In 1987, when Emmet Hahn and Lanny Edwards presented the initial edition of the “Chili Bowl Midget Nationals” in Tulsa, Oklahoma, locals may have thought it had something to do with the opening of a new restaurant. Some 33-years later, there is no mistaking what it is all about. Not only is it the biggest competition in Midget racing, but it is one of the prime events in all of dirt track racing.
The growth of the Chili Bowl over the years has been a boon to Hahn. The 15,000-seat grandstands inside the River Spirit Expo Center are full during all six nights of racing. The event now draws more than 350 entries from not only the top open-wheel drivers in the world but also regular participants from such disciplines as NASCAR, NHRA, Indy Cars, Off-Road and yes, even snowmobile racing.
Being a team owner is a lot more stressful than racing. – Cory Kruseman
Reflecting back to the maiden voyage of the event, which was a two-night deal won by the legendary Rich Vogler, a total of 52 cars were on hand. Virtually every driver was a Midget or Sprint Car shoe. These days, it is a race, but maybe even more so — it is an event where it is fashionable to be seen. That has turned into a perceived modern-day gold rush for car owners. With so many drivers looking for rides, seats in cars are hot real estate.
One owner with cars available for renting the past few years is one of the all-time greats of, not only open-wheel racing, but also the Chili Bowl itself. Ventura, California’s Cory Kruseman, is a two-time winner of the prestigious race (2000 and 2004). In addition, he triumphed in more preliminary night Chili Bowl main events than any other driver.
Many think car owners who lease multiple rides at the Chili Bowl are employing Brinks trucks to haul all that loot back home. For most though, that is not the case. In fact, it is quite the opposite. For owners, it costs a ton of money and causes a lot of work before, during, and after the race. Let’s just say the average Chili Bowl owner who rents rides probably keeps around 25-percent of his gross. But that is only if everything goes well. A crash here or there, or other problems, could easily put him in the red for the week.
“That is pretty close if everything goes fine,” Kruseman said when queried about the 25-percent profit. “That is not counting if a motor blows or other things go wrong. Last year at the Chili Bowl, I had a truck break down on the side of the road. That cost me an extra $2,700. For my crew, I have to buy five hotel rooms for eight nights. I have to feed all of those people three times a day. That kind of stuff really catches up to you.”
“Leasing a car from me at the Chili Bowl includes everything,” the superstar driver says. “It covers all but the driver’s personal expenses (hotel, travel, etc.). We supply the car, a top-notch crew, and the entry fee. We have food there for them every day, and a team dinner on Sunday night in Tulsa. And, the rental price includes one day of testing at the Ventura Raceway before the race.”
Answering Tough Questions
Finding competitive cars to charter for the event is not difficult. Having the expertise and experience that Kruseman can bring to a driver in the race is priceless. Any rookies who drive for him (he has two of them this year) get extra lessons that only a champion driver can teach. He is extremely thorough and walks them around the Tulsa track pointing out driving lines, reference points, and how to get off the racetrack. If something was to go wrong, he shows them where the fire extinguishers are, and points out all the safety aspects. Also, smaller details, such as where they can sit and watch, are not left out. And, he answers all their questions in a way that only a champion driver can.
For 2020, Kruseman crowded three cars into his own rig. Longtime-friend Jimmy May is loading the fourth Kruseman car in his own trailer. Backup cars are not allowed at the Chili Bowl, so Kruseman packed one extra engine and enough spare parts to build three cars into his hauler. The hauler, along with some of his team on board, hit the road last Wednesday. They had to be in Tulsa to move into the building at 8:00 a.m. on Saturday morning. But the hard work begins on Sunday.
“We move into the building on Saturday, and we can start to set up on Sunday,” Kruseman declared. “We just use Sunday to get prepared. We set up a catering area for the food, put up sponsor banners and barricades around the pit area, and get the cars and everything we need to run them in place. It is kind of like a drag race where fans can come into the pits and get a close-up look at what is going on. So, we want to be ready to greet them.”
Chili Bowl 2020
“This year, I have a small crew coming with me,” Kruseman continued. “I am taking five-guys; usually, I have eight. We try to have enough guys so one of us is in the grandstands watching at the Monday practice session. It is either me or Mike Nigh. I have pushers who push the cars back and forth, and I have one guy assigned to each car; basically, one crew chief per car.”
“Monday is your hardest day, and there is a ton of work,” Kruseman sighed. “Everyone has to practice from 9:00 a.m. to 1:30. The cars have not been fired and the drivers are extremely nervous. You run their [Chili Bowl] fuel, so you have to get that in the cars. There is no temperature in the motors. You are answering questions, adjusting seat belts, etc. There is more racing on Saturday, but it is easier than Monday because all the drivers have been out there. They know where everything is, and how it works. They are familiar with the routine by Saturday.”
With so many multi-car teams, officials design it to be as easy as possible on them. They work it out so a team’s drivers are spread out through the five preliminary nights before they all race during Saturdays’ finale.
“They are nice enough to allow me to pick which drivers I want to race on which night,” Kruseman smiled. “This year, I have one kid who has to go back and forth to college in St. Louis. He is flying in on Sunday, racing on Monday night, and flying back for classes. He will not fly back in until Friday. I have another guy who is going to run on Tuesday night who has a newborn. He is going to fly back home for a while, and then fly back for the weekend. I have another kid who is going to be there all week, and he is going to crew for me when he is not racing.”
Being The Team Owner
With all the additional duties Kruseman takes on as a team owner, he finds it is much more demanding work than just showing up to drive. When he was just a racer, he would show up, take care of his helmet, and talk to his crew chief. These days, he must take care of every detail — all the way down to making sure the catered roast beef is the right temperature.
“Being a team owner is a lot more stress than racing because you are dealing with different attitudes,” Kruseman laughed. “If you have to deal with a driver, that is not bad. But most times, a driver brings one of their crew guys, Mom and Dad, and a girlfriend. Now, you have five different people per driver in your pits. They are wanting to eat and drink, stand up in front of the toolbox, and all that kind of stuff. Being a team owner is a little tougher because you have to validate being professional, look professional, and not be a jerk — all at the same time.”
No matter how much stress and more work it is, than just being a driver, Kruseman (and most everyone who has ever been there) loves the Chili Bowl. They all say it is more than just a race. That is what keeps them coming back every year.
“Chili Bowl is fun,” the two-time winner smiled. “It is the biggest midget race in the world. I get to see people I only see once a year. So many people want to go to the PRI show or the SEMA show to see the owners or representatives of companies. You go to those shows, and you are waiting in line to talk to the person who is going to represent you. At Chili Bowl, they are there waiting to talk to you so they can eat your food or have a beer out of your cooler.”
It is a great networking place, and it is a whole lot of work. – Cory Kruseman
“You can put sponsor deals together, and all kinds of stuff at the Chili Bowl,” Kruseman said. “I put my Tony Stewart [early-2000’s USAC Sprint Car ride] deal together at Chili Bowl. I put my IndyCar deal together at Chili Bowl. I put my NASCAR Truck deal together at Chili Bowl, and I have put numerous sponsorship deals together there. It is a great networking place, and it is a whole lot of work.”
This Year’s Team
As this piece went to press, Kruseman’s team for the January extravaganza is comprised of sophomore (to the race) Gage Rucker of Missouri, along with Chili Bowl rookies Tony Gaulda of Northern California, and Minnesota’s Andrew Carlson. If the fans get lucky, and he does not get his fourth car rented out, the team-driver roster will also include two-time Chili Bowl champion and open-wheel legend, Cory Kruseman. He could probably use the time in the car to get away from all the stress of being a Chili Bowl car owner. Either way, he is just happy to be at the Chili Bowl.
[Cory Kruseman would like to thank his team’s 2020 Chili Bowl sponsors: Lucas Oil, PureCrop1, Kwik Change Products, Sander Engineering, A.R.P., Brown & Miller Racing Solutions, K-1 Race Gear and K&N Filters.]