As 395 drivers attempt to land one of the 24 spots (26 if defending champion and previous year’s VIROC winner don’t transfer) in the 2022 Chili Bowl Nationals feature, there is a new name on the entry list this year that may surprise many. Jesse Little, the 24-year old NASCAR Camping World Truck Series competitor is in Tulsa.
While he has a great pedigree in asphalt short track racing, Little will make his Chili Bowl Nationals debut and this will also mark his first-ever time racing a dirt midget car.
“This is my first time running Chili Bowl and running the dirt midget,” Little explained to TobyChristie.com.
Not only has Little never really done anything of this nature, neither has his father Chad Little, who won six NASCAR Xfinity Series races and started 217 NASCAR Cup Series events in his driving career.
“No, I think the only dirt experience he has was driving out to my grandpa’s track out west when it was gravel road before it was asphalt.”
Any time Little can say he’s done something his father has never done behind the wheel of a race car, he relishes in the moment. But since unloading the car in Tulsa, Little has begun to jab his father in hopes that he’ll bust out the old firesuit and helmet and give it a try some day.
“I’ve been sending him a couple of texts today and I’ll keep on him throughout the week. I’ve been reminding him there are just as many people out here that are his age as there are my age,” Little said. “He needs to look into it. I’m going to tell him to see if he can fit into one of those old John Deere suits and come on.”
Friendly father, son rivalry aside, how did the opportunity to run this race come together? Little says it was a simply a case of being in the right place at the right time.
“It’s a pretty cool story,” Little said. “It’s pretty much just a matter of keeping a relationship going and networking. I met a gentleman named Rick Horn in Houston back in July. We got to talking, he was a dirt racer and I’m an asphalt racer. We met through the Shriners International Group and kind of stayed in touch. Little did we know, about six months later, we’d run in the biggest dirt race there is.”
Despite his lack of experience on the dirt, Little found himself in a situation where he couldn’t turn down Horn’s offer to run in one of the most prestigious dirt races of the year.
“It was quite fun. [The deal] came together kind of organically. As a driver, like myself, this is something that you never want to say no to, not matter how little experience you’ve got,” Little stated.
Now, Little gets to have fun this week, while also forging a stronger bond with a fellow racer who is inside the Shriners Hospital for Children Network. At the same time, Little has an opportunity to spread the Shriners brand further this week.
Of course, it must be explained that Little didn’t intend on making the Chili Bowl Nationals the first-ever event where he raced a dirt midget. You’d probably think the Washington-native was nuts, if that were the case. The young racer did have a couple of preliminary attempts to test out the style of car scheduled, but he never got the chance to run the races.
“Been doing about as much as I can, other than getting behind the wheel,” Little said of his preparation for this week’s racing in Tulsa, Oklahoma. “We had a couple of opportunities that arose to do that, but mother nature had other ideas.”
Thanks to mother nature washing away any chance he had at quickly gaining some experience before the Chili Bowl, Little has been relying on film, lots of film and tips from his friends who have run the race in the past.
“I’ve been watching film a lot, talking to my buddies who have a lot of experience in it,” Little stated. “Leaning heavily on them. Trying to just prepare myself for what to feel right off the bat, so I can adapt as quickly as I can.”
For Little, the person’s film he has watched the most in his build up to his first Chili Bowl attempt, is the driver who has won this event in each of the last two years.
“Honestly, just Kyle [Larson],” Little said of what film he had been watching to prepare. “Mainly because the things I look for are essentially what are the quickest ways to adapt. Just focusing on the track. So, I’ve been watching him to listen for what his throttle is like, look at his wheel input at certain points, but mainly how does he see the track change. Why did he move up all of a sudden, what did he see?”
Now, the question becomes: What if Little defies all odds and somehow wins the race?
“It’s always fun to dream. One can hope,” Little said. “Kind of one of those things where you go to bed at night and think, ‘What if?’ But if that’s the case and it does turn out that way, I’m sure a bunch of people will be surprised and I’ll probably owe a couple of apologies to hardcore dirt fans, who probably didn’t even know my name before I showed up.
“But I tell you what, if I’m even in that feature race on Saturday, it’s going to be a dang good time.”
So, with no experience in this type of car, what does Little realistically hope to accomplish this week at the Chili Bowl? What would he consider a successful week?
“Funny story there, my best friend and former roommate, Cole Custer ran this race and made it to the L-Main. If I can make it to the K or better, I’ll be happy,” Little quipped. “That’s kind of my outlook, but to be honest, on a serious note, it’s more just going out there and doing the best I can every lap. I am certain I’m going to learn more every further inch let alone lap on the track, than the one prior. I’m just going to soak it all in and try to adapt as quickly as I can.”
Little explains that this week provides a unique opportunity for him to mix it up on the local short track level as he awaits the stress and pressure of the 2022 NASCAR season grind.
“Just coming here and being involved, it reminds me how fun local short track racing is, whether it’s dirt or asphalt,” Little said. “And it makes me want to do it more. Makes me want to get back to it and enjoy those opportunities that present themselves.”
After this week, Little’s focus will once again shift to his NASCAR career and his new opportunity with Young’s Motorsports in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series.
“I’m so thankful to Tyler and his family for being able to let this opportunity come to fruition,” Little explained. “I say the word excited, and I know it’s overused in our sport, but I am so excited to get racing. It’s been quite a while since I looked forward to packing my bags and heading to a race track. And I can genuinely say that I’m excited to do that this year.”
While Little had opened eyes with several top-10 finishes in NASCAR Truck Series and Xfinity Series competition between 2017 and 2020, he had no top-10 finishes in 23 starts with BJ McLeod Motorsports in 2021.
Little sees this fresh start as a chance for him to prove Young’s Motorsports is a capable team and that he is a truly stout racecar driver.
“I think the potential is there for Tyler’s equipment, for his people, the infastructure he’s built is top of the line,” Little said. “The way the truck series is laid out package-wise and rules-wise, we’re right there knocking on the door of being in the conversation with the big teams. And that’s what I look forward, showing people the capabilities and the possibilities of Young’s Motorsports and myself.
“Going back out there and reminding people that I believe I’m a competitive driver and my talent is there and kind of rejuvenating my name so to speak over the last year and a half and I think Young’s Motorsports is the perfect place to do that.”
While Little is still a little bit away from being able to officially announce his truck number, crew chief or sponsorship partners for the 2022 season, he did disclose to TobyChristie.com that he will run the season-opening event at Daytona International Speedway.
“I can say we are pretty close on that. Probably by the end of the month, truck, schedule and crew chief will be able to be rolled out,” Little explained. “I can say Daytona will be our first one, so that’ll be good. I think it’ll be good to announce some partners as we get closer as well.”
There’s a lot to be excited for if you’re Jesse Little. He embarks on an attempt to make it into one of the most prestigious dirt races of the year this weekend and on the not-too-distant horizon is a chance at correcting his career trajectory with an organization that has won a NASCAR Camping World Truck race in each of the last two seasons.