TULSA, Okla. — NASCAR touring series regular Garrett Smithley wasn’t necessarily planning to be in Oklahoma next week for the 35th Lucas Oil Chili Bowl Nationals, nor did he expect to have a ride for the event.
As he explained in advance of the Super Bowl of Midget Racing, “it just kind of happened.”
Smithley got the call to drive the Michael Koontz-owned No. 17d after Cody Ware, who was originally scheduled to pilot the Tranter Gaerte Chevrolet-powered Spike Chassis, had to back out of the event due to other obligations.
The 28-year-old from Ligioner, Pa., is eager to tackle the challenge of his maiden Chili Bowl appearance, though he admitted he’s “got a lot to learn” when it comes to dirt racing.
“Cody was going to run the same car that Ryan Ellis ran last year with Michael Koontz; I guess Ryan helped set them up, but Cody had to back out last minute because of another obligation that he had going on where he couldn’t make it next week,” Smithley said. “So we all got in a group chat and he said, ‘Hey, Ryan’s talked to the owner. Would you want to run it?’ And there was no question in my mind about doing it. But that’s kind of how this happened for me.
“This is a bucket-list race for me; there’s a handful of races that I want to race in before the end of my career and the Chili Bowl is one that’s right at the top of my list,” he added. “Because of the mystique and the fact that it’s become such a huge event, it was a no brainer for me to say, ‘Yeah, let’s do it.’ I just wanted to jump at the opportunity and I’m really glad that it’s all come together to do this.”
Smithley is a veteran of 189 combined starts across NASCAR’s three national series, including 26 races last year in the premier NASCAR Cup Series. He ran full time for four years in the NASCAR Xfinity Series from 2016-’19 before stepping up predominately to the Cup Series level in 2020.
Driving on dirt, however, is not something that Smithley considers to be in his wheelhouse.
“I’ve only run one dirt race in my life and that was in a big-block modified for MRO, so it’s something out of my comfort zone,” Smithley said regarding dirt racing. “But again, the Chili Bowl is a bucket list race and I’ve always wanted to run it, so why not just jump in with both feet and do it, you know?”
Considering the two are longtime friends, Smithley said he plans to lean on fellow NASCAR and Chili Bowl competitor Ryan Ellis for advice as he embarks on his maiden voyage at the Super Bowl of Midget Racing.
“I’ve talked to Ryan already, obviously, and I’ll probably talk some with James Davison as well. He was my teammate last year and he ran the Chili Bowl last year as well, so he knows some of what to expect,” Smithley noted. “I’ve texted back and forth quite a bit with Dillon (Welch), too. He’s become a good buddy of mine and I know he’s one of the top guys that do that stuff, so he’s been helping me out quite a bit.
“I’m trying to have fun, but I’m trying to watch film too in order to prepare,” he added. “I tried to get a test (session), but it was way, way too late in the game for me to find anybody local to be able to do that. So I’m going to go and run the five or six practice laps that we get on Monday and see what we’ve got and then we’ll go from there into our prelim night after that.”
Not knowing what to expect, Smithley tipped that he plans to enjoy his time competing next week and soak in what it means to race as a competitor at the Chili Bowl.
It doesn’t mean his fire to be successful will be diminished, however.
“I have zero expectations. I have no idea how it’s going to go,” said Smithley. “I’ve heard for years and years how big of a party it is up there and how cool of an event it is. I’ve watched it for years from home. Phillip (Smalley, marketing guru) had a Chili Bowl party for years and years when he had a house in Concord, and we’d always go and that was a tradition … that we would always have a good time at that Chili Bowl party and watch. I would watch it intently, thinking I would like to do it one day, but really never did anything about it until it really just fell into my lap this year.
“I am going to soak it in. I’m going to Marvel. I’m glad that my prelim is later in the week, it’s on Thursday, so I have most of the week to take it all in and go have a good time and hang out with the crew and my friends that are there before we get rolling,” Smithley continued. “At the same time, though, I’m still a competitor. I can talk about all this stuff and say I don’t care about how I do and that I have no expectations, but at the end of the day when I put that helmet on, I’m going to still want to and try to go as fast as I possibly can. I’m going to try to go as far as I can in the alphabet soup.
“I’m going to enjoy it, but I’m also going to be competitive at the same time and see how it shakes out.”
The 35th Lucas Oil Chili Bowl Nationals takes place Jan. 11-16 inside the River Spirit Expo Center in Tulsa, Okla.
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