The Chili Bowl
the Way It Ought to Be
And Could Be Again in NASCAR
During the week of the Chili Bowl midget races in Tulsa, I spent a lot of time on the event’s website, checking all the qualifying and keeping up with the handful of drivers among the 300+ entered who held some special interest to me. One day I would dearly love to be there.
These guys have dirty air, too, but somehow it doesn’t seem to be a problem.
Wait a minute, Buhrman! Here you are, a long-time NASCAR fan, writing for a website that is devoted mostly to Monster/Cup racing, and you’re making a big deal of a race for midget cars that pays peanuts by NASCAR standards and is held on an indoor dirt track where 90+ percent of the competitors are people you’ve never heard of.
Glad you asked.
The Chili Bowl is motorized competition the way it was intended to be, the way it was in NASCAR before the Daytona brain trust decided it was collectively smarter than everybody whose participation had made auto racing a popular sport.
In no particular order, here are some reasons the Chili Bowl got so much attention from race fans, despite using an obscure car and not having the mammoth corporate publicity apparatus that’s regularly applied to keep NASCAR alive:
- Midget cars are inexpensive. Anybody can enter. Rules are simple.
If NASCAR had a midget division, these guys would be running with splitters, I guess.
- Nobody gets preferential treatment. If you don’t qualify on your own merits, you go home.
- Every event, every minute of competition means something, because about 350 cars are trying, but only 24 make it to the feature. There were more than 115 different races, and every one played a role in determining who ran and who went home.
You need a lot of pit space for 350+ cars, so quarters are a little tight in Tulsa.
- You can’t buy your way in. No charters. No provisionals. No corporate welfare system.
- No gimmicks.
Read Jeff Gluck’s blog. One of NASCAR’s best writers, he’d never been to anything like this before. He’s hooked.
OK, you might say, that’s all fine, but this is just one race, and it’s like the Kentucky Derby: nobody gives a brick about midget (or horse) racing the rest of the year. That’s true (although the midgets also have the Belleville Nationals), but this kind of excitement is replicated at Pensacola and Martinsville for asphalt late models, at Knoxville for sprint cars, formerly at Syracuse for dirt modifieds, at Eldora for all kinds of stuff on a big dirt track.
Dirt track late models on the move at Eldora.
Once upon a time, it was replicated in the Permatex 300 at Daytona, at the big late model sportsman race at Charlotte, and at the Cardinal and Dogwood 500 doubleheaders at Martinsville.
It’s exciting because everybody starts off with a shot at the prize, and miracles happen. In 2016, a guy won the 300-lap late model stock car race at Martinsville who’d brought his car to the track on an open trailer, and whose owner hadn’t even made the field before.
Compare that to Cup racing today. The latter reminds me of those old Warner Brothers cartoons about the wolf and the sheepdog, when they “clock in” at the cartoon’s start, then the wolf repeatedly gets clobbered trying to get a sheep, but then the shift whistle sounds, the two protagonists “clock out,” they wish each other well and go on their respective ways.
Just another workday for Sam the Sheepdog and Ralph the Wolf.
Cup racing today is too routine, too ordinary.
In the pre-corporate-welfare days, big races regularly had good numbers of cars fail to qualify, and sometimes the drivers were top names. Too bad, Joe; you didn’t qualify, so you go home. Doesn’t anybody see that a situation like that creates excitement? Even Indy was that way: the last hour of qualifying was one of the best times for fans, because of the drama. NASCAR may have hoped “stages” could be dramatic, but I don’t see it.
I guess we’re worried about sponsors leaving if – after all that money they’ve spent – their cars aren’t even in the race. Well, with no significant sign that the hemorrhaging of NASCAR’s popularity has stopped, you’ll need more than a car in the race to keep the checks coming, anyway – right, Miller-Coors? Right, Target? (Right, Monster?)
Dollar General got a lot of publicity for its money, but even with a charter team, it’s gone.
Slash costs. Simplify the cars and rules. Open the competition up to everybody. I think I might have said this before.
Final admission: the crowd at the Chili Bowl wouldn’t have paid the purse at a Cup race. Maybe we’ll find that nothing will, anymore. But something needs to change to save our sport, and if we build on what others succeed at doing, maybe that’ll help;
That’s all I’m saying.
P.S. – The Daytona 500 is Sunday, Feb. 18. At Lincoln Speedway (my “hometown” short track), the opener for sprint cars is Saturday, Feb. 24. The weather favors Daytona. The racing likely will be better at Lincoln.
Frank’s Loose Lug Nuts
Anybody still doubting Christopher Bell’s racing chops ought to read the names of all 300+ drivers he beat to earn his second straight Chili Bowl title. Larson, Kahne and Stenhouse were there, but so were heroes from just about every other type of racing. Yes, Bell had great equipment, and yes, Kyle Larson might have won if his engine had held up, but under any circumstances, winning one of these races is a dream come true; winning two is incredible.
This is from last year, but it sums up the way you feel when the dream comes true. Congratulations, Christopher.