Without argument, the Chili Bowl Nationals has become the largest midget auto racing event in the world. Taking place indoors at the River Spirit Expo Center (Formerly the Tulsa Expo Center), the event at the quarter-mile dirt track is often referred to as the Super Bowl of Midget Racing.
The inaugural Chili Bowl was organized by Lanny Edwards and Emmett Hahn, naming it after a local company who sponsored the first event in 1987. The inaugural event attracted an amazing 55 cars on the preliminary night and 52 entries for the Championship night. These were pretty good car counts for an off-season, two-day Midget auto racing event (January 10/11, 1987).
Since then, the event has grown beyond anyone’s wildest imagination with the most recent event in 2020 pulling in over 341 car entries. The event is now spread out over six days, with Monday through Friday set up as preliminary races that qualify for the Championship day on Saturday. It is so prestigious that the National Midget Auto Racing Hall of Fame uses the event to induct its newest members each year.
Because the event brings the most talented open-wheel drivers together at the same place and time, it is enviable that certain racers will end up winning the event. It is just a matter of when. For example, Bryan Clauson was going to win the Chili Bowl Nationals. Everyone knew it well before the driver collected the win in 2014. The only question was: How many Chili Bowl Nationals would he win in his career?
Tragically, he would only win the one after a racing accident took his life too early in his young career. The same could be said of the first winner, Rich Vogler who died in a sprint car crash just three years after winning the Chili Bowl Nationals. [Vogler did not attend the event in 1988 but finished 4th in 1989, 5th in 1990].
Christopher Bell landed on the A-Feature podium back in 2014, a clear signal that the local boy was going to be a title contender for many years. He backed that up by winning the event in three consecutive years (2017, 2018, 2019). Many fans believed this was destiny.
During Bell’s run of three straight wins, his battles with Kyle Larson became something of legend. In 2018, Larson led the first ten laps of the feature before Bell took over for the next 15 laps. Larson mounted a challenge and took the lead back for another 15 laps before blowing an engine on lap 41. This turned over the lead to Bell who in turn, held off Rico Abreu for back-to-back Chili Bowl wins.
The next year, Larson and Bell put on another show for the ages. Larson took an early lead away from Logan Seavey and held it to the last corner of the last lap when Bell wrestled his way by his hapless teammate. This set the stage for destiny to reappear in 2020 when Larson followed Bell till lap 39 when the winning pass was made.
Larson’s win fulfilled a part of his destiny and seemingly opened up potential destinies for others, including Logan Seavey. Seavey finished 14th in 2018, 9th in 2019, and fourth in 2020. It would not be a long shot to put him on the shortlist of potential winners for the 2021 Chili Bowl Nationals.
Here’s what we know: Previous winners Kyle Larson (2020), Christopher Bell (2017-2019), and Rico Abreu (2015, 2016) are great bets to be battling for the win on Championship night. Larson will be looking to become a multiple-year winner of the event, joining five-time winner Sammy Swindell, Sammy’s son Kevin Swindell with four wins, three-time winner Christopher Bell, and two-time winners Dan Boorse, Tony Stewart, Cory Kruseman, and Rico Abreu.
Logan Seavey, Cannon McIntosh, and Buddy Kofoid are poised to take the crown if the chips fall the right way. Blake Hahn should not be overlooked after coming from the B-feature, starting 18th in the A-Feature, and driving his way to a solid eighth-place finish. Hahn earned the hard charger award by gaining ten spots.
Of the past 7 different winners, Damion Gardner gets overlooked by many. Gardner is an all-or-nothing driver which puts him in the front, or in the back. Damion is always there for one reason: to win. After a couple of hard-luck runs in the past two Chili Bowl events, his luck is due to change this year, and here is a reason this year may be set for his destiny: Gardner won in 2008 driving for car owner Jason Leffler. Leffler died in a sprint car crash in 2013. This year Gardner’s 71G car entry lists Charlie Leffler as the Klatt Enterprises car owner. Charlie is Jason Leffler’s son. Talk about destiny.
The Main Event Breakdown
Here’s how the 24 entries into the A-Feature breakdown:
- The top two finishers from each prelim night advance to the A-Feature.
- The top seven finishers from each of the two B-Features Advance to the rear of the A-Feature.
- Provisionals are set aside from the defending Chili Bowl Champion and the Vacuworx Invitational Race of Champions should they not qualify for the A-Feature.
Vacuworx Invitational Race of Champions
The Vacuworx Invitational Race of Champions is a highlight race of its own within the Chili Bowl Nationals. It has typically been held on the Tuesday preliminary night as a key feature of the night’s festivities. As the name implies, drivers must be invited to compete in the race but there are set standards for which drivers get the invite. You would think without an automatic advance into the A-Feature on Championship night, these guys would take it easy during the race. You would be thinking wrong. This is about pride and they race like it is for all the marbles.
Here’s how drivers have typically made the cut in the past. We’ve filled in the blanks to the VIROC invites where we could make an educated guess:
- Drivers finishing in the Top 3 of Saturday night’s A-Feature during the previous five Chili Bowls will be eligible.
- Drivers finishing in the Top 2 of the past five VIROC events will be eligible.
- Preliminary Night Winners from the most recent Chili Bowl will be eligible.
- Series Champions from the most recent calendar year in the World of Outlaws Sprint Cars, American Sprint Car Series National Tour, All-Star Circuit of Champions, USAC National Midgets, USAC National Sprint Cars, and POWRi National Midget League will be invited to compete.
Drivers Most Likely To Get Invitations For The 2021 VIROC Race
Invited based on A-Feature performance (2016-2020):
- Kyle Larson – 2020 Chili Bowl Champion
- Christopher Bell – 2017-2019 Chili Bowl Champion
- Daryn Pittman – Runner-up, 2017 Chili Bowl Nationals
- Spencer Bayston – Third Place, 2018 Chili Bowl Nationals
- Zach Daum – Third Place, 2016 Chili Bowl Nationals
Invited based on 2020 Prelim Night Victory
- Cannon McIntosh – Monday Night Winner
- Rico Abreu – Wednesday Night Winner
- Justin Grant – Friday Night Winner
Invited based on VIROC performance (2016-2020)
- Tanner Thorson – 2019 VIROC Winner
- Chad Boat – 2018 VIROC Winner
Invited based on 2019 Series Championship Winners
- Brad Sweet – 2020 NOS Energy Drink World of Outlaws Champion
- Sam Hafertepe, Jr. – 2020 Lucas Oil ASCS National Tour Champion
- Aaron Reutzel – 2020 Ollie’s Bargain Outlet All Star Circuit of Champions
- Jake Neuman – POWRi Lucas Oil National Midget League Champion
- Chris Windom – USAC NOS Energy Drink National Midget Champion
- Brady Bacon – USAC AMSOIL National Sprint Car Champion
Making History Other Watchables
Hard to believe that an event over 33 years of continuous operation can still be finding ways to make history, but every year the Chili Bowl adds another “first” to their list. Last year – and this seems so timely and fits into our running commentary of destiny – driver Mark Lowrey became the first African-American driver to win a feature race at the Chili Bowl Nationals. Knowing now what transpired in the country later in the year, this piece of history was very significant.
Drivers starting outside the two B-Features have very little chance of advancing to the A-Feature and have the same odds as hitting the lottery to win the Chili Bowl. However, there is some fantastic racing on Championship day, especially in the early morning features where a driver can get on a roll and advance three, four, or even five features.
Let’s say a driver has trouble on a preliminary night and ends up in one of the bottom of the alphabet features. It’s fun to watch one of these drivers go from the back of a feature, make the transfer to the next feature, then do the same thing for three more races. I consider those wins and real achievements to the drivers that pull off a major alphabet run like that.
Last year, driver Chris Cochran (#42C) opened his Championship day by winning the first N-Feature. He advanced to the M-Feature where he finished in the top three and advanced to the L-Feature. Coming in first from the back of the pack, he transferred to the K-Feature where he finished in third. This transferred him into the J-Feature where he again finished in third and transferred to the I-Feature. His day ended there when he failed to make it into the transfer spots. Racing through six features is a win, no matter how you measure it. Drivers Ty Hulsey, Alex Sewell, Cale Conley, and Casey Shuman also had serious runs through the alphabet soup.
Finally, and one of the most entertaining people to watch at the event is Tony Stewart. One of the best open-wheel racers in this century, Stewart has taught himself how to prep a track and keep the show running. The level of respect that the other drivers show him is fun to watch because Stewart can get animated. Zero to 100 as quickly as anyone. He runs a tight ship and it is a real pleasure to watch and admire.
For more information on the 2021 Chili Bowl Nationals, visit the official website at www.chilibowl.com.