Although the racing action can get extremely heated throughout the week-long Chili Bowl Nationals, the atmosphere in the pits is quite the opposite. In fact, yours truly would describe walking into the River Spirit Expo Center as like arriving at a family reunion. After all, racers will tell you that fellow racers are an extended family.
Speaking of family, there is also something very special about the Chili Bowl. Of the 350-plus entries, there are several teams that are comprised of racing families. We’ve all heard the old adage “blood is thicker than water,” and in our circles there are plenty of examples. There aren’t too many sports where families can participate together.
As we roamed the pits at the Chili Bowl this week, we noticed some families that stood out. Some stuck out because of their accomplishments achieved together. Others, because of a special bond which has brought them closer together. Their reasons for getting involved in racing may vary, but the common denominator is their undeniable passion for the sport.
One doesn’t have to look far to find Tulsa, Oklahoma-native Harley Hollan and his daughter Holley Hollan. The two are no strangers to the Chili Bowl. However, this year they are in separate camps. Harley is piloting the family-owned entry, while Holley is making her debut at this event in one of the potent Keith Kunz Motorsports entries. Holley is employed at Driven Performance, so racing is more than just a weekend activity. Seeing how these two support each other off the track is special, but once the visors go down they treat each other like any other competitor.
We caught up with Holley for a quick chat before she strapped into the #67k machine to ask her a few questions. We wanted to know what motivated her to follow in her father’s footsteps in dirt track racing. She explained that “racing has always been a way of life.”
Harley’s racing made it inevitable that Holley would catch the racing bug. At the age of 6, she cut her teeth in a Junior Sprint, which is the younger division of the Micro Sprint cars that typically run one-fifth to quarter-mile oval tracks. From there, she graduated to the 600cc ranks and raced with the adults. Racing full midgets was a natural transition and she hopes to build a resume at KKM.
What really impressed us about this young lady is the fact she not only drives the cars, she maintains them as well. She told us one of her earliest memories was learning to change the oil in the Junior Sprint. Stripping, cleaning, and rebuilding race cars has really helped her in a lot of ways.
“It teaches you respect,” Holley said. “You have to respect the equipment — working on the cars gives you that.” Being familiar with the equipment is critical for her day job, but understanding how adjustments affect the handling give her an advantage at the track.
The McQueen Family
When it comes to fathers and daughters racing together, there may not be a more passionate duo in the pits than the McQueen family. Shannon McQueen Webster started racing at the age of 5 when her father Duane, a boat racer himself, brought home her first Quarter Midget. The story told is Shannon’s mom sent dad out to buy her a race car. She knew how much Duane enjoyed racing, but wanted to get him out of the water and keep both loved ones racing on land.
A fast learner, Shannon told her father after just a few races she wasn’t going to race the next race. When he asked her why, she said “because my car can’t win.” Right then, Duane knew his daughter had the desire, and racing was going to require some investing. Racing Quarter Midgets from 1985 to 1991, Shannon became the 1988 Western States Champion. She was also the youngest competitor in the field and the only female.
The two campaigned a very successful B-class (125cc) Micro Midget for the next few years, winning races at several California venues. Advancing to the A-class (250cc) Micro division, she won the prestigious Budweiser Outlaw Nationals in Visalia, California, in 2001 and 2002. She was the only female driver to accomplish this feat in any division. A track championship at Plaza Park Raceway in 2003 capped off her Micro Midget career.
Since 2004, Shannon has driven a full midget for her father, which she’s managed to fund and operate herself through hard work and perseverance. Along the way, she managed to rewrite the history books. In 2011, she became the first female Bay Cities Racing Association (BCRA) Dirt Series Champion. Moving to the United States Auto Club (USAC) Western States Series in 2012, she continued her streak of solid finishes and was crowned the Division Champion. Shannon is the first and only female to accomplish that feat to date.
Shannon started her racing endeavor with Duane as a car owner, and will most likely retire without ever having to race for anyone of a different last name. They wouldn’t have it any other way.
The Drake/Cline Family
Monday night saw Nick Drake, a kid from India Trail, North Carolina, entered in a car owned by his father, Troy Cline. Although Nick has been turning heads throughout his career, many people don’t realize just how big of a deal racing is to his family. Talk about someone who was absolutely destined to become a race car driver — Nick has never known a world without circle tracks.
Nick’s mom, Denise (Szymczak) Cline first climbed behind the wheel of a Quarter Midget at the tender age of 3-1/2 and enjoyed it enough to launch what became a successful campaign in the small cars. She later graduated to Mini Sprints and joined her brother, Robert Szymczak, on the California dirt tracks.
Troy Cline has been racing for years also. He began racing California Racing Association (CRA) Sprint Cars in 1992 at Ascot Park in Gardena, California. He also has a few Nascar Winston West and Busch Series races on his resume. In 1999, he moved the family back east with HAAS CNC. He built a Quarter Midget for Nick and instantly the kid was hooked. Nick went on to race Ford Focus Midgets (Two-Time USAC Champion), USAC National Midgets, Winged and Non-wing Sprint Cars. Most recently, he added Nascar K&N Series and Craftsman Truck Series racing to his growing list of rides.
Nick is cheered on this week by younger brother Trevor Cline, and little sister Courtney Cline. Trevor started racing in Quarter Midgets in a Prowler Chassis built by father Troy. He recently switched over to winged Outlaw karts and was the 2017 champion at Millbridge Speedway in Salisbury, North Carolina.
Fun fact #1: Nick’s mom Denise, won a California Lightning Sprint race at Perris Auto Speedway in California on the very same night that Troy Cline won the Southern California Sprint Car (SCRA) 410 Non-wing Sprint Car Feature.
Fun Fact #2: Nick won the 2009 Quarter Midget Grand Nationals, 22 years after Denise won the 1987 Quarter Midget Grand Nationals. They will go down in history as the first mother and son combo to be Quarter Midget Champions.
If you’ve ever heard of the Chili Bowl, you’ve heard the name Swindell. The two are practically synonymous around here. For that matter, if you’re any kind of a racing fan at all, you’re very aware of the name “Slammin’ Sammy.” Samuel Swindell from Bartlett, Tennessee, is the only five-time winner of this prestigious event. In the open-wheel dirt track community, Sammy Swindell is midget racing’s “Intimidator.” His career spans over four decades and includes hundreds of wins in Sprint Cars, Midgets, and Modifieds. He is a two-time World of Outlaws Sprint Car Series Champion, and his on-track battles with the likes of Steve Kinser, Doug Wolfgang, and Bobby Allen elevated the sport to new levels.
Sammy’s son, Kevin Swindell, is a four-time Chili Bowl Nationals Champion, winning in 2010 through 2013. That in itself is an amazing accomplishment. It also makes for nine total Chili Bowl victories for Team Swindell and formed a legacy which this father and son duo will cherish forever.
Due to Sammy’s heavy racing schedule over the years, Kevin hasn’t always raced with his dad. However, the bloodline was evident early when Sammy brought home a go-kart for Kevin. At the age of 9, he started his own racing career with pops turning wrenches. Kevin was successful right from the start. He took home a Golden Driller in karts and a 2002 World Karting Association Grand National Championship before advancing to Micro Midgets, Full Midgets, Sprint Cars, and Nascar Xfinity Series racing.
Unfortunately, Kevin’s racing career ended prematurely with a crash resulting in broken L-1 and T-7 vertebrae in his back. Nevertheless, the Swindell dynasty is in the record books forever. Sammy’s wife Amy, and Kevin’s wife Jordan, are both in the house all week to support the boys. You can find them in the Swindell’s pit selling some rather fine Swindell SpeedLab swag.
The Larson Family
The story wouldn’t be complete without mentioning a kid from California who has turned quite a few heads in the last decade. Fresh off of Tuesday’s Night-2 Feature win, Elk Grove’s Kyle Larson is definitely a candidate to win the big show on Saturday. It took a while before America figured out what dirt track fans already knew about this guy. Although Larson is now a household name, he hasn’t forgotten his roots. The Chili Bowl dates are always circled on Larson’s calendar, and winning a Golden Driller would mean a lot to him.
This year, father and son are racing together again, as Kyle is back behind the wheel of a car campaigned by Mike Larson with support from the KKM gang. Kyle’s mom Janet, sister Andrea, wife Katelyn, son Owen and daughter Audrey are with them all week as well. They wouldn’t have it any other way. In fact, the word “MAJ1K” displayed on the hood of the race car is composed of the initials for Mike, Andrea, Janet, and Kyle #1.
Kyle’s brother-in-law, World of Outlaw Sprint Car Series regular Brad Sweet, is back in action at the Chili Bowl this year as well. Brad nearly locked his ride into Saturday’s feature, falling one position short with a Third place finish Monday night.
We spent some time with Kyle and Mike to discuss the early days. Mike and Janet were huge Sprint Car fans, and traveled all over to watch their heroes. When we asked them what motivated Mike to purchase a kart for Kyle, Mike was quick to answer “It was to go have fun!” Kyle concurred, and explained it was always about spending time together doing something they both enjoyed.
Jeff Gordon has been quoted saying he missed out on a “normal” childhood. Racing schedules require a strong family commitment, and sacrifices are made to spend weekends at the track. We asked Kyle if he ever felt denied of anything to go racing as often as he did. “No…not really. I missed a few dances and things like that, but really, I’d rather be racing than doing those things anyway”. He has no regrets, and we can’t help but admire his love for this sport.
Obviously the Larsons won a ton of races together. Kyle’s successes landed him one of the coolest gigs any racer could ever dream of — a full-time job driving race cars. We were curious what made the formula work so well during the early years. Basically, Kyle and Mike shared the same sentiment that each focused on doing what they did best. Kyle was the driver, Mike was the mechanic.
Neither had a problem with the arrangement, and rarely were they critical of the other. Kyle could recall only one or two times where Mike showed any displeasure at the track. “He was always all about having fun. There was never really any pressure on me. He just let me do my thing,” Kyle said.
Mike added, “I know I’m saying this as his dad, but honestly, the kid just has a natural talent. I didn’t have to tell him much.”
Mike went on to explain that as long as he had the car set up with a good baseline, he knew they would be okay. Kyle had the ability to “carry the car.” He mentioned a time he overheard Keith Kunz telling someone that Kyle has a “huge window” when it comes to setup. In racing terms, that means he is much more tolerant of a setup being either loose or tight. He doesn’t need the car to be perfectly neutral in order to be comfortable. He has learned to adapt and overcome.
We asked Kyle if it was tough to drive for other car owner’s after working with his father for so long. “No, not really,” he said. “The transition was pretty smooth. Whether I was driving for the Vertullo’s, [Brent] Kaeding, or Keith [Kunz], the cars were good and they were easy to drive for, so it wasn’t hard.”
Mike and Janet will always be grateful their son was able to secure opportunities to go beyond where they could take him. The purchase of a Chili Bowl midget proves that Mike still hasn’t completely let go. He still has the desire to go racing with Kyle.
But why the number 01? Mike explained that when he first purchased the car four years ago, he ran it with the number 100. “That was the number of ‘Crazy Wheels’ Wally Baker. He was my dad’s favorite. When Kyle agreed to drive my car, we switched to 01, because that was LeRoy Van Conett’s number when he drove the Bailey Brothers car. He was my favorite driver.”
Finally, we wanted to know if Kyle felt any additional pressure to win for his dad. Mike chimed in that he wouldn’t think Kyle gave it much thought. The Golden Driller is the real focus, and Mike explained that Kyle is experienced enough to not let anything take away from that.
Kyle agreed by saying “My dad’s car is no different than any other Kunz car that I’ve driven, so I don’t think about it much. I mean, it would be cool to win [the Golden Driller] together, but I don’t feel pressure that way.”
OneDirt wishes the best of luck to all of the racing families. We think it is the coolest thing a family can do together. After all, families that race together stay together!