The Underdogs, Unsung Heroes, And Storytellers Of The Chili Bowl

Auto racing in general is definitely full of its share of  colorful characters. However, the Chili Bowl Nationals is like a reunion for down-home racing folk. Like any good family gathering, the River Spirit Expo Center is never lacking in personality during the entire week of racing activities.

J.J. Yeley is one of the favorites at the Chili Bowl. He is one of only two drivers who have captured USAC’s Triple Crown in a single season. Tony Stewart is the other.

Sharing at least one thing in common — the love of racing — one can always count on seeing some of the most interesting people on the planet roaming the pit area. Some are here to race, despite the odds being stacked against them. Many are here to support the racers in various ways, from crew chiefs to cheerleaders. Others, are simply here to reminisce about the glory-filled, days-gone-by with their racing buddies.

You Get What You Pay For

Recent NASCAR retiree, Kasey Kahne, has joined Tony Stewart in the golden years of retirement. They both focus on dirt track racing these days.

For most of us (the fans that is), we come from far and wide to witness our heroes wheel these incredible, fire-breathing machines. Usually holding our breath, we watch as these brave men and women defy physics (and logic) as they harness the sheer energy from the beasts they have chosen to strap into. The good ones make it look easy. The others are not so fortunate, as they struggle behind the wheel, proving to the world that they are mortals like the rest of us.

The successful racers will tell you the more laps you make, the more things appear to slow down. This allows your senses to evaluate the moves with more precision and confidence. Over time, these highly developed reflexes replace decisions, and the moves made in each corner become an engrained pattern. Another huge factor in one’s racing performance on the track is the quality of the equipment.

Esslinger Engines bring a lot of power in its midget-engine package. They are proof that you get what you pay for.

Without a doubt, a newer, bigger, or more advanced engine, is the best way to gain speed. A wiseman once said, “They call this motorsports . . . not chassis-sports.” However, there is one common denominator in all of the possible areas of improvement — money! Not everyone can afford a new chassis or a new engine. Few teams can afford to replace bodywork with carbon-fiber skins, or steel parts with super-light titanium. As with most things in life, you get what you pay for.

They had more speed, of course, but my $400 junkyard motor was just enough to hold them back, as long as I stayed in the low groove. — Robert Bell, the Colfax Comet

“Haves” And “Have Nots” 

With over 350 entries on hand to do battle within the River Spirit Expo Center during this year’s running of the Chili Bowl Nationals, there is definitely some disparity in the quality of equipment separating the “haves” from the “have nots.”

As a fan, it is hard not to root for the underdog. There are the entries that show up with obvious equipment advantages. There are also a good amount of drivers who show up just to prove to themselves, their families, and their fans that they can compete on the same stage. Then there are those few who just show up for the party – and become the life of the party. There is a select group of racers who, despite having inferior equipment, create a legacy of their own just through sheer determination. Those are the ones who hold our attention.

The powerful Keith Kunz Motorsports team doesn’t want for much. With top-level drivers and factory support, this team is always one of the favorites. Here Keith Kunz is being interviewed in the pits.

A perfect example of someone who fits this category is Robert Bell. Affectionately known to his fans as “The Colfax Comet,” this dude tows a tired and well-used racer on an open trailer to Tulsa each year from Colfax, Iowa. He knows he is competing against the best equipment money can buy. He sees the cars that are brought to the event, out of the elements, and carefully tucked inside NASCAR-style haulers. None of this weakens his spirit to race and win. But it does win him fans. Real hardcore race fans.

The Passion Of Robert Bell

Possibly having something to do with the fact that it was on a “Friday the 13th,” Robert Bell warmed the hearts of his avid followers and made a ton of new fans, as he drove to a heat race victory in the 2017 Lucas Oil Chili Bowl preliminaries. The crowd roared as he defeated some tough competition and solidified his right to be a fixture in this prestigious event. No one had money on Mr. Bell that evening. He seemed to do the impossible. He crossed the checkers first in a dirty ‘ole heap, ahead of the purpose-built whips wheeled by the best in the business.

Entering the River Spirit Expo Center this week, the sight of the “Colfax Comet” was one of the first things to grab our attention. He was sharing a moment with some of his fans. We stopped by his pit to catch a few words and inquire how his car felt during the practice session on Monday.

Robert Bell, the “Colfax Comet.”

“It felt great! We were a rocket on the bottom,” Robert belted. “The fast guys couldn’t get around me,” he continued with a huge smile. “They had more speed, of course, but my $400 junkyard motor was just enough to hold them back, as long as I stayed in the low groove.”

A $400 motor . . . seriously? Many in the competition have $30-$50,000 powerplants — and some with factory-engineering support. It doesn’t seem possible he could show up with something seemingly so inferior and hope to compete.

Robert explained that he had just installed a 2.4-liter Chevrolet Ecotec motor from a junkyard that was pulled from a Chevy Cobalt. He pointed to a fresh puddle of oil forming just below the race car. “Just like my Harley [Davidson], I ain’t worried unless it stops leaking!” he said with a laugh. Unbelievable.

Robert Bell’s right rear tire and fresh oil leak.

Cheering For The Underdog

Robert continued to explain that the right rear tire (which takes most of the abuse and is responsible for providing the most traction in all four corners), had been mounted on his car for the practice session. It was well worn. “I’ve got one new tire, but I ain’t going to waste it for practice. Last year, I put a new tire on for practice and I got run over,” he said. “I lost the tire before the races started and I’m not letting that happen again.”

Here’s a guy, with a tiny trailer, and a modest truck to pull it. He brings an older and heavier race car, with a leaky junkyard motor, and far less horsepower than the class of the field. He only has one good right rear tire to last the entire week and very few well-worn spares. If you wonder why he is here, the answer is simple: He is here to compete for the win like everyone else. He is a racer, he loves the event, and he loves competing against the best. His passion is infectious and each year his fan base grows.

Robert Bell’s wheelchair push vehicle.

Later in the evening, we saw the “Colfax Comet” pushing a competitor’s race car from their pit stall up to the staging area. In true Robert Bell fashion, he was pushing the car using an electric wheelchair with a makeshift push bar in place of foot rests. How can ya not love a guy like that? Robert’s chances of tasting victory may be slim this week, but he is definitely one of the underdogs that we will be pulling for.

The Storytellers

It is no secret that the Chili Bowl attracts a ton of talented people to come try their hand at racing on the 1/5-mile clay oval. We read about the more successful ones all the time. Heroes like Sammy and Kevin Swindell, Christopher Bell, or Tony Stewart. We are inundated with articles, videos, and recaps that tell us all about the “next big thing.” And, we certainly know about the NASCAR, IndyCar, and drag racing shoes who enter the competition. When we wander around the pits, our crew is just as fascinated watching some of the “good ole boys” hustling about and telling stories.

There may not be a more colorful character than the man they call “The Smokin’ Okie.” An Oklahoma native, Tobey Sampson comes from a racing family and has an incredible amount of dirt track experience and knowledge. Tobey has a lengthy resume of racing on dirt tracks in both his home state and in Southern California. He has also become a respected fabricator, who many local racers trust to build and repair their racing machines. He has an eye for talent and a unique way of describing things.

Tobey Sampson, “The Smokin’ Okie.”

When it comes to the history of dirt track race cars, particularly the sprint cars, modifieds, and midgets, you’d be hard pressed to find a more passionate aficionado than this man. The racing blood is thick within the entire family.

Tobey recently lost his older brother, Tommy Sampson Jr., who Tobey affectionately called “Lum.” Tommy was originally from Moore, Oklahoma, and was a pivotal member (if not the founder) of the “Bottom Row Boozers.” This group is one of the many regular groups that collect at the event. You can find the “Bottom Row Boozers” every year, sitting in the same spot in the backstretch bleachers near Turn 2.

Want to know about the 100-inch cars that ran at the big tracks in Oklahoma during the peak of racing in this state? If so, do yourself a favor and go pay a visit to Tobey in the pits after the races. Bring a couple of cold ones. Just look for the memorial banner for “Lum” and you’ll find him — most likely with a wrench in-hand helping one of the racers. If you’ve got a race car yourself, you may be lucky enough to score an “Okie” decal, which Tobey’s son Tyler brings to the races to remind us of the fight against Autism.

The Old-Timers

As usual, stories (and some myths) flow within the steel walls of the Expo Center. Prior to today’s racing action, tales were overheard from some of the better-known racing types including Nelson Stewart (Smoke’s father), “Cactus” Jack Yeley (JJ’s father), and even the event promoter himself, Emmett Hahn. What the interviewers don’t always uncover are the intriguing (and often hilarious) recounts of days-gone-by from some of the lesser known, yet extremely important members of the racing community. These stories make the Chili Bowl Nationals a must-attend show each year.

Nelson Stewart. Tony Stewart’s father. He knows where all the bodies are buried. Photo by Razz Barlow.

Racing historian and car owner, Robert Woodland, had those surrounding the Mark Lowrey #86 entry enthralled as he recalled stories involving some of the legendary CRA (California Racing Association) and World of Outlaws wheelmen of the past. These stories included standouts Ronnie “The Flying Shoe” Shuman and Rip Williams.

Robert’s father, Richard (“Dick”) Woodland, was a West Coast racer with a storied career and continues to be a part of the racing scene. The Woodland family now own and operate a beautiful racing and historical automotive museum in Paso Robles, California. The stories about the machines and the brave men and women who sat inside them are endless. It is worth the trip — trust us.

Event promoter and co-founder, Emmett Hahn, showing off his new Rico Mullet Hat. These hats are only sold at the event, which is another one of those special things that makes the Chili Bowl unique.

On Tuesday (the second day of the event), Elk Grove, California-native and NASCAR standout Kyle Larson recorded his fifth preliminary night Feature win during the 33rd running of the Chili Bowl Nationals. As Kyle celebrates another well-deserved victory with the entire KKM team, just a hop, skip, and a jump away are the underdogs that continue to inspire us. The unsung heroes that will forever warm our hearts, and the storytellers that keep us intrigued and preserve the heritage of our great sport.

Kyle Larson in the winner’s circle. Photo courtesy of Chili Bowl Nationals.

About the author

Doug Bushey

Doug Bushey cut his teeth in Auto Racing by spending the majority of his youth racing Quarter-Midgets on the West Coast. Hooked on the sport ever since, he had been involved in Motorsports for over four decades.
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