The Lucas Oil Chili Bowl Nationals is the playground where drivers from all divisions of motorsports meet each January to determine who is the king of racing.
The marquee midget event, which will be run for the 31st time Jan. 10-14 inside the River Spirit Expo Center in Tulsa, Okla. — the largest free-standing building in the country — brings a myriad of racers from many aspects of the sport to the quarter-mile dirt oval. More than 300 competitors ranging from backgrounds in midget to sprint car racing, from NASCAR to IndyCar, and everything in between, converge on the arena for four preliminary nights of action capped by a finale that is televised live on MAVTV.
Rico Abreu, who has always been a fan favorite, has emerged as one of the top drivers to beat thanks to his back-to-back Chili Bowl titles.
“I feel it’s right up there with the Daytona 500 and Indy 500,” Abreu said about the event. “The atmosphere, how many people watch it, how many people know about it. I’d rank those two (Chili Bowl wins) at the top, those being the toughest races and biggest races to win.
“I feel that there’s a lot of talented drivers that run the Chili Bowl in all different categories of racing from sprint car to NASCAR to drag racing to IndyCar. You have all these different competitors from different backgrounds. They race at the highest level of their sports and I feel like if you win the Chili Bowl, any race from a heat race to the qualifying night to Saturday night’s A-main, I feel that you’ve done something that is very hard to do.”
Abreu has garnered the ultimate victory the past two years. He led the final 29 laps to claim the 2015 trophy before he maneuvered into the lead with 11 laps remaining to win again the following year.
“I think it’s about being around the right people, the right race teams and everything falling into place,” he said. “If you put yourself in the right position then luck becomes your friend. The way I’ve approached that race each year, I’ve learned from watching Sammy and Kevin (Swindell), watching Keith Kunz how he works through that week and being able to put it all together. Each year I’ve never been so relaxed going to a race because I feel now it’s my comfort zone and it’s what I look forward to doing every year.”
Relaxation goes hand in hand with Abreu’s approach, which is that patience is the key to being in contention when the final checkered flag waves. First, a driver must survive a preliminary night, when approximately 75 drivers vie for a top-three finish that locks them into Saturday’s feature.
“It all starts when you draw for your qualifying night,” Abreu said. “You could draw the first heat race, start at the back and not pass a car and that could be your Chili Bowl. Having a good car right out of the gate and being at the right place at the right time, getting through each event, is the key. You have to advance on the track. You have to try to win every time you’re on the track. You’ve got to put yourself in position to make that A-main on Saturday. It’s anyone’s race once you’re in the A-main on Saturday night.”
Preliminary action features a heat race and then a qualifier for those who have strong heat race showings. Feature competition remains and with a stout performance a driver can either lock themselves into Saturday’s feature with a top three or put themselves in a good position to transfer into Saturday’s feature by finishing in the top 10 on the preliminary night.