RACING SCENE – (2018 Tulsa Chili Bowl) – By Tim Kennedy
LOS ANGELES – The 32nd annual Lucas Oil Chili Bowl Midget Nationals presented by General Tire in Tulsa (OK) raced five nights from Tuesday-Saturday, January 9-13, 2018. Entries this year totaled 365 (including backups). That was down by ten from 375 entries in 2017. Some 345 midgets actually raced this year, down from 365 that raced last year and up from 335 at the 2016 Chili Bowl. There were 299 midgets at the 2014 Chili Bowl.
The 11-acre site--the block-long River Spirit Expo Center--is a clear-span structure of 44,800 square feet. Each year crews bring in 700 truckloads of clay stored off-site at a fairgrounds. The building contains a well-groomed quarter-mile clay oval at one end and indoor pits at the other end through the mid-building area. Pits and race haulers are accommodated easily, as is a popular trade show for the racing industry.
The site has seating for 15,000 spectators and all seats were sold Wednesday through Saturday. Pit passes for $65 were sold each night so buyers could roam the pits and watch races from large screens in the pit area. The Tulsa Shootout for winged and non-winged micro sprints occurs each year at the site during the final week of December. Some drivers race in both micro sprint and midget events two weeks later.
Tulsa co-promoter Emmett Hahn (along with the late Lanny Edwards) handed off track preparation to racer Tony Stewart. He has mastered the art of track prep and could be the long-term promoter of the Chili Bowl whenever Hahn retires. Stewart became the Eldora Speedway (OH) promoter when track builder/promoter Earl Baltes retired. Tony, a two-time (2002 & 07) Chili Bowl champion, loves dirt track racing and the event would prosper under his control as Eldora has under his leadership.
A-feature drivers at both the micro sprints Shootout and midgets Chili Bowl covet the distinctive golden driller trophies that are awarded to winners of main events. The trophies are replicas of the giant 76-foot golden driller statue outside the building entrance. It is a tribute to the Oklahoma oil industry oil drilling rigs show in the same building.
The Tulsa World daily newspaper covered the Chili Bowl each night and ran human interest stories about drivers. Subjects included 16-year old female driver Kelsey Ivy, a C.B rookie from Ohio. She finished eighth in a Saturday K-main. Another story subject was Logan Seavey, 20, the 2017 POWRi Midget (Midwest series) rookie of the year and champion from Sutter, CA. This season he has the outstanding Keith Kunz No. 67 ride vacated recently by 2016 USAC National Midget champion Tanner Thorson.
Seavey underwent open-heart surgery on September 16, 2016 to correct a rare congenital cardio-pulmonary problem that caused shortness of breath. His “scrimitar syndrome” involved surgery to relocate a vein between his heart and right lung. Doctors advised him to take ten weeks off. Logan was back racing in six weeks at the January, 2017 Chili Bowl. He finished 12th in Saturday's E-main in his first C.B attempt.
FEMALE DRIVERS: There were 12 female drivers at the 2018 Chili Bowl. That rising total compares favorably to the count of only five female drivers at the 2014 Chili Bowl. The 12 female racers this year were: Hannah Adair, Kaylee Bryson, Maria Cofer, Michelle Decker, Kelsey Ivy, Kaitlynn Leer, Shannon McQueen, Michelle Melton, Holly Porter, Holly Shelton, Alison Slaton, and Harli White. Shelton had the best finish Saturday (P. 19 in a C-main after a three-car crash).
Drivers came from diverse backgrounds and many race midgets each year only at the Chili Bowl. The youngest driver this year was Zeb Wise, 15, and the oldest was five-time Chili Bowl champion Sammy Swindell, 62. Drivers came from 39 states and four foreign nations—Australia, Canada, England and New Zealand. Past entrants not racing at the 2018 CB included: many-time BCRA champion Floyd Alvis, Davey Hamilton, Jr., Rick Hendrix, and Robby Josett. So Cal's Jerome Rodela did not enter his two midgets.
Again this year Oklahoma and California supplied the most drivers. Californians totaled 52; ten of them made Saturday's 24-car A-feature and five Cali drivers finished in the top ten. They were: runner-up Rico Abreu, P. 5 Ryan Bernal, P. 6 Brad Sweet, P. 7 Justin Grant, and P. 8 Chase Johnson, 22, a Petaluma Speedway sprint car vet. Others were: P. 11 Ryan Robinson, P. 14 L. Seavey, P. 15 Shane Golobic, P. 19 Kyle Larson, and P. 24 G. Scelzi.
NASCAR veterans were: R. Abreu, Justin Allgaier, Christopher Bell, Tanner Berryhill, Chad Boat, Chase Briscoe, Kasey Kahne, K. Larson, Ricky Stenhouse, Jr., B. Sweet, Chris Windom, and J. J. Yeley. World of Outlaws sprint car vets included: David Gravel, Sam Hafertepe, Jr., Jac and Sheldon Haudenschild, Paul McMahan, Daryn Pittman, Donny Schatz and S. Swindell. Dirt late model drivers were: Tim McCreadie, Hudson O'Neal, and Brian Shirley.
ROOKIES: There were 59 Chili Bowl rookies this year. Of interest to fans in the West, rookies from California were: Max Adams, Tristan Guardino, Kyle Hirst and sprint car veteran Giovanni Scelzi, from Fresno and one of two racing sons of NHRA drag racing star Gary Scelzi. Gio, 16, was the only rookie to make Saturday's A-feature and earned the 2018 Chili Bowl rookie of the year award. Other western rookie participants were: Roger Crockett (OR) and Tempe, AZ 360 sprint car drivers Landon and Sterling Cling.
Seven Chili Bowl champions raced again this year for a golden driller trophy. They were: 2015-16 champion Abreu, C. Bell, Damion Gardner, Tracy Hines, two-time champ Cory Kruseman, T. McCreadie, and five-time champ S. Swindell. Four past C.B champions made the 2018 finale. They were: winner Bell, P. 2 Abreu, P. 22 Hines, and P. 23 S. Swindell. Four-time C.B champion Kevin Swindell, 27, was present with his wife and daughter as a car owner. New Zealander Michael Pickens drove Kevin's No. 39 and had Saturday finishes of third in a C and 11th in a B-main.
CHASSIS/ENGINES: The 2018 event had 27 different chassis constructors and 33 engine builders. A few entrants did not specify equipment. Seven chassis in the field were in double figures. Spike had 149 (43% of the field), Boss-51, Stealth-34, Bullet by Spike-and Triple X-18 each, plus Beast and Eagle-10 each. Californians with two cars each of their own design were So Cal's Andy Bondio (Bondio) and Ricky Bray, of Lemoore, (CS9).
Nine engine builders had double figure representation. Esslinger had 122 (35% of the field), Fontana-35, Chevy-26, Gaerte-24, Mopar-23, Stanton SR11-22, Speedway Toyota 19, Toyota-14, and Ford-12. Ed Pink supplied three engines--two Fords and one Chevy. Other interesting engines in the field were: Honda (3), Sesco Mopar (3), Pontiac (3), and one each Kawasaki, Roush-Yates, and a vintage VW.
The 2017 Chili Bowl had 29 chassis and 33 engines. Tops in each category were: Spike-160, Stealth-33, and Boss-32. The leading engine maker was Esslinger with 131, followed by Gaerte-38, Chevy-35, Fontana-32, and Toyota-31. Boss, built in southern Illinois by driver Austin Brown, has had an impressive one-year increase in car count.
The 2014 Chili Bowl was the first year MAVTV televised the Saturday Chili Bowl live (both C-mains, both B-mains and the A feature). That year had 299 entries. Chassis Dept.-Spike had 119 (42%), Stealth-55, Beast-15, plus DRC and Twister-12 each. Engine Dept.-Esslinger built 99 (35%), Fontana-46, Chevy 33, Gaerte and Mopar-27 each, and Toyota-18.
FLIPS: Each year Chili Bowl flips or rollovers are tallied on a white board. This year there were 70 recorded, including two (by H. Shelton and R. Stenhouse, Jr.), live on TV Saturday during the day-long racing format called the “alphabet soup”. There are two main events from N to M, to L K, J etc. to the sole A feature. The disputed event flip record was reported as either 66 or 74. There were 46 flips in 2016. Fortunately, drivers usually walk away with only bruises, as was the case this year.
Saturday A-main drivers in 2017 came from nine states and 11 were Californians. This year Saturday A-main drivers came from ten states and one (Tom Harris) from England. The A-main lead-swapping battle between Keith Kunz Motor-sports teammates and front-row starters Larson, 25, and Bell, 23, was reminiscent of their November 23, 2017 USAC Turkey Night GP lead-swapping duel for the 98-lap feature victory in Ventura won by Bell.
At Tulsa, Larson led laps 1-9 and 26-41. Bell led laps 10-25 and 42-55. Larson was in P. 1 with Bell on his tail as they lapped cars on lap 42. Then Larson's engine erupted in a huge cloud of white smoke and he exited to the infield. Bell later said he would've enjoyed racing Larson to the checkered flag as they did seven weeks earlier in Ventura. Bell, the 2017 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series champion, has an amazing Chili Bowl record. He has Saturday A-main finishes of third, first, and first in the last four years.
Larson's Chili Bowl record from 2012 through 2018 in order show results of P. 3, P. 21 (DNF), P. 22 (DNF), P. 7, P. 5, (DNS A-main) last year, and P. 19 (DNF) this year. A Chili Bowl Saturday A-victory has been elusive for versatile Larson. He was in first place with only 14 laps remaining this year. His engine failure had to be a major disappointment for Kyle and his fans. He deserves a golden driller trophy in his growing trophy collection and to have his name on the list of distinguished Chili Bowl winners.
Larson was quoted as saying he would rather win the Chili Bowl than the NASCAR Monster Cup Daytona 500. That sentiment comes from his dirt track racing roots and love of dirt track racing. He is able to race midgets and sprints about 25 times a season despite his busy NASCAR schedule. Obviously, the $10,000 for winning the Chili Bowl feature pales in comparison to the Daytona 500 paycheck. Dirt track racing fans and drivers understand Kyle's sentiment perfectly. In December Kyle flew to New Zealand and won three of his four dirt track open-wheel races.
Larson (Ganassi No. 42 Chevy) had his most successful Monster NASCAR Cup season in 2017. He earned three poles, won four point races--Fontana (CA) 400, Brooklyn (MI) 400s in June and August, and Richmond (VA) 40--and finished in the top ten 20 times in 36 events. He placed eighth in final points after an engine failure dropped him out of the championship chase. He also won four 2017 NASCAR Xfinity races (Fontana, Richmond, Dover (DE), and Charlotte (NC).
The Tuesday Tulsa Race of Champions had 19 starters. Chad Boat (Boat No. 84x) led every lap and won over closing runner-up Larson, the 2016 R of C winner. Tanner Thorson placed third. Kyle drove the K. Kunz-prepared No. 01 Bullet by Spike/Speedway Toyota this year at Tulsa and had a backup No. 01 for the R of C. Kyle's father Mike owns the car and had Shane Stewart and Sheldon Haudenschild drive it at the last two Chili Bowls as Kyle drove for Kunz.
MAVTV: The Lucas Oil MAVTV Network televised the Chili Bowl live for the fifth consecutive year. It merits an A+ again for covering both 15-lap Cs, both 20-lap Bs and the 55-lap A main. During periods of track surface renovation, MAVTV also showed highlights of all four preliminary nights 25-lap A main events and the Tuesday R of C feature, plus driver interviews.
The top three finishers in the four prelims went directly to Saturday's A-feature. Results: (Tues.)-Larson, his bro.-in-law Brad Sweet,Tyler Courtney; (Wed.)-Abreu, Tyler Thomas, Kevin Thomas, Jr.; (Thur.)- Bell, S. Golobic, C. Johnson; (Fri.)-Grant, Spencer Bayston, Andrew Felker.
This year the 12 drivers from prelim nights determined their Saturday A-main starting positions by a new “Pole Shuffle”--a series of two-laps, two drivers match races Saturday pitting all four third place drivers racing for P 11-12, then P. 9 and 10 (rows five and six). All four P. 2 drivers raced for P 7-8 and 9-10 (rows three and four). Then the four prelim A-main winners raced for P. 3-4 and 1-2 (rows one and two).
Match race winners won the inside row and losers of match races received outside row berths. Larson beat Bell to earn pole position for Saturday's feature. The first six finishers in both B-mains earned P. 13-24 spots in Saturday's A and started in the order of their B main finish. Drivers from the first B received the inside lane and P. 1-6 in the second B started from the outside lane.
SUPER TEAMS: Mega or super teams were teams with numerous entries. Keith Kunz said the advantage of entering numerous cars was track time. This year seven teams had five or more entries. They were:
> Keith Kunz Motor-sports -- eight cars;
> Tim Clauson-Richard Marshall (NOS Energy sponsor) – eight;
> Cory Kruseman – six;
> J. J. Yeley (who raced from the F to A mains in 2007) – five;
> A. J. Felker – five;
> Dan Harris – five;
> Joe Loyet – five.
Indianapolis 500 veteran driver and car owner Sarah Fisher entered three No. 67 midgets, including one for her brother-in-law Kyle O'Gara. Kunz and Clauson-Marshall teams were the most successful. Both teams put six of their eight midgets into the 2018 Saturday A-feature. They comprised 50% of the 24-car field. Last year KKM entered seven midgets and three made Saturday's A main. Clauson-Marshall entered six cars and four raced in the 2017 A Saturday.
MAVTV TELECAST: This year NASCAR announcer Bob Dillner was the host instead of long-time TV racing broadcaster Dave De Spain, 71. Dave said the 2018 Chili Bowl would be the last race he would attend. He is retiring from TV work. Chili Bowl management named De Spain the 2018 C.B Grand Marshal. Returning MAVTV talent were announcer Ken Stout, analyst Rob Klepper, and pit reporter Dave Argabright. They all have been in those roles for the last five years and performed expertly.
Argabright had a recorded interview with De Spain at his home workshop in Georgia. De Spain recalled how he got into TV motor-sports work in 1975 at Daytona Beach. ABC Wide World of Sports needed a racing expert for pit mic work. Ken Squier told ABC Dave had worked in radio, knew racing, and should be their man. ABC hired Dave and he went on to work for MRN, ESPN, SPEED, and then MAVTV. Dave's 1980s-90s pit announcer work during ESPN Thunder telecasts, with Bob Jenkins and Larry Nuber in the booth, is much loved and greatly missed.
MAVTV telecasters all picked someone other than eventual winner Bell. Dillner leaned towards Larson, but he picked Grant, the early race leader and P. 3 finisher last year. Stout chose Larson. Klepper picked Abreu or Sweet. Argabright selected Larson. I picked Larson with Bell my alternate choice. As they say, that's why they run the race.
Midget engine failures as dramatic as Larson's was on lap 42 are rare. He has to wonder if he ever will win a golden driller trophy. Larson's son Owen, 3, and mom Kaitlyn were in the pits. Winner Bell executed 16 fast donuts in front of the largest grandstand at the third/fourth turns.
Argabright's post A-main interview with Bell showed why the rising star is so popular with fans and fellow drivers. Bell said, “His (Larson's) motor was laying down for a few laps before it blew. I hate it for Kyle. I wanted to race that one out.” The MAVTV telecast went over the scheduled three hour time slot as usual and the network remained live in Tulsa. It was scheduled from 7:30 to 10:30 pm CT (5:30 to 8:30 PT).
The A- feature checkered at 8:48 PT and Chili Bowl coverage signed off at 9:06 PT. (Chili Bowl 2017 coverage extended a few minutes past 10 pm PT). This year MAVTV joined in progress a re-airing of the 2017 ARCA stock car Elkhart Lake, WI race. SUGGESTION: MAVTV should schedule Chili Bowl coverage for 3.5 or four hours so persons who DVR the event won't miss the conclusion. The 33rd annual Chili Bowl race dates are Monday-Saturday, January 14-19, 2019. There will be five prelim nights instead of four as in recent years.
So Cal's Mitchell Johnson, 29, towed his pair of Stewart/Esslinger midgets (Nos. 68 and 68w) to the 2017 and 2018 Chili Bowls. He employed the same two drivers—Ronnie Gardner, (five-time USAC Western Midget champion) and USAC-CRA sprint car winner Jake Swanson. Last year their Chili Bowl results were sensational. Jake, 24, started third and finished fifth in Saturday's A feature, while Ronnie, 29, started and finished ninth.
This year results of the Johnson team were not as successful. Ronnie did not finish in his prelim night heat race, which made his 2018 C.B an uphill effort. On Saturday during day-long “alphabet soup” main events, Ronnie started eighth and finished second in the second L main. He started 14th and finished third in a K main. Then he raced from 15th starting slot in his J-main and finished eighth, ending his racing through the alphabet mains.
Jake fared better in No. 68w. He started second and finished sixth in a 15-lap D-main to earn the final transfer to a C-main from that race. So he made the first race televised live by MAVTV. Jake started last (20th) and raced up to 14th with 18 cars still racing at the finish. Only P. 1-6 advanced to a B-main.
NOTES: Shane Stewart advanced the most in Saturday main events. He raced in four mains. He went from the L to K, to J and I mains. He did not finish his I main high enough to advance to an H main. ... S. Swindell raced in his 24th (of 32 possible) C.B Saturday A-feature. He did so in a boxy-tail, lightweight midget he designed years ago. ... Jerry Coons, Jr. had made 14 consecutive C.B Saturday A-features from 2004-17. His amazing streak ended this year. He started 13th in the first B-main and finished tenth, missing a transfer to the A-main by four positions. He drove the No. 5 Wilke-Pak car as usual.
USAC sprint car/Silver Crown driver C. J. Leary, from Indiana, drove a No. 55x midget owned by Tucson native Alex Bowman, a 24-year old former USAC Ford Focus Western Series champion and midget driver. Bowman is now a NASCAR Cup driver for Rick Hendrick in the No. 88 Chevy vacated by retired Dale Earnhardt, Jr. after the 2017 season. Alex worked on his midget in the pits.
Leary won the first 15-lap D-main. He came from 15th starting in the first 15-lap C-main to P. 6 (last transfer to the first B-main) via a final lap pass. Leary had 20th (last) grid position in the first 20-lap B-main. His car stalled before the lap 1 green flag and was sidelined by a mechanical problem. He and Alex and their sponsor received TV air time.
Damion Gardner (No. 71G Klatt) had brake problems (master cylinder) on his prelim night (Friday) and dropped a position from P. 3 on the final lap of the main event. He started outside in row one of the second B-main and gradually slipped to a P. 8 finish with brake woes. Damion, the 2008 C.B champion, missed a transfer to the feature by two positions. Phoenix native Chad Boat (84x) started sixth and finished sixth in that B-main to earn the 24th and final berth in the A-feature.
HARD CHARGERS: Boat, the son of USAC Western Midget 1995-97 champion and Indy 500 veteran Billy Boat (the 1997 C.B champion), raced smartly in the feature. He had passed 14 cars by lap 40 to finish tenth (+ 14 positions)... Chad received TV time and acclaim from TV announcers as the race hard charger to that point. Fellow back row starter Ryan Bernal, from Hollister, CA, also finished sixth in his B-main and started the A 23rd in the Clauson-Marshall No. 87. Bernal earned the race hard charger award by racing to a fifth place finish (+18 positions).
Ex-KKM driver Tanner Thorson, from Minden, NV, drove the No. 63 Rusty Kunz/Joe Dooling car for the first time. He had a problem on his prelim night. On Saturday he won the first C-main, charged from 15th to third in the first B-main, and then stormed through the field in the A from from 21st starting to fourth finishing position.(+ 17 positions) for second place in the hard charger category.
With the A-main efforts by Bernal, Thorson and Boat from rows 11 and 12, no wonder drivers praised the racy track during the feature. There were grooves high and low and passing was plentiful throughout the event. ... Nine of 18 finishers completed all 55 laps. Boat was lapped by the winner near the finish and was the first of four drivers a lap down. Five drivers were two laps down to winner Bell, who won by 3.162 seconds over Abreu.
The No. 76 two-car team owned by Vermont's Frank Manafort with team manager Brad Noffsinger had two star open-wheel drivers in the seats. Oklahoman Brady Bacon, a USAC National Sprint Series champion, and 18-time 2017 WoO sprint car feature winner David Gravel had the 76M and 76G rides. Both drivers finished seventh in the two Saturday B-mains after charging forward from rows ten and eight. They missed transferring to the A-feature by one position.
Donny Schatz,40-year old nine-time WoO driving champion and ten time Knoxville Nationals winner, raced in his second Chili Bowl. He did not make the Saturday feature either year but he was named 2017 C.B rookie of the year. This year the 20-time WoO sprint car 2017 feature winner started 12th and finished seventh in the second D-main. He missed advancing to a C-main by one position.
The Daugherty Racing midget driven by Caleb Armstrong used number 49ER because the NFL S.F 49ers is the favorite pro football team of a co-owner. ... Troy Cline, a former So Cal SCRA 410 sprint car driver and current North Carolina resident, fielded a midget for his stepson Nick Drake, son of ex-open wheel winning driver Jay Drake.
There were seven first-time Chili Bowl Saturday A-feature drivers this year. Six of them had raced at the C.B in prior years. Those drivers were: C. Johnson, R. Robinson, T. Harris, L. Seavey, Billy Pauch, Jr. and R. Bernal. Scelzi made the 24-car feature in his first C.B attempt.
The Jason Leffler overall hard charger award went to Texas-based Jeb Sessums, who made it to row seven in the first B-main Saturday. ... Jason McDougal (P. 10 in the second B-main) won three golden driller trophies for his victories in three of the eight classes of micro sprints in the Saturday December 30, 2017 Tulsa Shootout. The young Broken Arrow, OK driver defeated Norman, OK native/2017-18 C.B champion Bell in two of his three Shootout triumphs.