The Lucas Oil Chili Bowl Nationals is expanding to a sixth day of competition for the first time in the event’s 33-year history.
The marquee midget eventwill be run Jan. 14-19 inside the River Spirit Expo Center in Tulsa, Okla., showcased its four highest car counts during the last four years. The 2014 event welcomed 281 competitors, which was tied for the most in event history.
There have been at least 326 drivers every year since for an event that used to be spread over four preliminary nights prior to the finale, and started in 1987 as a two-night affair.
“We started looking at it a couple of years ago when we started getting 85 and 90 cars on a preliminary night,” said Chili Bowl Midget Nationals co-founder Emmett Hahn. “It happened like that for two years in a row. Besides getting over late, people want to watch good racing and party, too; and it was hard on our race track. When you have that many cars we try to divvy up the hot dogs as much as we can and put them on separate nights. It was making that tougher. We’re trying to get back to 60 or 65 cars per night. That way we can cut three or four races out of each program to help us on time and help us on the race track.”
Previously, the event had teams move in the weekend before the event began with Monday serving as a practice day, giving each driver two sessions to hit the track. Teams will still move in during the weekend before the event with a single practice session for each driver on Monday morning before the first official preliminary night that evening.
“I think they had to expand it for multiple reasons,” said Daryn Pittman, who is a winged sprint car veteran and a Chili Bowl Nationals competitor. “The nights were too long. It’s too much racing to allow people to put on a good show and feel like they competed. I feel like their options were to start limiting the number of cars or add another night. I think the way they did it by not making anyone get there any earlier from the team standpoint was the right call.”
Pittman believes one less practice session isn’t a concern.
“The practice is more for the many guys that have never raced these cars before,” he said. “It gives them a little time to try to get comfortable. Whoever’s fast on practice day never translates to race time because the track is so different. I don’t feel like it will affect us, or anybody for that matter.”
Another advantage of an added preliminary night is it will spread out the field.
“I think it’s helpful just in the aspect it gives everyone a better shot to perform,” said Spencer Bayston, who finished third last year. “Spreading it out a little bit, I wouldn’t say the nights get easier. It gives everyone more of a fair shot. If you have a little bit of bad luck in a heat race or qualifier, you’re not so buried. I’m curious to see how it works out.”
Bayston has developed into one of the event favorites while piloting a race car out of the famed Keith Kunz Motorsports stable. He was the Chili Bowl rookie of the year in 2015 and had his best shot at a title last year.
“There’s still going to be a lot of good cars each night,” he said. “For Keith, it’s helpful because it splits everyone up more. Last year he had nine (drivers compete) and this year I think he’s having 11.”
After tying the record for most drivers in a single event with a turnout of 281 in 2014, the car counts have been 326, 335, 365 and 345 the past four years.
“I think we’ve reached our limit,” Hahn said. “Someone said I didn’t know there were that many midgets in the country and I said there aren’t. I think guys put together spare cars for people to run.”