The 25th annual Chili Bowl Nationals will be held Jan. 11-15 at the QuickTrip Center’s Tulsa Expo Raceway.
In celebration of the Silver Anniversary of this prestigious indoor midget race, www.nationalspeedsportnews.com will be publishing the race reports that appeared in the pages of National Speed Sport News for the first 24 runnings of the event.
Beginning with the inaugural event in 1987, race recaps will be posted on a daily basis from Dec. 18 through Jan. 10.
By BOB MARLOW
TULSA, Okla. – Local hero Andy Hillenburg and an all-star cast produced a racing blockbuster Saturday night. In what everyone agreed was the best Chili Bowl race in the eight-year history of the midwinter indoor series, and what many said was simply the best race they had ever seen, period. Hillenburg emerged victorious after 50 laps of intense competition and storybook drama.
For Hillenburg, the story began on Wednesday when the Tulsa World touted the outlaw sprint star as one of the favorites. On Thursday he secured his second-row starting position in the big race by winning his heat and finishing runner-up to Page Jones and ahead of Steve Kinser in the first day’s qualifying feature. On Friday all he could do was watch as the second day’s feature added the likes of Ron Shuman, P.J. Jones and Tony Stewart to the finale.
P.J., who like Hillenburg had been second in his qualifying feature, lined up alongside Andy in the second row. The older Jones boy started the A-main drama by pushing high in the first turn on the first lap and stalling, moving him to last place. After a second restart for a jam-up, which again caught P.J. in turn one, Page Jones took the lead from the pole with Shuman second and Hillenburg third.
Hillenburg lost third to Stewart momentarily, then reclaimed the position as the entire field ran a furious pace. Two yellows, one for a stalled car and another for a four-car tangle, interrupted briefly, but under green-flag conditions the racing was hard and close and P.J. was coming to the front.
Everyone was attacking. Shuman challenged Page on the upper groove, Hillenburg right behind. Stewart was fourth followed by Kinser. P.J. caught Kinser for fifth place before the halfway point in the 50 lapper, with Kinser running hard enough to glance off the backstretch wall as they fought for the position. Hillenburg then put Shuman back a spot, and P.J. took fourth from Stewart.
Hillenburg made his first grab for the top spot now, running side-by-side with Page. But Parnelli’s youngest kept the edge, and after a number of hard laps, suddenly Hillenburg was behind not one but two Jones’. P.J. had arrived from the rear.
With Shuman running fourth, Kinser took fifth from Stewart. Using the extreme bottom of the track, more so than any other driver, Kinser then wrestled fourth from Friday’s winner as Stevie Reeves broke into the top five. With the Jones boys having a family feud for the lead and Hillenburg still right behind them, Reeves got past Kinser.
Then the Hollywood drama began to come to a head. In the third turn, Ken Schrader and Scott Hatton tangled, sliding up to the fourth-turn wall, immediately in front of the leaders. Page and P.J., both running the high lane right up against the wall, had nowhere to go and both slid into the parked cars. Hillenburg squeaked by! So did everyone else.
Page had led the event from the start and his car was now unable to continue. P.J., for the third time, restarted at the rear. When the green flag waved for the run to the finish, the order of the first five was Hillenburg, Reeves, Kinser, Kenny Irwin and Shuman. Hillenburg and Reeves ran the closing laps right on the upper edge of the track, while Kinser sampled both high and low. For a final dose of high drama, Hillenburg smacked the third-turn wall on the final lap, but never broke his stride and flashed under his first Chili Bowl checkered flag in eight years of trying.
The top five remained as they were on that final restart, though it truly was not over till it was over. The hometown fans – and the out-of-towners – cheered the storybook finish. Hillenburg, a seven-time World of Outlaws winner in 1993, said that the victory was “right up there” with his favorite wins. Andy drove the Fontana-powered Stealth of Keith and Rusty Kuhns, the same owners for whom he delivered a third-place finish in 1993.
Dean Erfurth moved into sixth place in the closing laps, followed by Tommie Estes, Jr. Stewart faded in the late stages to finish eighth, and P.J. Jones charged back to ninth. Randy Roberts completed the top 10.
The evening’s preliminaries, consisting of pairs of D, C and B features, did not lack for any interest. Mike Bender, Gary Wittmer and Steve Frisbee each flipped during the D features, which were won by Dick Kaiser and the resoundingly popular Doug Wolfgang. Wolfgang carried his state’s flag around the track during the opening ceremonies, and was cheered the entire way.
The first C feature was plagued with spins, tangles and four flips, yet produced a torrid race among the top five. Cary Faas won on a last-lap restart, besting Andy Pierce. Bob Thoman, Brian Tuey, Greg Stoehr and John Hunt were the flippers. The second C feature ran non-stop, although Billy Pauch spun on the last corner of the last lap as Randy Koch won. Wolfgang’s night concluded here with a 12th-place finish.
The evening’s biggest melee came in the first B feature, and it was inadvertently triggered by Lou Cicconi who was parked in the infield by the time it happened. Cicconi, leading, had his car die coming through the second turn, and he pulled off the track. The resulting scramble for his vacated position rumbled all the way around the track before exploding in a first turn wreck involving half the field. Stan Fox was among those involved, but he restarted only to be later eliminated by a collision with Pete Frazier.
The race was red flagged again when Lance Blevins took a nasty flip on the front chute. Finally, a great duel between Gene Gennetten and Danny Frye, Jr. took place, with Gennetten notching the victory.
The strangest incident of the night came in the second B feature. A.J. Johnson hung his car on the front straightaway catch fence after tangling with Gary Howard. A wrecker was needed to retrieve the car, yet Johnson climbed back in to rejoin the race. As the push truck sent him on his way, his car’s rear bumper fell off and pole-vaulted the back end of the push truck into the air! In the race itself, Roberts led the whole way until Hatton took the lead and victory on the last lap.
The Tulsa World reported crowds of 3,000 on Thursday and 5,000 on Friday. Saturday’s gate was a sellout.
- Andy Hillenburg;
- Stevie Reeves;
- Steve Kinser;
- Kenny Irwin;
- Ron Shuman;
- Dean Erfurth;
- Tommie Estes, Jr.;
- Tony Stewart;
- P.J. Jones;
- Randy Roberts;
- Scott Hatton;
- Danny Frye, Jr.;
- John Starks;
- Kevin Doty;
- Page Jones;
- Ken Schrader;
- Dave Strickland, Jr.;
- Donnie Beechler;
- Gene Gennetten;
- Jerry Coons, Jr.
Thursday Night Preliminary: Page Jones
Friday Night Preliminary: Ron Shuman