With fans clamoring for tickets and drivers from all branches of the sport renting or buying rides so they can be part of the spectacle that is the Lucas Oil Chili Bowl Nationals, the uninitiated would think there was big money to be made during the annual January event at Tulsa (Okla.) Expo Raceway.
These people would be wrong, but that does not mean participants begrudge spending way more than they will ever earn at the pay window.
“None of us go for the money,” Kevin Thomas Jr. said. “It’s all about prestige. Win it and you’re the best in the world. But to do that, you need a car that’s perfectly prepared, then you have to have your race nights go just right.”
In 2018, Thomas drove Mike Hefner’s Triple X-Esslinger that DIRTcar modified ace Larry Wight handled the previous two years.
“Kevin brought sponsorship while Larry rented the car,” explained Heffner. “You have to have that. The only way you can make money at the Chili Bowl is to have great sponsorship or rent the car. You won’t make any money from the purse, even if you win, but the race is so much fun and so competitive that I think guys would race there just for the trophy.
“I’m a promoter too, and even I complain about the purse,” Heffner added. “But with 300 cars, there’s no motivation to pay more. Everyone sees it as a week around other racers in the middle of the winter. The pit crowd is triple or quadruple what you see at an Outlaws race and the sense of excitement is overwhelming.”
“My deal is pretty typical,” explained Thomas. “My buddy’s dad works for a plumbing company in California and they put up some money for me. A few others helped with tires, my hotel bill, food and fuel to get there.
“That was the first time I ever had things go my way. It took me a few years to even make the show, but Sean gave me a good car, then I did my job right, too. You have to be patient there. Guys give up on the bottom but you can pick them off down there for a while before the top comes in. But you always have to go knowing the odds are against you.”
Sean Michael oversees the Heffner Racing cars.
“It was built without a light frame to begin with, but I started drilling holes and changing whatever I could to lighten it up,” he explained. “We didn’t take tubing out, we just put it down to the next smaller size.
“It can’t be run outdoors. It’s not as light as some but it’s pretty light. The big thing is getting all the components light,” Michael noted. “I spent hours drilling holes in Larry’s seat but Kevin brought his own, which wasn’t the lightest in the world.
“I don’t really know how much difference weight actually makes. Daryn Pittman keeps showing up with a regular outdoor car and for two years was the fastest car there until he had problems. And Billy Pauch Jr. put a heavy car in the ‘A.’ Light is good but you have to be fast too.”
When the conversation gets down to how much all this fun costs, Michael starts spewing numbers.
“We’ve got between $55,000 and $60,000 in the car. We take two guys with us for the week and pay their way in, plus all their expenses,” Michael said. “Just the diesel fuel to get there is $1,000 but we had a car for Chris Dyson with us, too, so that helped cut the travel expenses.
“On the income side, we were third on our qualifying night and got $1,000 and Kevin was ninth in the ‘A’for another $1,050. It’s a lot of work and a lot of money to get that but to me, there’s no better week of racing than the Chili Bowl. Before we go to Florida, we watch the weather and we’re either happy or sad. For Tulsa, there are no worries, it’s always dry.”