LOS ANGELES — The 28th annual Lucas Oil Chili Bowl Midget Nationals presented by General Tire in Tulsa, Okla., “the super bowl of midget auto racing,” was held Jan. 14-18.
The classic event at Tulsa Expo Raceway is a favorite of racing fans and drivers from many racing disciplines. The Saturday finale reached its largest audience this year. All 15,000 seats in the building were sold as usual. The MAVTV American Real first live telecast added thousands of eyeballs this year. The clay indoor quarter-mile clay occupies one end of the 11-acre, block-long 448,000 square feet exhibition building. All racing cars, haulers plus team pits and a trade show occupy the other end of the massive building.
Consecutive racing nights from Tuesday through Friday divided the record-tying 281-car field (same as 2009) into four preliminary rounds. On Tuesday, 69 midgets drew to compete in heat races, followed by 70 more on Wednesday, 70 on Thursday and the final 72 on Friday. Position and passing points were awarded and each preliminary A main started 24 cars.
The top three finishers each night advanced directly to Saturday’s A-feature (12 cars). Total points earned each night slotted drivers into the Saturday mains. There were 73 races run from Tuesday through Friday and 21 more Saturday for an amazing 94 races on the still racy clay track when racing concluded Saturday.
Drivers came from four nations — USA, Canada (two), Australia (three) and New Zealand (one). The 296 pre-entries (281 drew for starting positions) listed drivers from 33 states. Eight states had double-digit driver representatives. There were 65 Chili Bowl rookies. Five female drivers — Shannon McQueen, Taylor Ferns, Hannah Adair, Harli White and Michelle Decker — raced.
Entries showed a wide array of dirt track midget chassis and engine choices. There were 29 different chassis constructors and 28 engine builders. Eight chassis constructors had nine or more midgets at the Chili Bowl. Spike had 119 midgets (42 percent). Stealth had 55 cars, Beast 15, DRC and Twister-12 each, Bullet 11, Triple X 10 and Ellis nine.
Esslinger was the most popular engine with 99 entries (35 percent). The next most popular engines were: Fontana-46, Chevrolet-33, Gaerte and Mopar-27 each, Toyota-18, Ford-seven and Hawk-five.
Saturday’s A-feature winner receives the coveted “Golden Driller Trophy,” a reference to the original petroleum industry exhibition purpose for the huge building. It now hosts the Chili Bowl Nationals each January during the off-season for most racers.
Personable Bryan Clauson, originally from Carmichael, Calif., and now racing out of Noblesville, Ind., became the 18th different driver to win a Chili Bowl Golden Driller Trophy for his trophy collection. He won by 1.556 seconds over Kevin Swindell, who was trying to win his fifth consecutive Chili Bowl Saturday A-main.
Swindell, 25, won the Hard Charger of the Week Award for advancing his position 49 times. Mike Curb Records sponsorship adorned the cars of the top three Saturday A-main finishers.
The rookie-of-the-year battle came down to a contest between a pair of young Saturday B-main drivers. Parker Price-Miller, 15, who placed 11th in the second B main won the honor over Tanner Thorson, 17, who finished 14th in the first B main. Both teens raced in the 2013 Perris Turkey Night Grand Prix and performed well. Thorson won the TNGP rookie of the year award by finishing 10th.
Christopher Bell, 18-year old USAC National Midget champion from Norman, Okla., deserves praise for finishing third in the 55-lap Chili Bowl feature. He battled Swindell and exchanged second with him several times late in the race.
Alex Bright, from Pennsylvania, came from 12th to his Chili Bowl best fourth place in his season-long midget, not a lighter but legal Chili Bowl-only chassis.
Dave Darland, 48, proved he still is one the best open-wheel racing drivers. He continued his recent hot streak and did so for his third different car owner. Dave finished fifth in Saturday’s A-main after starting 10th. Last November in Perris, Calif. he won the annual Oval Nationals for USAC sprint cars and the USAC TNGP midget 98-lap feature on Thanksgiving.
Chili Bowl preliminary night 25-lap A-main winners (with their starting positions in parenthesis) were: Tuesday — Jonathan Beason (1), Wednesday — Caleb Armstrong (2), Thursday —Bell (1) and Friday —Clauson (2). Clauson started third and won Saturday’s A main by leading laps six through 55.
A special 20-lap Race of Champions on Tuesday went to Kyle Larson over Damion Gardner.
American Real MAVTV has been owned since 2011 by Forrest Lucas, founder of Lucas Oil Products and a major benefactor of racing in this country. MAVTV is offered by many cable companies and the Chili Bowl telecast was available also on satellite services DirecTV and Dish Network. MAVTV (DirecTV and Dish also) will re-air the entire Chili Bowl three-hour and 20 minute telecast on Friday, Feb. 21.
Lucas and MAVTV President Bob Patison are racers at heart. They present grassroots racing the right way to please current fans and attract newcomers to the sport. Last October they televised their first live event–off-road races from Lake Elsinore. The Chili Bowl was their second live telecast.
They hired knowledgeable Dave Despain, whose first MAVTV assignment was to serve as on-site broadcast host of the Chili Bowl telecast. He did his usual stellar job of setting the stage for Saturday racing and interviewing competing drivers Kasey Kahne and Kyle Larson after their Saturday racing concluded.
Despain will have his own half-hour show starting this spring on MAVTV and that is welcome news. Speed Sport News and MAVTV also have a collaborative show in the works.
MAVTV brought in experienced motor sports broadcasters as on-air talent for the Chili Bowl telecast. Announcer Ken Stout and analyst Rob Klepper (brother of former USAC midget driver Clay Klepper) were in the booth and performed admirably. Dave Argabright and Erin Banks were in their usual roles as pit reporters and asked appropriate questions.