawn chair.
A few years later the Larsons welcomed the second of their two kids, a boy, and barely a month after that they were carting him along to races. He too became a Gordon acolyte. By the time he was in school, Kyle could regularly be seen in a Rainbow Warrior T-shirt, shorts and backpack.
When Kyle turned seven, Mike started taking him to race at the local go-kart track. "I went into it with the mind-set that this was going to be fun," Mike says. "We didn't know how good he was." Kyle would go on to win 135 events over seven years. When he became a teen, he graduated to sprint cars, putting him on a trajectory for IndyCar—which is where most figured Gordon was headed when he followed the same route decades earlier.
Kyle was different than his idol: When Gordon was coming up, California law barred minors from racing sprint cars against adults, but Kyle dominated drivers who were more than twice his age. For Kyle to do that, "I had to get partially emancipated," he says.
In 2011, at age 18, Larson, after graduating from high school, moved to Indiana to race midget cars for Kunz Motorsports. His first year he lived in a vacant three-story house owned by a Kunz team member in Columbus, Ind., without a roommate or a car, and passed the time away from the track by playing a NASCAR video game simulation called iRacing. When he wasn't competing in Indiana, he was back in California racing. "It was huge," he says of the experience. "It helps you grow up quicker."
The following year Larson signed a development contract with Ganassi—but to race stock cars, not IndyCar. For Gordon, who had been tracking Larson's climb and was keen to bring him into the Hendrick fold, the deal was a disappointment. "I tried to talk [owner] Rick [Hendrick] into signing him," Gordon says. "That one got away from us. We weren't in the right position."
If the Hendrick team felt a twinge of regret when Larson went on to win his first stock car start and string together three top 10s in his first four truck appearances, it likely became unbearable when he notched nine top fives and eight other top 10s on the way to becoming 2013 Rookie of the Year in the Nationwide Series.
Still, it's difficult not to imagine how things might have turned out had Larson followed his idol to Hendrick. As big a star as Gordon is now, Larson could become even bigger in the years to come. In fact, Larson is already emerging as a champion to a different constituency.
JANET LARSON is Japanese-American. Her parents were interned at a camp in Tule Lake, Calif., during World War II. She does not talk about this publicly, or to the media at all, really. Her son, who is more at ease in front of a microphone, might be tempted to speak about his grandparents' story, but he knows few details. His experience has been all-American. "I don't eat Asian food or speak any Japanese or anything like that," Kyle says. The most he carries of the Japanese experience is a name, Miyata. It was his mother's maiden name before it became his middle name; two months ago, he passed it along when he and his girlfriend, Katelyn Sweet, welcomed their first child, a boy named Owen—Owen Miyata Larson.
Despite the shallow connection to his Asian roots, Larson is embracing his role in the community. When he appeared at Charlotte's Asian Festival last spring, he was surprised by the number of people who knew of him. Around the same time, a Japanese motor oil maker, ENEOS, sponsored his car in two Nationwide events. Larson finds the attention flattering, if a bit surprising. "I didn't think I would even have to talk about being Japanese-American when I got older and higher into racing," he says. "But I'm accepting now that I'm here because NASCAR is pushing for diversity and it's great. I've already noticed more Asian fans at the racetrack."
NASCAR needs the new blood. Its audience has declined steadily over the past decade, and it has a reputation as the least diverse of the major U.S. sports. A Larson breakthrough might help with both of these problems. So NASCAR fetes him like stock car racing's Tiger Woods.
Larson doesn't shrink from the hype, and he embraces others' attempts to label him as a minority. But he doesn't quite see himself that way—or as a trailblazer, either. Why would he? He can't exactly break into a tradition he's been a part of since birth.
For Larson, racing—not race—comes first. While others freight him with significance, he'll keep obsessing about winning the Chili Bowl.
IN TULSA, after the green flag drops on the 55-lap feature, the crowd rises as Larson charges for the lead, then sags when he spins out, dropping from third to a dead-last 24th. Though he would mount a rousing comeback, all the way to seventh place, his teammate Rico Abreu won the whole shebang on a daring late pass to take the Golden Driller trophy. Three days later Abreu signed his own development deal with Ganassi to race in the K&N series, a NASCAR feeder circuit. No one seemed to care that Abreu, who was born with achondroplasia, stands just 4'4", weighs only 95 pounds and relies on mechanical modifications to reach the steering wheel and pedals.
After the race, no one was thinking about demographics and NASCAR's popularity back at the Kunz Motorsports hauler. There, Janet directed team members and their families through an impromptu photo-op with Abreu's confetti-covered car. Off to one side, her bedraggled but smiling son signed autographs for fans and drank in the scene. Just another Saturday night for the Larson family.
Here's a look at six fresh faces likely to rev up the Sprint Cup ranks in the years to come
While many have underestimated this open-wheel whiz—who stands just 4'4" and weighs 95 pounds due to a condition called achondroplasia, a genetic disorder of bone growth—all he has done is win 26 events across several lower-tier series. The biggest of those victories, which came last month at the Chili Bowl, netted him a ride in the K&N East series. He now has a development deal with Ganassi.
When your dad is Awesome Bill (the 1988 Cup series champ), your car co-owner is Junior (a two-time Daytona 500 winner), and your name seems torn from a Western script, you're going to face expectations. Those have only grown since Elliott won the Xfinity series on his first try in 2014. Now he's been named successor to none other than Jeff Gordon in the number 24 car.
In 2013, his first year racing on the K&N Pro Series East, Rhodes notched two top fives and five additional top 10s on the way to finishing 19th in the standings. In Year 2, he raced the full 16-race schedule and had six poles, five victories and earned the year-end championship going away. This season Rhodes, who still attends Holy Cross High in Louisville, will race 10 Xfinity dates for JR Motorsports.
DARRELL WALLACE JR.
After grabbing a checkered flag in a truck race at Martinsville in the fall of 2013, the first for an African-American driver in 50 years, Wallace won there again in '14 and took three more races while driving for Joe Gibbs Racing. In December, Wallace left that star-crowded garage and signed with Roush Fenway. There he'll race a full Xfinity schedule this season and, presumably, have a much clearer path to the Cup series.
Ladera Ranch, Calif.
Yes, he ran in only nine truck events in 2014. But Custer (son of Joe, VP of Stewart-Haas) acquitted himself well—with two top fives, four more top 10s and a win at Loudon that made him the youngest victor in a NASCAR touring series. Because NASCAR bars anyone under 18 from racing on tracks longer than 1.25 miles, Custer will stick to a limited '15 slate in trucks and the K&N series, where he earned wins in the East and West divisions.
High Point, N.C.
His consistency in Nationwide in 2014—a win (at Bristol), 10 top fives and 13 top 10s in 14 races—was a big part of Team Penske's capturing the owner's championship while relying on five drivers taking turns behind the wheel of the red Mustang. Keeping up that rotation again this year, Blaney will add a part-time Cup schedule with the Wood Brothers, racing the number 21 once campaigned by Hall of Famers David Pearson and Cale Yarborough.
THE ROAD AHEAD
The 2015 Sprint Cup season doesn't lack for juicy story lines. Here are five to track
THE STEWART-HAAS SOAP OPERA
Tony Stewart, coming off his first winless Cup season, is trying to recover from the August sprint car accident that killed Kevin Ward Jr. For his part, Kurt Busch in his second year with the team, is battling accusations of domestic violence from ex-girlfriend Patricia Driscoll. Danica Patrick, who is still seeking her first Cup win, is also looking for a contract extension. And Kevin Harvick is bidding to repeat as Cup champ. The Scandal cast has nothing on this bunch.
NEW PIT ROAD RULES
Officials will no longer go over the wall on pit stops (below); instead, they'll observe the action from a TV bunker. And teams will now be penalized if they tamper with side skirts and fenders—a tactic used to gain an aerodynamic advantage.
Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano got wins in '14 (six and five, respectively) driving Fords they initially feared were underpowered. This year, NASCAR has actually cut horsepower in the Gen 6 car from 850 to 725. Will the old concerns reemerge?
JEFF GORDON'S LONG GOODBYE
Last month, the four-time Cup champ announced that this would be his last season running a full schedule. Expect him to receive the full Jeter from track owners, and be a factor in the Chase again after narrowly missing out on title number 5 in 2014.
THE THRILL OF THE CHASE
After debuting to much protest, the slightly altered format of 2014 was a hit—so much so that there are no plans for further tinkering. But if the Chase fails to reproduce the same excitement and drama in 2015, count on NASCAR going back to the drawing board.