TULSA, Okla. — From the time he was in his formative years, Jesse Love dreamed of competing in the Lucas Oil Chili Bowl Nationals. Friday night, he’ll finally have that opportunity.
Love, who celebrated his 16th birthday Thursday inside the River Spirit Expo Center, will wheel the No. 97k for Keith Kunz/Curb-Agajanian Motorsports in his Tulsa Expo Raceway debut.
It’s a moment that the Menlo Park, Calif., native has been anticipating for more than a decade, and waiting for in earnest since 2018.
“Man, there’s no way to really quantify what waiting for this day, this week, this event has been like,” said Love, the reigning ARCA Menards Series West champion in a stock car. “It’s one of those deals where I’ve just been trying to put in all the work I can ahead of time, and then just treat it like any other race now that we’re right up on it. I think that’s really important. Some people can get wrapped up in the emotion of the event, but at the end of the day, my job is to go get the best result possible every weekend, and emotion doesn’t always give you the best hand.
“I just have to control everything that I can control and put my best foot forward so that I can go out there and do what I know I can do,” Love continued. “From there, whatever happens is what it is and we’ll work with that and move forward. I’m looking forward to it, and just have to be on top of everything that happens and be grateful that I’m fortunate to have the opportunity to run for Keith [Kunz] and Toyota in the first place.
“It’s just about staying relaxed and staying focused now, and going out there to do what we do.”
Love admitted there is a sense of pride now that he’s “finally come of age” to be a part of the Chili Bowl in the same way as his heroes — Christopher Bell, Rico Abreu and Kyle Larson, all of whom have won the event for KKM — have been over the past decade.
“I was here at the Chili Bowl the last two years, watching and learning with Keith [Kunz] and Pete [Willoughby]. And even before I came here in person, I’d paid attention to this race since I started open-wheel racing a long time ago,” Love noted. “I wasn’t like a Kaylee Bryson or Christopher [Bell], in that I didn’t grow up here going to the Chili Bowl as a kid, but I still paid attention and had a sense of how important it is. The race still means a lot to me and to everybody that I’ve been watching the race since I was a kid.
“It’s one of those races where you don’t want to let emotion come into play, but at the end of the day, it is the biggest midget race in the world. I’m proud to be here and honored to drive this track finally.”
Though Love is a Chili Bowl rookie this week, he’s taking a winning mindset into his preliminary night Friday, knowing that inner confidence is a big part of the battle when it comes to the Super Bowl of Midget Racing.
“I doubt anybody thought that anyone could win the Chili Bowl as many times as Sammy [Swindell] or Kevin [Swindell] did until they won it that many times,” Love pointed out. “So I go into this thinking I can win, even though a rookie never has won here because you have to have confidence you can perform. If you’re going to go out there and do something great, like be a rookie and win or something like that, you just have to be the first one to do it. And I realize that and understand it.
“I’ve kind of been breaking records my whole life, so I don’t think there’s any reason I can’t do it now. Especially with age, I seem to have a thing about breaking records with age,” added Love, who became the youngest BCRA winner in history at 13 years old in 2018. “Maybe this week can be another notch on that résumé.”
While some rookies would develop nerves under the bright lights of Chili Bowl week, Love embraces the stage that comes with the prestigious event.
“I honestly believe that I thrive under pressure,” Love said. “It just gives me confidence, I think. If you have pressure on your plate, then you’re doing something right. So I don’t really feel pressure like that. I’ve said that a lot in my interviews, but I don’t get stressed out about things too much because I just try to work that pressure and stress away. There’s no point in going somewhere and worrying when you’re at a race like this because there’s too many things out of your control.
“I’m focused on controlling the things I can, and the chips will fall wherever they fall. But I’m excited.”
Some might think that Love is at a disadvantage because he wasn’t able to participate in the Monday practice session that was open to all cars in attendance, due to not turning 16 until Thursday.
Love isn’t seeing it that way at all, however, especially considering his KKM teammate Buddy Kofoid shook down his car during that hot-lap round.
“It’s just a couple of laps; I feel like I can pick up on the track quickly,” Love said. “Buddy, it sounds like, got it pretty close for us and now it’s my job to see what we can make of it.”
SPEED SPORT’s LIVE From the Chili Bowl coverage is supported by MyRacePass, KICKER, Curb Records and Swann Communications! To find out more about each of our partners and to check out all of SPEED SPORT’s Chili Bowl coverage, visit our Chili Bowl Index Page! DON’T MISS SPEED SPORT’S LIVE From the Chili Bowl on Saturday, Jan. 16 at 6:30 p.m. ET on MAVTV and watch the Chili Bowl finale LIVE Saturday, Jan. 16 at 8:30 p.m. on MAVTV!