Tanner Thorson holds off Christopher Bell for Chili Bowl Nationals victory

Tanner Thorson holds off Christopher Bell for Chili Bowl Nationals victory
Dave Biro/DB3Inc

Christopher Bell won the battle but Tanner Thorson won the war—and his first Golden Driller in the 36th running of the Chili Bowl Nationals.

Thursday night’s preliminary feature turned out to be a precursor of the championship bout—with Bell and Thorson trading the lead and the three-time Chili Bowl victor coming out on top. 

But on Saturday, Thorson turned the tables on Bell to win the most prestigious prize in midget racing. 

“Hell yeah,” Thorson screamed. “This is bad ass. I don’t know what to say. Holy shit my guys gave me a badass car. I just can’t thank them enough. This is awesome. My guys worked really hard all week to give me a car that was capable of winning. We got put up against Bell—the best, one of the best in the business—on prelim night. We knew where we stacked up. Oh man, I just knew I had to get to work a little bit.”

Clearly dejected after Thursday’s loss, Thorson entered the A-Main with a vengeance. Bell won the pole and led the first 38 laps. He had stretched his lead out to 1.32 seconds by Lap 32 before Justin Grant ignited the second caution after hitting the cushion and flipping. 

Three laps later, Thorson grabbed the lead in Turn 2. Bell was mounting a comeback on the high side out of Turn 3 when Brady Bacon flipped in front of the leaders after contact with Colby Copeland with six laps remaining. 

Bell took the No. 71W Keith Kunz Toyota high again with three laps remaining but was sucked into the cushion.

“My only plan was to slide in front of him and break his momentum,” Bell said. “It was kind of deja vu of Thursday night prelim. I got a really good restart. He was leaving the door open getting into (Turn) 1, so I tried to fill the hole. This time I did it. I completed it. And he came back and blocked the slider, so I tried to rip it really hard and unfortunately, I just got tight into the cushion.

“Whenever I got into lapped traffic, I knew the middle was getting good off of Turn 4. I was really having to baby it against the curb so I didn’t toss the nose. My gut was telling me to move down, but I’m like, ‘Man, when is the middle ever the place to be at the Chili Bowl?’ Unfortunately, it was tonight.”

Over the final three circuits, Thorson gassed it to a .688-seconds advantage over Bell. Rico Abreu finished third followed by KKM teammates Buddy Kofoid and Tanner Carrick. Defending champion Kyle Larson finished sixth.

Abreu, who has been a staunch supporter of Thorson's, was one of the first to greet him in Victory Lane.

"Hats off to Tanner, man--driver, owner, crew chief," said the two-time champion. "He's probably the first one here at the Chili Bowl to do it all. He's an unbelievable talent. Excited for him." 

In eight Chili Bowl appearances, Thorson scored his first podium result in 2021. The 25-year-old Minden, Nevada native who won the 2016 USAC Midget title and Sprint rookie honors last season amassed 12 victories under the Reinbold Underwood Motorsports banner last season. After six different teams in his last six starts at Tulsa Expo Raceway, Thorson appears to have found the right combination. 

“I was trying to blow that motor up but that SR11 is one bad-ass piece,” Thorson said. “It’s pretty cool to get the SR11 in victory lane on the final night—and everyone’s that involved with me, Factory Kahne shocks, Smith Titanium. We had the new Smith ti-arm the back of this thing and it just hooks the car so well.

“It just comes down to having great people around me,” Thorson said. “I have a great group of people around me. My fiancee (Shaylee Smith), I can’t thank her enough for going through the struggles with me. I know I’m a bit of an asshole when it comes around Chili Bowl time. I’m sorry. But man, it paid off.” 

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