TULSA, Okla. – There’s a long-held belief inside the SageNet Center that rookies aren’t supposed to have big showings at the Chili Bowl Nationals powered by NOS Energy Drink. Just don’t tell Kale Drake that.
Drake – an 18-year-old unknown driving for Keith Kunz Motorsports with Curb-Agajanian, the premier team in Chili Bowl history – bucked the trend Wednesday during York Plumbing Qualifying Night at Tulsa Expo Raceway. He was consistently fast all night and placed sixth in the 30-lap preliminary A-main.
That effort not only made Drake the highest-finishing rookie of the week to that point, but it also sets him up inside one of the B-main events for Saturday’s Chili Bowl championship program.
It was an effort that turned a plethora of heads inside the Chili Bowl pit area, but Drake wasn’t among those surprised by his breakout performance. In fact, the young racer wanted even more.
“As crazy as this is going to sound, I expected us to be a little bit better. I was hoping for a top-five finish,” Drake told Motorsports Hotspot in an exclusive interview after his preliminary feature wrapped up Wednesday night.
“Keith has given me an amazing piece this week and that makes my job a lot easier,” Drake added. “I felt like I left a little too much out there [on track], but we kept our nose clean and I think it paid off. We’ve got Saturday night now, and that’s already what I’m focused on from here.”
A regular micro sprint racer at Port City Raceway, Drake earned his Chili Bowl seat with KKM by finishing as the runner-up during this year’s KKM Giveback Classic for micro sprints.
The Giveback Classic traditionally offers a ride at the Super Bowl of Midget Racing with the Keith Kunz-owned team as its grand prize to the winner of the event.
When Gavin Miller – who already drives for KKM and was entered for the team into the Chili Bowl – won last year’s Giveback Classic feature, it got Kunz thinking about what he could do to reward another young racer.
Enter a phone call to Drake, and an offer to drive for KKM at the Chili Bowl was extended by Kunz.
“I had my eye on the kid for some time; his work ethic stands out for me personally,” Kunz told the Tulsa World this week ahead of Drake’s preliminary night. “He maintains his own equipment and I think knowing how a car works and how to make it better are key ingredients in making a good race car driver.
“His craft is impressive, after his 15th-to-second run in the Giveback Classic at Port City, I just knew I had to figure out a way to give him a shot.”
Drake admitted that he was a bit surprised when the deal with KKM was fully solidified.
“I was working in Arizona [hanging garage doors] when I got the call,” Drake recounted. “It was surreal.
“You hope [for the best], but you never know for sure until it’s done,” he added. “That night at the Giveback [Classic], we started a lot further back than I wanted to. We started 15th and ran all the way up through there to second behind Gavin. That run … I had so many people walk up to Keith after that and start bugging him about giving me a shot. It really meant a lot to me to see that.
“Keith worked with a couple of his sponsors – Page Casey Construction and Toyota – and with their help this deal got put together for me and I couldn’t be more grateful. The Giveback always draws the top guys from across the country. We wanted the win but got a good deal out of it.”
A warm-up with KKM during the Turkey Night Grand Prix weekend at Ventura (Calif.) Raceway allowed Drake to get comfortable in a midget for the first time. That was followed by a micro sprint run at the Tulsa Shootout on the same track as the Chili Bowl, where Drake made two of his four feature races.
While Drake left the Tulsa Shootout with confidence, he knew that he’d never experienced anything like the Chili Bowl in his racing career and that the week was going to be an eye-opening experience.
It almost came to an end in his heat race Wednesday night before Drake ever truly got started.
Drake slid into turn one on the bottom lane and made right-rear contact with the slowing car of Chance Morton. The bump launched Drake over the dirt curb on the inside of the racetrack and then over the top of Morton’s front bumper as the latter spun through turn two.
Miraculously, Drake’s No. 71k landed on all four wheels and never lost power, allowing him to continue. He ended up finishing fourth from eighth in his heat race, setting him up with strong passing points for the remainder of the program that led to his eventual top-six feature finish.
“It got pretty crazy quickly, didn’t it?” Drake quipped. “I went into the corner really hard and I noticed the guy in front of me went in with a really strong rotation, but I think he lost his right-rear grip and just started to loop around. At that moment, I was committed. I had to stay committed. Once I ramped the berm, I knew I needed to get back into the throttle to keep the car underneath me and not stall it.
“I was hoping that something wasn’'t broken, for sure,” he continued. “I went into the next corner a little bit cautious, and once I felt that we were all right, I got back going. Finally, that last lap [of the heat], we laid down a really good lap.
“I wish we could have gotten a caution and maybe got one more [position], but I can’t complain.
While he doesn’t know yet where he’ll start in his Saturday B-main, Drake will need to finish inside the top seven of that event in order to race his way into the 55-lap Chili Bowl finale as a first-year entrant.
It’s a goal the fourth-generation driver has firmly in his sights now that he knows what he and KKM are capable of inside the SageNet Center.
The organization won the first two prelim nights with Tanner Carrick and Buddy Kofoid, two of Drake’s teammates for the week that the teenager has leaned on as he attempts to “learn a fortune” in a limited time.
“Tanner was here early in the week. I leaned on him during his prelim night, but he had to go back and work [in California],” Drake noted. “But the crew got really good info on what they needed to do with our car from that effort. I stayed studying when Buddy on track, and after he got the win, he was able to provide even more information on the car.
“Buddy’s been right there in my corner all week giving me tips and making sure I was ready to go. It’s been great to have someone like him that I can gain knowledge from like this during my first Chili Bowl.”
Regardless of what the final outcome is Saturday night, just having the experience he’s had this week in Tulsa is something that Drake said he’ll “remember forever” as he goes forward into the future.
“It still hasn’t really hit me yet, but I think as we’re getting ready and getting closer to go time on Saturday, I’ll really know how it feels then,” Drake said. “Just to be competing in a B-main and to be in position to have a shot at the A in my first Chili Bowl Nationals is pretty crazy, you know?
“I couldn’t ask for more. This is surreal and a dream come true already.”
Drake’s quest to race his way into the championship finale will begin Saturday night at roughly 9 p.m. CT, the average starting time for the Chili Bowl’s B-mains over the past several years.
Every lap of Saturday’s “alphabet soup” program at the Chili Bowl Nationals, as well as the remaining preliminary nights, can be streamed live through FloRacing.
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