More Good Times at the Chili Bowl
As NASCAR Continues to Sink
As I write this, the finals of the Chili Bowl Nationals midget race are still more than a day away, but the priority I’ve given to keeping up with the results has prompted another look at why this event is on such an upward trajectory when NASCAR continues to be headed in the other direction.
It shouldn’t be that way. Midget racing enjoyed its peak of popularity nearly three-quarters of a CENTURY ago (in my area it’s now all but officially dead), and Tulsa, Oklahoma, isn’t exactly the population or media center of the U.S. And yet the entry list for this six-day extravaganza is more than 350, and there are enough NASCAR racers entered to make up a pretty good field for stock car racing.
Here’s Kyle Larson after his preliminary win
What is it about this event that has entrants including the following: Kyle Larson, Justin Allgaier, J.J. Yeley, Ricky Stenhouse, Landon Cassill, Alex Bowman, Kasey Kahne, Christopher Bell, Tanner Thorson, Tanner Berryhill, Rico Abreu, everybody who is anybody in USAC, a good number of World of Outlaws stars, racers from Australia, New Zealand, England and Canada, plus Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s niece (and Dale Sr.’s granddaughter) Karsyn Elledge (and her father and respected crew chief Jimmy)?
Oh, and visitors in the pits include Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart, among others.
Jeff Gordon racing a midget about 20 years ago
I haven’t checked to see if the New York Times is covering the Chili Bowl, but they no longer pay much attention to NASCAR, either. Among fans of all forms of racing, my guess is that this event will come pretty close to equaling the Daytona 500 in attention and will well exceed most other NASCAR Cup races.
Maybe it’s just that the constant side-by-side racing of a short event is something NASCAR can’t offer
So what’s being done right here, and why isn’t NASCAR paying attention?
First, the obvious: this is a special race. Nobody else in midget racing draws more than one-tenth as many cars; the Belleville Nationals, arguably the second most prestigious midget event, was killed off last year due to declining car counts and interest. In the East, the ARDC sanctioning body, once a primary path to the Indy 500, kicked the bucket after 2017, and an effort by USAC to pick up the pieces apparently has failed as well – car counts for last year’s scheduled events seldom were more than 12-15.
Like the Snowball Derby in Florida, this is a winter event (it’s indoors), which enables competitors to come from everywhere without interfering with regular racing schedules.
Here’s what the biggest indoor race in the U.S. looks like
All of that helps, but add these ingredients:
Inexpensive cars, allowing for one-race-only alliances AND enabling low-buck hometown heroes to try their luck.
Anybody can try to make the field – your name doesn’t guarantee anything, nor does your money.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: As long as NASCAR runs the Cup Series as basically a closed club with rules that make the car more important than the driver, this sport has NO CHANCE of recovering its former popularity. Given the near death of the car culture, it may not happen, regardless, but what chance there is will be squandered by the current cars/rules and the charter system.
So take a few minutes to read the Chili Bowl results stories this week and think of what could be. The Karsyn Elledge story alone makes a compelling attention-getter. The 18-year-old daughter of Kelly Earnhardt Miller won her first go-kart feature only last year, so the Chili Bowl was a huge jump, and the heat win at this competitive level might just open a few doors.
Karsyn Elledge – Can we dream about the next Earnhardt in NASCAR?
But there are more things going on in Tulsa. This is a race dominated by mega-teams, of which Keith Kunz Motorsports (with familiar NASCAR name Mike Curb also involved) tops the list. The Kunz team, which also has Toyota backing, ended up including either 10 or 11 cars. That means anybody with a single-car operation is an underdog, worthy of fan support from those of us who naturally cheer in that direction.
You might also have chosen favorites based on where they were from – how about the guy from Oxford, England – or what kind of racing they do regularly. You might cheer for one of the several female racers running (including Elledge). The areas of potential interest are many.
Look at the results and see just how hard it is to even start the feature. Then see if all those ingredients don’t fire up your excitement genes at least a little. It might even remind you of the way things used to be in NASCAR.
Yes, it’s a much smaller grandstand, but it’s packed, and they’re standing and cheering most of the night. That’s what we need to bring back to NASCAR.
No “Loose Lug Nuts” this week…