Santa came and went, which brings us to early January in
Tulsa, Oklahoma. Not too far from
the high rise buildings of downtown; there is an edifice, not as tall, but
nearly a quarter mile long. Inside
this building each January a transformation takes place in just a few days.
Tons of clay are brought in and dumped on the concrete floor, while
trucks arrive with a labyrinth of pipe and lumber.
Within hours the dirt is spread and shaped into an oval racing surface of
nearly one quarter-mile. The trucks
are unloaded and soon workmen assemble this big erector set into seating for
about fifteen thousand people. As
this activity goes on in the eastern one-third of the building, work is underway
to lie out pit spaces for over two hundred midget race teams.
In the meantime, booths are being assembled to accommodate exhibitors,
who will fill an area with a trade show, catering to the racers and race fans.
Suddenly the Tulsa Oil Expo, designed to display machinery used in the
exploration and production of oil products, a staple in this area of the nation,
has become Chili Bowl Raceway, one of the biggest events held in this state.
Since its inception seventeen years ago, the Chili Bowl,
which drew its name from a local restaurant and original sponsor, has grown from
a field of thirty-seven midget racers to this year’s record field of two
hundred and fifteen cars. Since auto racing in the United States is nearly
non-existent at this time of year, due to frigid weather conditions found in
much of the nation, participants travel from around the country to compete and
where the racers go, the fans will follow.
This indoor arena affords racers and fans from around the country an
opportunity to enjoy an injection of methanol fumes to carry them through to
spring, when many series begin their seasons.
Chili Bowl has become a happening, a kind of family reunion
where you can see all your cousins from the four corners of the nation.
While the event has grown, it has also maintained the grassroots, down
home flavor, shunning the commercialism found in so many successful operations.
How many venues in this country can you find the promoters wandering
among the fans, shaking hands and getting hugs from passers-by. The hard working staff is very dedicated and it is their
efforts that have made this program grow.
What is it like to a first-time attendee?
Arriving at the venue, you are greeted by a large statue, about 100 feet
tall that towers over an oil derrick and the entrance to the Expo building.
This statue is known as the “Golden Driller”, in honor of the workers
in the oil industry. Behind the
Golden Driller is a long building with exposed struts and cables, which suspend
the roof over ten and a half acres of open space with no support pillars.
Now that we have set the stage, lets look into the drivers
here. Many of the racing heroes
from around the country have made this their venue of choice for the week.
Tony Stewart, 2002 Winston Cup Champion, who just had a four million
dollar season, chose to come to Tulsa in a return to his racing roots, while
many of his peers are relaxing at home or off fishing.
Although the purse here is meager by the standards he is used to, Tony
treasures the “Golden Driller” trophy that he claimed in last year’s
feature win. In addition, the field was represented by something like
thirty-six different champions, from many of the national or regional series or
selected special events during the past year.
On hand were Hines, Yeley, Darland, Fike, Sherman, Hatton, Boorse, Hess,
Pankratz, Flock, Drake, and Doty. These
drivers are the cream of the crop of open wheel racers.
While this is a Midget event, many primarily Sprint Car drivers also came
to compete, along with a couple of strangers like Scott Bloomquist and Brett
Hearn. Scott is a star in the late
model stock car ranks and his strapping body hardly seems to fit in one of these
small racers. Brett is one of the
winningest Modified drivers in the USA over the past twenty-five years.
It wasn’t for the money, but for the prestige.
I believe other drivers would also compete if they were not prevented
from doing so by terms of their contracts.
The fans come to measure the success of their heroes
against the best in the country. It
is also an opportunity to renew old acquaintances with friends from other areas
of the nation. Four nights of
racing for a hardcore race fan is like nirvana.
You will see the fans queuing up at the doors waiting for the opening,
just like power shoppers on the day after Christmas.
The fans cruise the pit area, which remains open to all during the day,
allowing them to see the preparation work up close and personal.
They are able to visit with the many teams, ask questions, get souvenirs,
take photos and just hang out with the racers.
Other fans wander the aisles of the trade show, where they can buy
everything from T-shirts to die cast cars and books and magazines to racing
apparel. During the week, several
auctions are conducted to raise money for the benefit of Tulsa charities,
allowing fans to place their bids for pieces of memorabilia or other items of
interest to the racing public. Around
mid-afternoon, the pit area, as well as the stands is emptied with everyone
gathering at the turnstiles to reenter for the evening’s activities.
Soon the show is underway.
With such a large field of cars, there is no qualifying,
but your fate is determined by a pill draw which places you in a starting
position for the heat race. Points
are awarded for the finish in each heat race, as well as one and a half points
for each car passed. After all the
heats, the points are tallied and those with the highest totals start at the
front of the “A” feature and as the points drop off they set the grid for
the “B” and “C” features. The
four front finishers from each night’s “A” feature will transfer to the
Saturday night Main Event. Those
with lesser points will participate in the lower features from “H” through
“B”, lining up according to their point accumulation.
Several top finishers in each of the features move up to the next event,
while the others get to load up early. By
the time the Main Event is staged, the twenty-four best cars are ready to vie
for the “Golden Driller” trophy.
As most people who follow dirt track racing realize, the
track conditions change throughout the evening. The track staff works hard to massage the track at intervals
to maintain a good racing surface. For
the most part they were able to make a track, which gave opportunity to all
racers for advancement. With some
problems on Saturday evening, where mud was being slung into the stands, the
staff took extra time to re-grade the surface and roll in the track, leaving an
excellent racing surface for the finale. The
crowd was treated to high and low grooves, allowing passing and some competitive
dices between the racers.
To get an idea of the cross-section of drivers entered, I
am listing the top four finishers for each night and their state of origin.
Wednesday found Dan Boorse, Wisconsin, Jimmy Sills, California, Jason
Meyers, California and Danny Lasoski, Missouri.
Thursday it was Scott Hatton, Illinois, Randy Koch, Wisconsin, Luke Icke,
Colorado and Greg Lueckert, Missouri. Friday’s
show brought in Cory Kruseman, California, Tony Stewart, Indiana, Don Droud Jr.,
Nebraska and Aaron Fike, Illinois. The
Saturday finale saw Boorse make a last lap pass to become the winner, with Jay
Drake of California, Stewart and Fike. Boorse
becomes the second multiple-winner exceeded only by Sammy Swindell who has four
A review of the week is that it’s a long one, with many
hours each day spent at the Expo Center. It
takes a lot of time to pass through the pits and visit with so many teams, while
stopping off at an auction to see if there is an irresistible treasure and of
course, a trip around the trade show in search of some special trinket.
Promoters Lanny Edwards and Emmett Hahn and their staffs are cordial and
helpful to all. They seem as
pleased to have us there, as we are to be there.
As the fans make their last pass through the venue and
prepare to return home, the track staff has already begin the task of removing
the dirt, which will become a mound in a remote area of the Fair Grounds and
dismantling the stands, that will be returned to their home base of Creek County
Speedway, until next January when this whole scenario repeats for the 18th
The weather was about perfect with a high temperature of
about 70 on Wednesday to a low of about 25 several nights.
The days were clear and sunny, without a hint of snow or ice.
All in all, it was a perfect racing journey.