INDIANAPOLIS — Right on cue, as the leaves rustle across the landscape and the shadows grow long, thoughts turn to the Chili Bowl.
The 33rd annual Lucas Oil Chili Bowl Nationals presented by General Tire kicks off Jan. 14 at Oklahoma’s Tulsa Expo Raceway. The event has expanded yet again with six consecutive nights of racing to crown the Chili Bowl Nationals champion on Saturday night, with the finale once again broadcast live on MAVTV.
Six nights? In January? It seems impossible, but the Chili Bowl itself is impossible. Who could have dreamed that a midget event in the middle of January at an indoor facility in Tulsa could grow to become one of the premier motorsports events in the nation?
There are naysayers, for sure. Some complain about the purse, some complain about the number of nights, some complain because that’s just what they do. But two irrefutable facts serve to effectively mute the criticism.
One, an enormous number of teams choose to participate. More than 350 entries were received in 2018. They load their stuff and head for Tulsa each January because they have fun and it fuels their competitive nature. Even the slowest team is yearning to outrun somebody, just to say they did.
Two, an enthusiastic and eager crowd purchases tickets each year, filling the Expo Center to the rafters on Saturday night. These people also come to have fun, because the Chili Bowl is as much a reunion as a race. People cultivate friendships with those sitting around them, meeting for meals throughout the week and enjoying a mid-winter vacation of sorts.
The core of the Chili Bowl success, however, is not complicated. The event continues to prosper because the racing is exciting and competitive. You can nit-pick the racing surface here and there but at various times throughout the week you’re going to see some terrific racing.
As long as Emmett Hahn and his staff can maintain those things — a fun atmosphere and exciting racing — the Chili Bowl will thrive indefinitely.
Several good storylines are already shaping up this year.
Can Christopher Bell make it three consecutive wins? It is very possible he can.
When will Kyle Larson catch a break and finally win this thing? He’s currently America’s most exciting racer and he absolutely, positively wants to win the Chili Bowl. If he can find some luck it could happen.
Is five-time Chili Bowl winner Sammy Swindell going to win one more? His legendary career is still going strong and he is still winning races. He gets a little cranky in January but that’s just those familiar competitive juices flowing to the surface.
Will the “super teams” continue to shine? Keith Kunz Motorsports owned the top three spots on Saturday night in 2018 and Clauson-Marshall Racing also had a strong presence. But Dooling-Hayward brought just two cars — Tanner Thorson and Brad Sweet — and put them both in the top 10 in the finale, proving you don’t need a fleet of cars in order to compete for victory.
One of the elements that makes the Chili Bowl especially compelling is the fact that it’s a one-off. You get just one shot each year to win this thing, so for most mortal racers — Sammy notwithstanding — your career will present only a limited number of opportunities to win. That leads us to think about some sentimental favorites, people we’d love to see take home a Golden Driller.
Jerry Coons Jr. has raced in 18 A-features on Saturday night and has scored three top-five finishes. He is a legitimate future midget Hall of Famer and a Driller would cap off a strong and productive career.
Dave Darland is one of the most beloved racers in America for a reason and after 15 A-feature appearances and five top-five finishes he’s due for a score. A victory by the People’s Champ would produce a crowd reaction that could be heard all the way back home in Indiana.
Daryn Pittman has been a star on the national stage for several years, but the blood in his veins is pure Oklahoma proud. He was runner-up in 2017, so he is capable and a win on Saturday night would electrify the Expo Center.
So when January rolls around, pack your suitcase and head for Tulsa. It’s fun and exciting and many of your friends will be there. You never know what’s going to happen next and one thing is for sure: There is nothing like this crazy gathering of racing people each winter.
Nothing like it at all.