The following is a personal account of the 2012 Chili Bowl Midget Nationals from Torque Tube Media’s intrepid American Speedway Reporter Dan Zimmerman.
Although Torque Tube is a dedicated Sprintcar site, the Famed Annual Chili Bowl race attracts a truckload of current day Sprintcar Drivers as competitors, is based on open wheel midgets, (the smaller brother to a Sprintcar) and is just awesome to watch. So we decided that Dan Zimmerman’s personal story was of huge interest and deserved to be posted. The only problem is that Dan sent it to us shortly after the race (Mid-January) and we have not been able to post until now because of all the recent Sprintcar action occurring in Australia.
Now with the majority of Australian Sprintcar racing in winter hibernation, it makes good timing to throw Dan Zimmerman’s classic account out there.
Thanks Dan !
(Above Intro From Torque Tube)
The Chili Bowl Midget Nationals is a massive race for open wheel Midget racecars and is held in the Quick Trip Center’s Tulsa Expo Speedway. This year is the 16th running. It is staged over 4 nights and concludes with the Finale on the mid month Saturday in January every year. The Finale is called “The Gold Drilller” and is normally run over 50 laps. This year it was extended to 55 in honour of Chili Bowl Competitor and Midget Nationals 2007 Rookie of the Year Donnie Ray Crawford whose life was tragically taken in a family shooting incident on the Saturday Morning of the Finale.
The Chili Bowl is in indoor clay track approximately ¼ mile long. The indoor aspect prevents rain, sun and the elements in general from attacking the race track. So you can have large car counts, hundreds and hundreds of laps of racing over multiple race lines and multiple nights without any worry. The venue seats an incredible 15,000 fans and there is pit room for over 200 racecars !
Some Sprintcar drivers that have won the Chili Bowl Nationals in the past include Kevin Swindell, Sammy Swindell, Tony Stewart, Dave Blaney, Lealand McSpadden and the first winner back in 1987 Rich Vogler whose life was tragically cut short after a fatal racing accident at Salem in 1990.
This year some key Sprintcar names that raced included Rico Abreu, Jac Haudenschild, Daryn Pitman, Brady Bacon, Brad Sweet, Kyle Larson, Bud Keading, Kyle Larson plus the Swindell’s and Motorsport Madman Tony Stewart.
Here is Dan Zimmerman’s account and sorry it’s taken so long to post Dan !
Attending my first Chili Bowl was an awesome experience. Sure, there are races going on but the weeklong festivities are much more than just a race. It is a chance to escape the harsh reality of winter for a few days in the company of friends from all over the US and beyond. The trade show is large and diverse. It is a great way to spend any leftover Christmas money. The pits are open for those who buy pit passes and I would highly suggest purchasing one. It is the most unique pit experience in racing.
Our hosts for the weekend were Bob McCutchan and Scott Chilcutt. I know I speak for all in our group, we can’t say enough how much we appreciated their hospitality and transportation back and forth from the Quik Trip Center. We were able to run into several friends that we normally only see at the Knoxville Nationals or at other racing events during the year. The event has the feeling of a Knoxville Nationals for midgets. Wherever we went, we saw people wearing their racing shirts. Our hotel was full of Chili Bowl fans. One of the best parts of the trip was seeing friends and making new ones.
We left Iowa on Thursday morning with an Arctic blast sending us down I-35. At that point we had experienced one measurable snowfall in Iowa. Of course the second one had to occur the night before we left, making things somewhat of a challenge. Fortunately the 30 mph winds helped blow the snow off of the interstate so we were able to safely arrive in Tulsa. Excitement was at a fever pitch when we arrived in the parking lot. I had an idea of how large the Quik Trip Center (The building that houses the Track) was but seeing it in person was much more than I could have imagined. The complex the building sits on is also enormous with a ¾ mile dirt track, water park, baseball stadium, and other pavilions spread around the facility. Inside the Quik Trip Center was eye opening to say the least. The track itself sits on about 1/3rd of the floor space. The stands can hold an impressive amount of people – they tell me 15,000. I’m not sure how accurate that is but I know there are a lot of people there from all over. I was very impressed with a couple other aspects of the Quik Trip Center. The place stays very clean, they are very conscious of cleanliness and it was noticeable how well the maintenance crew took care of the facility. The second was the diverse options for eating and drinking that are available there. Prices are similar to what you would pay at a fair. The food was good and you could pretty much find anything you wanted. I would also suggest paying for pit passes. No place else can you enjoy a beverage of your choice and be front and center with the cars and race teams. There are a few deals to be had on t shirts in the pits. It is a great feeling to add to the racing shirt collection in January!
The racing is the main attraction of course and the Chili Bowl features wall to wall action. To channel my inner Steve Evans, the Chili Bowl is full contact auto racing. Bumps, spins, crashes, and flips are part of the action. The weekend’s most spectacular flip was performed by Blake Hahn in his Friday heat race. The track was especially tacky in the heats and Blake launched himself off of turn 2 and ended up coming to a stop in turn 3. At one point he completed two mid air flips without touching. The course workers were there quickly and somehow his team miraculously fixed the car in time for one of the C features. Unfortunately for Blake, he would turn the car over in the C feature as well. Joey Moughan went over a right rear and his car tumbled violently into the catch fence. Before the A main rolled off on Saturday night, 64 cars had gone upside down. Levi Jones made that 65 on the first lap of the A main after going over a right rear.
The best races in my opinion were the A qualifiers. The drivers were going all out for those all-important starting positions in the A main. The track crew does a great job keeping the track in racing condition. A tractor pulls a sprayer around between heats to keep the racing groves moist and limit the amount of dust that is flying. Earl Baltes would be proud. Wheel banging and bumper crunching slide jobs are part of the excitement. Like any racing, TV can’t really do justice to the amount of action on the track. The cars can reach some pretty serious speed on the Tulsa bull ring. I was impressed by Rico Abreu who was making his first Chili Bowl A main start. I know he had made quite an impression in Australia and he was certainly a big hit in Tulsa. He will certainly have a great career in sprint cars and midgets. Fellow Californian and Chili Bowl rookie Richard Vanderweerd was also impressive winning the first B feature. He was the only rookie to make the A main on Saturday night.
Like most big races, the twin B features on Saturday night would feature serious racing for transfer spots and some ruffled feathers in the pits after the races were over. In the first B main, Kevin Ramey was running solidly in 2nd place. Coleman Gullick was in the rear of the pack and looped his car in turn 4. Instead of coming to a stop, he tried to do a 360 which didn’t quite come off and he drove right into Ramey’s path. Ramey punted him in the rear bumper which caused him to stall. Because he required a push, Ramey was sent to the rear with only a handful of laps left. Obviously upset, Ramey looked to vent his frustrations on Gullick. However the other Klatt entry of Bobby East was in the race as well and Ramey whacked him instead of Gullick as they had similar tail tanks – it was a classic case of mistaken identity. The second B main featured similar revenge tactics but on a larger scale. Excitement was at fever pitch as Jac Haudenschild was on the outside pole. On the initial start, Daryn Pittman stalled coming to take the green. While we were watching that, “Haud” scattered Indy Race Parts all over turn one. Unfortunately he was unable to make repairs and did not make the call for the restart. Brady Bacon and Zach Daum battled for the lead when contact in turn one and two, sending Bacon on his lid. Back on 4 wheels, Bacon drove into the rear of Daum’s teammate Mike Hess on the restart which sent the 5h spinning and ultimately tipping over. Hess may not have known at the time of the initial incident but he wasn’t going to go quietly. On the next restart he cross checked Bacon in turn 3 sending the Wilke car backwards. The pressure is high to make the A main and it certainly showed on Saturday night.
The A main was a Swindell battle. Sammy gave it his all but could not make a pass for the lead. With 3 laps to go, Sammy got into a lapped car down the front stretch that sent his tail end skyward. He fortunately returned the rear tires to the track but that incident eliminated any chance of a pass for the win. In the end it was Kevin Swindell 1st, Sammy Swindell 2nd and Kyle Larson 3rd – ALL SPRINTCAR DRIVERS !
The A main was lengthened to 55 laps to honour Donnie Ray Crawford. News of what happened to Donnie started circulating on social media Saturday morning. A sadness was felt by everyone who was part of the event whether they knew Donnie or the Crawfords. Immediately honorariums were put into place. Brian Brown racing contributed $555 for the leader on lap 55 of the A main. The opening ceremonies held several tributes to Donnie. Donna Hahn read a touching poem about Donnie. We were treated to a video of his victory interview from his 2011 Chili Bowl prelim victory. Matt Ward and Blake Hahn carried a banner in honour of Donnie as the driver’s states were being introduced. Matt Ward also drove Donnie’s car in the parade laps before the feature. I can’t imagine what was going through his mind but I know he was very honoured to drive that #55 car. I think all of us in the building carried emotions of sadness during this part of the event. We are all praying for the Crawfords and offer our sincere condolences.
My first Chili Bowl won’t be my last. I think everyone who is an open wheel dirt racing fan should attend this event at some point. Seeing this quality of racing in January is a great way to make winter less painful. The event staff do a tremendous job and being around racing friends whether you know them or not is one of the great parts of the Chili Bowl.
USA Speedway Correspondent