As a racer, Giovanni Scelzi has a big hunger for success in 2020, and he’ll start with a heaping bowl of chili, so to speak, this week.
The 18-year-old Scelzi – “Gio” for short – will make his second career start in the Chili Bowl Nationals in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
He did well in his first start in 2018, finishing sixth in his preliminary race, was second in the B Main and then was running in the top 10 in the week’s main event – until the motor in his midget car blew halfway through the race.
The Fresno, California native – son of four-time NHRA drag racing champ Gary Scelzi and younger brother of 22-year-old fellow sprint car driver Dominic Scelzi – is looking to avenge what happened two years ago in Tulsa. He starts that journey in Monday night’s first qualifying heat race.
“I’m excited for it,” Gio Scelzi told NBC Sports. “The Chili Bowl as an event is huge and keeps growing and growing and attracting more attention through NASCAR and all kinds of racing fans.
“There’s a lot of good race cars, it seems like every year more and more guys and good race car drivers all-around get a ride and want to participate.”
The youngest Scelzi has steadily been making a name for himself in the sprint car dirt racing world. At the age of 16 in 2018, he became the youngest winner in World of Outlaws history. He also won his first USAC Midget race in just his sixth career start in the series.
And at 17 last season, he was the youngest preliminary race winner in the history of the legendary Knoxville Nationals in Iowa, one of the most notable outings in a season that showed Scelzi make 71 total starts across several dirt racing series, earning nine wins, 23 top 5 and 40 top 10 finishes.
The new year is likely to be very pivotal for Gio. He’s starting with the Chili Bowl, racing as part of the Toyota Development program with Chad Boat (son of former IndyCar driver Billy Boat), and as teammates with Christopher Bell, who has won the Chili Bowl the last three years and moves to NASCAR Cup this season, as well as NBC Sports reporter Dillon Welch and several others.
The day after the Chili Bowl concludes, Gio will head to Australia to race for the second straight year in several races (NASCAR star Kyle Larson will also be heading down under to race at the same time).
When he returns from down under, Scelzi will be ready to go for another season of dirt racing across several series, most notably the World of Outlaws.
And he’s exploring avenues to possibly do some pavement racing in the ARCA Series as a prelude to what he hopes will eventually become a racing career in NASCAR.
“I love sprint car racing, that’s always where my heart will be,” Scelzi told NBC Sports. “It’s obviously what I grew up doing, dirt racing.
“But hopefully this year or next year I’ll transition over to ARCA, which is a good stepping stone, do something along those lines and get my feet wet on pavement. I’ve done some testing the last year, just trying to see if that’s the direction I want to go. Nothing’s been announced yet, but I think something will be announced here pretty soon to hopefully go down that path.
“I’ll still race sprint cars as much as I can, but in the next 5-10 years, I hope to get into Trucks and Xfinity to get towards NASCAR (Cup).”
Even though his father was a drag racing great, and Gio and his older brother grew up at dragstrips across the country, he feels more at home in a sprint car rather than a Top Fuel dragster or Funny Car.
“The hardest part of drag racing, there really is no way for a kid that can race anything before you’re 16,” Scelzi said. “That’s kind of the age where you can earn a license and are allowed to race under power and really learn how to race.
“But in dirt racing, there’s micro-sprints, outlaw karts, you name it, there’s all kind of kids classes you could do to learn how to race. My dad went to dirt races a lot in California and really enjoyed it, was good friends with (NASCAR Hall of Famer) Tony Stewart and (sprint car racer) Danny Lasoski, so he always had a friend base in dirt racing and that was a way to get me and my brother in a race car when we were really young.”
Dominic began racing go-karts at five years old and Gio began racing micro-sprints at six at their home track, Plaza Park Raceway in Visalia, Calif., about 30 miles away from Fresno.
“I think sprint car racing is so unique from other forms of racing,” Gio Scelzi said. “With a 410 sprint car, around the United States, you have the World of Outlaws, the All-Stars (All Star Circuit of Champions), IRA (Sprint Series), Knoxville (Nationals), I mean there’s probably 20 or 30 race tracks racing on a given weekend, with the same rules package, the same kind of cars and there are very good race car drivers in their own region.
“With a sprint car, what I’ve done the last two years, I’ve been based in Indianapolis and race wherever we want. If we want to race in an All-Star race in Ohio, we can go there. If we want to race an Outlaw race in North Dakota, we can go there.
“There are so many different options with that same rules package that is such a simple, powerful, exciting race car, I don’t think there’s no other kind of professional racing where you can make a living at it that has that kind of atmosphere.
“If you’ve got the money and the motors to race, you can race every weekend. Just the World of Outlaws schedule is 95 races. Or you can race the All-Stars, which is 50 races, and then maybe 20 races in Outlaws when you want to. There’s so much freedom with a team where you want to go and where you want to race, I think that’s what makes it unique.”
Speaking of unique, after the Chili Bowl, Scelzi goes back to run three races next week in Australia, the President’s Cup on January 22, the Kings Challenge the following night and sprint car racing’s biggest weekend of the year down under, The Classic on Jan. 23-24.
Larson is also racing in Australia next week, including taking part in The Classic. Scelzi and Larson are good friends. “I can talk to him if I need help with driving or whatever, so I consider him a pretty close friend,” Scelzi said of Larson, who is also a California native.
With so much going on now and his future heading in the direction of NASCAR, Scelzi was asked if he’d ever consider following in his father’s footsteps and go drag racing.
His answer was somewhat surprising:
“Honestly, I love drag racing,” he said. “I think it’s the coolest thing in the world, it’s absolutely awesome.
“But to go 300-plus mph and pretty much strap yourself to a bomb on wheels really doesn’t excite me a whole lot. I love going to the races, I love watching it, I love working on them – but driving, honestly, scares me.
“How violent those things explode and when they crash, it doesn’t really excite me a whole lot to get behind the wheel.”