As the end of each racing season winds down and the reality starts to sink in that a break in the dust and methanol is eminent, there is a question that buzzes the pits at racetracks all across the globe: “Are you going to Chili Bowl?” The hype and anticipation of this event alone seems to give us racers and fans just enough motivational energy to get us through the chilly winter months which seem to last forever.
Once January rolls around, it seems that everyone we know involved with auto racing is making the trek from wherever home base to the Chili Bowl Nationals. The purpose of this article is to explain exactly what the appeal of this week-long adventure is to those who have never been or are new fans to dirt track racing.
The 33rd annual running of the Lucas Oil Chili Bowl Nationals presented by General Tire kicked off today inside the historic River Spirit Expo Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma. More than 350 entries are slated to tackle the clay bullring over six total days of unrivaled competition in this 2019 edition, with drivers representing five different countries (Australia, Canada, New Zealand, United Kingdom, and United States).
This race was created from the vision of co-organizers Emmett Hahn and Lanny Edwards, who continue to promote, rebuild, and dismantle this spectacular event to this day. With support from a local chili producing company (which coined the name of the event), they somehow convinced the powers-that-be to give them the keys to the Expo Center to dump hundreds of truckloads of clay onto the concrete floor, creating a temporary 1/5-mile, banked dirt-oval track that allows racers to compete indoors two weeks after Christmas.
The inaugural race, held in January 1987, started off as a much smaller meeting when just over 50 racers gathered to compete over two days. Since that time, it has grown into one of the most anticipated and fiercely contested automobile contests of the year. According to the Tulsa Sports Commission, the Chili Bowl will bring nearly $30 million of tourist revenue to the City of Tulsa.
What is it that makes this race so special? What exactly is it about the Chili Bowl that attracts over 10,000 eager fans to flock to America’s Heartland to plant their butts in makeshift bleachers each night for a week-straight, while ingesting fumes, dirt, and rubber? What is the reason that a group of racers (some being converted fans from the stands) spend enormous amounts of money for purpose-built racing machines to compete against an enormous field? They must know the odds are highly against them outperforming a group that is 300-plus strong to take home a chunk of the modest purse.
What is it about this place that attracts not only dirt-circle-track enthusiasts, but drivers from NASCAR, IndyCar, sports car, drag racing, and several other upper-echelon disciplines of auto racing? From what I have experienced, unfortunately there isn’t just one simple answer. There are many contributing factors.
Despite the fact that, in general, midget racing across the globe has suffered a decline over the past few decades, this event continues to attract the “who’s who” list of racers each year. Specialty cars are constructed with the sole purpose of bringing home the elusive “Golden Driller”. . . a trophy named after (and featuring) a miniature version of the massive 75-foot-tall sculpture erected adjacent to the indoor-events center. This 43,500-pound statue of a roughneck oil worker, erected of concrete and plaster in 1953, is actually the sixth-tallest statue in the United States and the most photographed landmark in Tulsa.
The Tulsa Expo Center is the home base of the Tulsa State Fair. It is one of the largest clear-span steel buildings in the world, providing 354,000 square feet of column-free space under a cable-suspended roof. The place is massive. It is difficult to describe in words, and something one must witness for themselves to truly appreciate. Imagine walking into a building that is completely open for as far as the eye can see, undivided by walls or columns typically required to support a roof structure.
This place is not only capable of housing a racetrack (and surrounding grandstands), but also provides parking space for hundreds of rigs with race car haulers, and yet somehow still has room for a decent-sized, indoor-vendor marketplace inside its walls. The arena is perfect for keeping racers and fans inside, warm, and out of the typically chilly Tulsa weather in January. It manages to provide fans with plenty of activities to keep them occupied throughout the entire week. Some would say it is like visiting a “racing amusement park.”
As cliché as it sounds, you really have to experience this event to know exactly what makes the Chili Bowl Nationals such a unique event — one that keeps people pouring into the Tulsa Expo Center year after year. Veteran fans of this race know about all of the goings-on that one won’t find anywhere else. First-timers are easy to detect as they enter the arena wide-eyed, appearing to remain a bit overwhelmed until the novelty of everything starts to slowly wear off. They are consumed by the intensity of the week’s racing programs.
Although it is impossible to describe all the details that recruit “first-timers” and keep the “regulars” coming each year, here’s a short list of things that set this place and this event apart from the others.
To start with, the Chili Bowl has its own set of rules. The entries must conform to some basic size, engine, and safety requirements typical for full-midget divisions worldwide. Historically though, the Chili Bowl Nationals has had a more relaxed set of rules and regulations that allow for lighter, more powerful, and aerodynamically superior chassis than what are typically seen at a weekly show. This has created a playground for creative minds. A ton of research and development go into the Chili Bowl entries, as teams strive to show up with a “better mousetrap” than years prior.
Due to the sheer number of competitors, the racing format at the Chili Bowl is different from many racing facilities and sanctioning bodies. Starting positions for feature events are determined by a combination of passing points and finishing positions throughout each qualifying night. Monday through Friday night events are kicked off with heat races, which are lined up by pill draw. Points are earned by passing cars. The 40 high-point winners from the heat races lock into four 10-car qualifier races. The top point finishers from the qualifiers, race in a preliminary main event each night.
Run on Saturday night, the A-Main feature is a 55-lap event consisting of top 24 drivers, plus any provisional starters that the promoter allows. The Saturday night finale was historically a 50-lap feature event, but was changed in 2012, in honor of Donnie Ray Crawford, a beloved hometown racer. Donnie Ray, whose racing number was “55”, was a regular Chili Bowl competitor. His life was taken far too early in a senseless shooting as the family was leaving for the race. The tragic irony is that he saved the life of current competitor Harli White, when he courageously jumped into a burning race car to save the young girl at a different event.
The final events on Saturday are a series of elimination races. The starting positions are based on total points accumulated throughout the previous night’s efforts. During Saturday’s eliminations, drivers are given an alpha-numeric name (i.e. “N-Main #2”) that assigns the race they will start in and their starting position. An entire day of “Alphabet Soup” ensues as the contestant’s in the lower mains start the morning with hopes of transferring to the tail of the next round of features, earned by only the top finishers in each. The format is designed to award passing and consistency, which create some insanely fierce racing action!
How can all of those races be completed inside that venue, on a dirt track, in such a short amount of time? Well, the secret is a combination of three things. It starts with a procedure for track preparation and constant reconditioning that is second-to-none. In fact, racing legend Tony Stewart has been known to spend countless hours grooming the racing surface himself. He has more laps around the joint in a tractor than many of the competitors have made during racing action.
Second, an army of trained officials are on duty for this event. Their job is to strictly enforce a very well-orchestrated plan for staging the race cars for each event. They must also clear racers from the infamous ramp at the completion of each race, and make sure that they all get back to their parking spots without interrupting the proceedings or running over any spectators on the way. The racers are lined up just outside of Turns 3 & 4 prior to the races and staging of the cars continues down the midway through the pit area. This area is open to the fans and crew members with passes, so careful consideration for the public safety is always a priority and precautions are made accordingly.
Finally, a team of very organized push vehicle operators orchestrate a seemingly impossible feat of firing off the race cars and keeping each race on schedule throughout the week. The cars are staged by the teams and pushed with small 4-wheel ATVs. Even the emergency response vehicle is a purpose-built, panelized, small ATV that is able to rush to the crash scene to reduce response time. All of this effort results in one thing — an arena full of extremely satisfied fans who get to see virtuously non-stop racing action for about 6 or 7 hours, without having to spend the entire night inside the Expo Center.
One of the obvious aspects of this event which sets it apart from other dirt track races, is the traditions that have been carried out over the years by adoring fans. The coveted reserved tickets on the front stretch and in Turns 3 & 4 are usually occupied by the most hardcore fans. This is also the area that features the awesome driver introductions through the “tunnel” at the top of the ramp, and where the competitors will toss out Frisbees to the fans.
There is an entire array of other social activities that have turned into Chili Bowl traditions as well. This includes the launching of beach balls and other inflatable items, tossing of beaded necklaces into the crowd, and firing t-shirts into the stands by sponsors and teams. Heck, there are even alcohol vendors inside the pit area, so even those with hard luck on the track can relieve some pressure this event brings to the teams.
Throughout the week, there is even a weekly “Flip Count” announced over the PA each time there is another rollover by one of the competitors on the track. If you’re looking for the full-blown party atmosphere, you may want to join the “Top Row Rowdies” or the “Bottom Row Boozers” at the backstretch general-seating area. Regardless of where you sit or where you choose to roam, there is definitely something to grab ahold of your senses. A simple walk to the restroom may result in a chance encounter with the likes of Ricky Stenhouse, Christopher Bell, or Parnelli Jones.
The bottom line: all of these activities and more, found daily and exclusively within the walls of the Tulsa Expo Center, create lifetime memories. Hence, the Chili Bowl isn’t just a race . . . it is the event of a lifetime!
A Feature (Top 2 advance to Saturday’s A-Feature. 25 Laps): 1. 67-Logan Seavey, ; 2. 76M-Brady Bacon, ; 3. 1R-Brad Sweet, ; 4. 3N-Jake Neuman, ; 5. 21B-Chase Briscoe, ; 6. 32T-Trey Marcham, ; 7. 1B-Travis Rilat, ; 8. 39B-Zeb Wise, ; 9. 9X-Paul Nienhiser, ; 10. 15S-Sean McClelland, ; 11. 55D-Nick Drake, ; 12. P1-Paul White, ; 13. 17W-Dustin Golobic, ; 14. 8-Alex Sewell, ; 15. 5X-Tyson Hall, ; 16. 81-Colten Cottle, ; 17. 2WG-Weston Gorham, ; 18. 20S-Shon Deskins, ; 19. 2-Ryan Hall, ; 20. (DNF) 71K-Tanner Carrick, ; 21. (DNF) 17Z-Zac Moody, ; 22. (DNF) 86C-David Camfield, ; 23. (DNF) 91W-Hayden Williams, ; 24. (DNF) 5P-Kyle Craker, 
- Lap Leader(s): Logan Seavey 1-25
- Hard Charger: Zeb Wise +13