TULSA, Okla. – Among the drivers most excited to get the 33rd annual Lucas Oil Chili Bowl Nationals underway is 16-year-old Keith Kunz/Curb-Agajanian Motorsports driver Sam Johnson.
Johnson contested his first full year of midget racing last season under the Toyota banner, with team owner Keith Kunz’s guidance. He was in the KKM pit area for the entire week during the 2018 Chili Bowl, but wasn’t old enough to compete at that point.
Fast forward 12 months, and Johnson will wheel the No. 72K Kokomo Joe’s Bullet/Toyota around the Tulsa Expo Raceway this week in pursuit of Chili Bowl Rookie of the Year honors.
It’s an opportunity that the Missouri teenager has been counting down the days until for months and one that he’s hoping to take full advantage of.
“After going and watching last year, but not being able to drive, it’s just awesome that I get to come back to Tulsa this year and that there’s a car sitting in the KKM pit area with my name on it,” Johnson told SPEED SPORT. I got to run the Tulsa Shootout a couple of weeks ago and get some extra laps that some other people won’t have, but it doesn’t compare to what it means to suit up for the Chili Bowl for the first time. It’s the biggest midget race there is and just to have a shot at it means a ton to me.”
Johnson will be on-track during John Christner Trucking Qualifying Night on Thursday. Considering that he’s racing in the same preliminary field as his two-time Chili Bowl winning teammate, Christopher Bell, the young gun has high goals he’s trying to meet.
“The experience of being able to watch the first few nights (of racing) and get a feel for what the track does is going to be really big,” Johnson said. “For my prelim night, I want to try and make that top two and transfer right to Saturday. I know people are going to tell me I’m crazy for thinking we can as a rookie, but this team has shown they’re capable and I believe we’ll be fast if we just get a good draw.
“If we can’t transfer out of Saturday, I want to be suited up for opening ceremonies and at least be in a C-main or somewhere around there. That’s where I think you still have a shot to race through the soup.”
Why is Johnson focused on making Saturday night’s finale?
“No one remembers you that year if you don’t make the A,” he explained. “People don’t care who finished eighth in the B or fifth in the C or anything like that. I just want to do something memorable and leave Tulsa having made a positive impact.”
Looking back on his year on the road, Johnson found plenty of positives to take away from his first experience touring with KKM, especially considering he ended the year with a third-place qualifying effort at Bakersfield (Calif.) Speedway and also made the A-main at the Turkey Night Grand Prix.
“I thought we did pretty well this year. The beginning of the season was rough and we struggled a bit, but I think that’s to be expected a little bit with any new car and new series,” noted Johnson. “We settled down and got into a good rhythm over the last couple months of the season, though, and really started working at it and getting better.
“I feel like we’re getting stronger. I’m not sure where this is going to bring us or where it’s going to take us for the future, but this year helped me quite a lot as a driver and I’m grateful for the experience.”
Johnson has also grown as a person as well, maturing but still showing that he’s not afraid to have fun.
A key example of that quality came during driver introductions at his hometown race – the Gateway Dirt Nationals – in December, when Johnson gave the crowd some entertainment as he came out to greet them.
“Off the track, I’ve learned quite a lot too … especially to stay humble and to be myself and not fight it,” Johnson said with a smile. “I don’t try to follow anyone; I’m just trying to make my own mark doing this.
“(At DuQuoin) I wanted to stand out and not be basic. I don’t want to be second in line; I want to be a leader.”
Despite a solid rookie campaign, Johnson is still looking for additional backing before the new dirt season kicks off in one month’s time during Florida Speedweeks.
“We are not set for next year yet; we’re still looking for some sponsorship,” Johnson admitted. “We’re not asking for everything … we just need that extra little boost to be able to go out, shine and perform like we know we can perform.
“This year was good, but going forward, I want to be even better.”
SPEED SPORT’s Chili Bowl coverage is presented by MyRacePass, the official timing and scoring app of the 2019 Lucas Oil Chili Bowl Nationals. Fans can download the MyRacePass app on their phones to follow all the action during the Lucas Oil Chili Bowl Nationals. For more information on MyRacePass, visit www.myracepass.com. All of SPEED SPORT’s Live From The Chili Bowl presented by MyRacePass coverage can be found by clicking here.
Watch The Chili Bowl Live: The Chili Bowl will be shown live online on www.racinboys.com. The online PPV experience will run from Monday through Saturday’s qualifiers. At the time of opening ceremonies (6 p.m. local time) on Saturday, Racinboys PPV coverage will cease as the final features will be shown live on MAVTV (more information here).