January 8, 2023 Bryan Davis Keith
With more than 360 cars entered for this week’s Chili Bowl Nationals, there’s no shortage of talent coming to the Tulsa Expo Center.
Still, it’s a very different field this year. NASCAR Cup Series regulars Christopher Bell and Kyle Larson, who account for four of the last five Chili Bowl wins, will not be racing. Defending race winner Tanner Thorson is coming off a supremely disappointing 2022 season.
It’s easily arguable that this is the most wide-open Chili Bowl field in recent memory.
Enter Gavan Boschele.
Anyone who follows midget racing by this point knows who Boschele is, even at the ripe age of 14. Boschele is no stranger to victory lane in midget racing, having won a feature in the inaugural visit of the Xtreme Outlaw Series to Millbridge Speedway last May.
Rewind to the Chili Bowl a year ago and Boschele proved racy enough to make a B-main. Now fast forward to 2023 and momentum is on his side, having scored his first career Driller in the Tulsa Shootout two weeks ago after a hard-fought (and clean) battle with good friend Jace Park.
“We talked about the whole week about sliding each other for the win, starting on the front row, so it was kind of cool that it actually happened,” Boschele said of his late-race triumph. “We never thought that we’d be side by side racing for a Driller.”
Speaking to Boschele last week, the young driver was adamant that having one of those coveted Driller trophies in his pocket wasn’t going to change his approach to the upcoming Chili Bowl, even if the win left him more confident. What’s more, a revamped Chili Bowl format that has seen practice moved from Monday to Sunday isn’t changing his approach either; Boschele is slated to run his qualifier on Monday night (Jan. 9), the opening night of competition for the week-long event.
“Last year Keith (Kunz, car owner) picked that date for us because we had practice late that morning and then raced that night,” Boschele said. “Now practice is Sunday morning and race Monday night. [But] it’s still that same aspect where my dad and Keith went over it and thought it’d be better because it got me more track time. I had never raced there before, so it was easier for me.”
There’s maybe another reason for that decision though, as Boschele has to fly back to North Carolina after his Monday night race … to go to school for the rest of the week before flying back to Tulsa Friday night in advance of Saturday’s alphabet soup.
Despite the lengthy layoff between opening night qualifying and Saturday’s all-day marathon up the prelim ladder, Boschele enters the Chili Bowl as part of the vaunted Keith Kunz Motorsports armada, a team that made waves over the weekend when it was announced it had downsized to 14 cars for 2023.
That provides Boschele and the crew working on his midget with ample notes and surveillance to prepare for Saturday. Said the driver of his de facto teammates for the week, the expectation among KKM entries is that driver notes are shared among all crews and cars. That’s vital at Tulsa.
“Tulsa is hard. People can make it seem easy, but it’s really really tricky,” he said. “It requires a lot of finesse. The track can change in the blink of an eye, so you have to keep an eye on what it does. I’ve never raced on a track so tight. … I’ve raced on tight tracks but it’s tight, it’s slick, it changes all the time. It’s a really unique animal.”
It’s a unique track for a unique race, one that’s become a conundrum of sorts in recent years. Despite being hailed by many as a connection back to grassroots racing, the Chili Bowl Nationals has become an extremely expensive race to contest, with Justin Fiedler noting in July in his excellent DIRTrackr daily that teams are routinely spending in excess of $10,000 to contest the Chili Bowl, an event that pays the feature winner $10,000.
And despite promoter Emmitt Hahn insisting that the race is a career maker, recent results have not borne that out either. Despite being a Chili Bowl champion, defending winner Thorson was out of a ride come springtime last year. Larson was a Cup regular before he won his first Chili Bowl. Bell was already in the Kyle Busch Motorsports development program when he won the race for the first time. In fact, the last Chili Bowl winner that it could be argued got a major career boost for the triumph was Rico Abreu back in 2015.
Still, despite a stagnant purse and a real question as to whether the pursuit of the Driller is anything more than a fervent trophy hunt, Tulsa remains hallowed ground that is drawing racers from all over the U.S. for the coming week, from Cup regular Chase Briscoe to Boschele.
And speaking of conundrums, let’s get back to Boschele. Because for all the results he’s posted on dirt and as passionate as he is about securing another Driller, it’s asphalt racing that beckons. Having made a couple of super late model starts at New Smyrna Speedway last year, finding more seat time on the pavement is tops on the 2023 priorities list for the Chevrolet prospect.
“It’s probably the goal. NASCAR is definitely the goal,” Boschele said.
There’s the biggest conundrum of them all. For as prominent as dirt racing has become in recent years, thanks in no small part to drivers like Bell and Larson, the big show on asphalt is still what’s on the brain of oval racing’s best and brightest.
Asked what the draw of NASCAR’s premier ranks was (besides money), said the driver, “I just think it’s cool. It’s a cool type of racing. A lot of people watch it and it’s what I enjoy doing. At the end of the day, it’s racing.”
It’s hard to know what to make of that perspective when considering the bigger picture for dirt racing. It’s difficult to fathom how it’s good for dirt racing to continually see its brightest stars heading for NASCAR’s ranks in the prime of their careers. There’s more examples of this than can be counted in the modern era. Tony Stewart. JJ Yeley coming off the last true USAC triple crown. Larson. Bell. Tyler Reddick. That’s a lot of talent and personality not to have regularly on the dirt tracks.
On the other hand, that drivers like Boschele have left the ranks of paved quarter midgets to race dirt (and get good at it) before going back to asphalt is validation of the sport and its viability in modern motorsports. What’s more, there’s an argument to be made that this type of exchange between the two disciplines is part of a rising tide that lifts all ships.
Flo Racing’s booth made reference to such Saturday (Jan. 7) during the opening night of the Wild West Shootout, an event that saw markedly improved attendance on an evening that Larson was in the house to race a late model. Boschele’s part of that as well, having sported sponsorship from the NASCAR Rivals video game on his Tulsa Shootout-winning ride just last month.
None of those larger considerations really matter this week, as the clocks of much of the racing world are on Tulsa time. For Boschele, that means securing a top-two finish in Monday’s prelim and having a low-stress Saturday without a large bowl of alphabet soup to swallow.
Because even though this isn’t the NASCAR Cup Series (yet), there’s plenty of people taking notice of this prodigy. Even the most raucous fans in American motorsports.
About the author
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Richmond, Virginia native. Wake Forest University class of 2008. Affiliated with Frontstretch since 2008, as of today the site’s first dirt racing commentator. Emphasis on commentary. Big race fan, bigger First Amendment advocate.
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