How in the world do you put on the biggest non-sanctioned Midget race, in the country's largest indoor building, in January? For starters begin planning well in advance of the green flag. It's an event unlike any other around, 285 Midgets spend five days racing on a temporary banked dirt track nearly a quarter of a mile around…inside a convention center. Eleven-second laps create a vortex of air much like an Oklahoma tornado. All the while a racing trade show runs every hour of the week's program. We are talking about the Lucas Oil Chili Bowl Midget Nationals in Tulsa, Oklahoma, now in its 28th year.
Tulsa is a perfect location for teams and fans to get to the event. It's centrally located in the country and the city opens its arms each year like it's the Super Bowl coming to town. The result? Throngs of racers and fans come out during the cold winter month.
The numbers of workers to host such an event is staggering. They have to handle 15 thousand fans each day for the five-day run. The amount of work to pull "all" the pieces together "seamlessly" is a year-long project for the management team directed by Donna Hahn Martin, Lanny Edwards and Emmet Hahn. "Every year we say there is no way it can get any better, but it always does. We are so blessed. Being a labor of love, it has become more than we ever dreamed," Donna said.
Bring your walking shoes because this event has something for everyone, young to old, first timers to veterans. The Chili Bowl is the grassroots racing super bowl fitting for any motorsports fan and racer alike. Competition is always stiff and this year racers from 33 of the 50 United States along with ones from New Zealand, Australia, and Canada made making the finals more difficult than ever. In addition to the non-stop racing action, fans have a busy day with the trade show and ability to wander through the pits.
The trade show itself has all the players of racing plus local hospitality. The National Sprint Car Hall of Fame & Museum's Bob Baker took time to share his stories about the historical Iowa location. Kyle Douglas explained Rod End Supplies newest products. Megan Hazel presented a look at the 2014 World of Outlaws and Dirt Car Racing season and track locations. The ladies of Hooters and Twin Peaks offered specials at the Tulsa locations while MavTV had a collection of cool swag and information to bring the network to everyone. And that is just the tip of the iceberg. On the final day (Saturday) there is even a race equipment auction in an adjacent building on the massive Expo grounds.
Before They Start The Engines
Meeting fans, teams, vendors and racers is all invitingly casual early in the week and every day the number of people attending grows and slows the pace through the venue. By Saturday, its grid lock with people packed in for the Chili Bowl Midget National finals. It's a good thing they have giant screens located though out the Expo center—you can keep tabs on the races from anywhere. Not surprisingly the seats are packed full and people fill every standing place to view the action. Many fans opt for the lawn chairs or inflatable couches to view the mega screens from the pits.
Can't make it to Tulsa? Racinboys.com provides constant broadcast coverage both live and re-runs of the week's action through their website.
The Haudenschild family (Jac and son Sheldon) were on hand racing Bernie Stuebgen team car
Sammy Swindell puts the polish to the most successful car in the paddock. Swindell made it
Joey Saldana and Michael Pickens exchanging notes before the big dance on Saturday.
Racing Stars and Heroes
The Chili Bowl attracts a who's who of the past and present of racing, you barely have to keep your eyes open to see a big name racer. It seemed like NASCAR led the way this year with Kasey Kahne, J.J. Yeley, and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. all racing while Stenhouse's girlfriend Danica Patrick cheered him on with her team owner Tony Stewart. Stewart who was still sporting a noticeable limp from that Sprint Car accident, had his own teams in the event.
While NASCAR stars abound, there were even more legends of open wheel, some competing and some like Johnny Rutherford and Al Unser Sr. just trolling the pits and taking in the action. Look to the right and you saw Sammy and Kevin Swindell, 2013 World of Outlaws champion Daryn Pittman, and Jac "Wild Child" Haudenschild. Look the other way and there is Joey Saldana, Chad Boat and P.J. Jones, who has made the A main six times but still looking for victory number one.
Over 28 years, the magic of the Chili Bowl has created 18 different winners. The Swindell family leads with nine total (Kevin has four and dad Sammy has five). There are only three drivers, Tony "Smoke" Stewart, Cory Kruseman, and Dan Boorse who have a pair of victories. Everyone else such as Rich Vogler, Scott Hatton, John Heydenreich, Dave Blaney, and Andy Hillenburg have but one. And for 2014 you can add to that list, Tony Stewart Racing's Bryan Clauson.
To Finish First, First You Must Finish
Only 24 make the big show on Saturday night. It takes four nights of 70 entries racing each night to cull the field down. The top three from each night make up half the A-main's field (12). Saturday's two B-mains take the top 6 drivers from 20 entrants to fill the remaining slots for the feature. The mind boggling action each and every race, means that drivers have to be on top of their game. After all, this is the best of the best and the smallest of miscues are nearly impossible to overcome‚ yet some have. This year Kevin Swindell raced his way into the A featured main after a difficult start early in the week. The defending champion for the past four years (yes he's won from 2010-2013) worked his magic from far back in the alphabet to secure a back 12 in the "A" main Saturday.
Swindell's dad, Sammy, won in 2009, 20 years after his first of five victories at the Tulsa classic. To say the Swindell's aren't favorites would be an understatement. But this year, it was not to be. Kevin would finish in the runner up position some 1.5 seconds behind winner Clauson, while dad Sammy tangled with Kyle Larson early on but soldiered back to finish 14th.
Fans will watch the action from all sorts of creative places.
Kasey Kahne was one of several NASCAR stars who made the trek to Tulsa for the competition
To say that Midget racing is wild and wooly is an understatement. More than 30 cars rolled
Chili Bowl National Nuts and Bolts
Vendors of all types like the gang from Rod End Supply take part in the adjacent trade sho
Walking from the press room I ran into the "Lone Star JR," Johnny Rutherford and his beautiful wife Betty. Johnny's racing life was full of epic moments and Betty his wife was instrumental in allowing women in the pit's and paddock of auto racing. Johnny was the youngest driver to win the Daytona 500 NASCAR race driving for Smokey Yunick, besides the three Indy 500s. I have to say, Johnny and Betty show no age as they light up the room.
The Chili Bowl is the real deal for any racing fan and bucket-list–worthy. Saturday morning when the doors swing open, it's a foot race to grab up the best general admission seats. "Quite the show in itself," said Chief of Security Bart. By main event time Saturday night, all the seats are full.
The Lucas Oil track crew handled all of the on-track issues with surgical precision. Moving the wounded cars right side up and away, yet keeping the show rolling allowing little time for repairs of the wounded. With the Saturday roll over count already more than 30 with dozens of races to come, the crowd saw many a star making the trip up the pathway from the track to the pits with the look, "only if that hadn't happened." Processing the looks on the driver's faces was from "How is my wife going to understand this?" to "I just spent thousands and now get nothing." The thrill of victory and agony of defeat was alive and well at the Chili Bowl.
Truly, with everything going on non-stop during any of the five days at the Lucas Oil Chili Bowl Nationals it is an over whelming hit for everyone in the house and the city of Tulsa. After the daily races, fans teams and drivers fill the local hot spots. The Chili Bowl generates millions to the Tulsa economy every day. Donna Hahn Harris said, "We have surrounded ourselves with some of the best help there is. The Chili Bowl, to us, is a labor of love. It has become more than we ever dreamed it could be."
The rumor is that Forest Lucas, owner of the event's title sponsor Lucas Oil, has been asking for a purchase price from Chili Bowl founder, Emmet Hahn. Emmet's answer? "It's not for sale."
From this author's point of view, this is one of the best racing events on wheels, any place on our planet. Make your plans now for 2015, tickets are already on sale and the coveted front straight reserved seats from 2014 have first choice to lock them in. People even leave the seats in wills passing on the passion of the Chili Bowl to the next generation. Bucket-list–worthy? I'd say so!