One of the incredible things about the Chili Bowl is how organizers are able to get 90 different drivers per night qualified for four straight days. Every driver runs a heat race, then gets placed into qualifiers and feature races that gradually build out the lineup for a long ladder of races Saturday night.
It can seem complex, but that’s what happens when 358 cars enter a single event. Everyone has the same opportunity, and there’s no safety net — no matter what you’ve accomplished in the past.
That produces an intense pressure to perform in the heat races, which are only eight laps long. If a driver makes a mistake or gets caught in someone else’s mess, their hopes of getting to a decent race on Saturday night take a massive hit. But there’s still a chance — there always is.
To illustrate that point, look no further than two talented racers from Tulsa suburb Broken Arrow, Okla. — who both had their prelim nights on Wednesday.
Alex Sewell has experienced the highs of the Chili Bowl before. Just two years ago, he made the B-Main on Saturday night.
But on Wednesday, Sewell endured some painful lows.
After moving up three spots early in his heat race, his brakes suddenly faded and he finished sixth. That result put him in a C-Main, which was crushing to his hopes of having a good week.
“Honestly, before we even rolled out for that (C) feature, we were done on Saturday,” he said. “You don’t come from an I Feature to make the A here. We were just going out for a couple laps there to try to make the brakes work.”
When Sewell got out on the track for his C-Main, the brakes did work again — but not well enough. As he went into a corner early the race, he couldn’t stay off another car, and contact suddenly launched him skyward.
Flips are common at the Chili Bowl (there have been 34 in two days so far), but this one was of the cartwheeling, tear-the-fence-down variety. Sewell nearly hit the outer wall of the expo center, but the fence and cabling held him back and threw the car back onto the dirt.
It was a scary ride, and it would have been the end of the night for many drivers.
But not Sewell.
His team ran down to inspect the car after it was pushed to the work area just off the track — cars don’t lose any laps under caution in the Chili Bowl — and gave Sewell a thumbs up. He decided to keep racing.
“It felt like a lot of air and one really hard hit,” he said. “I’ve taken big rides before. I felt like I was OK — didn’t have a concussion or anything. No obvious signs of my body hurting. The guys said it was OK, so I got back in it.”
That turned out to be a mistake. The team hadn’t realized the big crash weakened or damaged the right front bottom radius rod, and it folded up after the restart. Suddenly, Sewell’s ride jerked to the right and sent him flipping — again.
“Stupidity,” he said. “I’ve been racing for 12 years, and I knew better (than to keep going). Honestly, I should have pulled off. Doesn’t matter what everyone else thinks. Just a dumb move on my part.”
Sewell slowly walked back to his hauler after flip No. 2. He changed out of his firesuit, then squatted down in nothing but shorts and put his head on his knees for a long moment.
“It’s 110 percent disappointment,” he said. “Shouldn’t have been in the C Feature. Shouldn’t have been in the back of my heat race. That’s how I feel about it. You can ask anybody. I shouldn’t have been there. I’m better than this.”
As the team looked over the car, Sewell said he won’t race on Saturday. There’s no point to go out there and make a few laps in some low-level feature race with little chance of advancing — not for what his goals were.
Now in street clothes, Sewell’s hands shook. He looked down at his left hand, which was red and cut — perhaps a victim of immense frustration that comes with a disappointing Chili Bowl experience.
“I think I cut it just a minute ago,” he said. “Not even in the wreck.”
A couple weeks ago, Jason McDougal left the Tulsa Shootout — an indoor race in the same venue as the Chili Bowl, just with different cars — holding a record three Golden Driller trophies. He won three classes that night, and even had a shot to win a fourth.
But after a bad heat race on Wednesday, his Chili Bowl run looked like it was going to be the complete opposite of the glory he had recently experienced.
In the heat, McDougal got caught up behind two drivers who didn’t know where they were going and ended up making a mistake himself while trying to get around them — ultimately stalling his car — to finish sixth. Like Sewell, he was banished to a C-Main.
“Honestly, I got a little discouraged on myself after the heat race,” he said. “Felt like I was going to let everyone down. I didn’t have much faith.”
McDougal decided that his only shot was to go all out — and live with whatever consequences that brought. Only the top four drivers advance to the B after 12 laps, and McDougal was starting 11th.
“Either I was going to make everyone mad or I was going to make it through,” he said. “I think I did a little bit of both.”
Somehow, it worked: McDougal went from 11th to third — earning the right to start at the back of the B-Main.
But he was faced with a difficult challenge again in the B: Starting 15th, McDougal would have to make it to top four by the time the checkered flag waved in 15 laps. And this was against tougher competition.
“I had my family and my friends behind me to keep pushing me through,” he said. “We just kept going.”
That he did. McDougal rocketed from all the way up to second place — a gain of 13 spots in 15 laps!
Suddenly, after starting toward the back of a C-Main a couple hours earlier, McDougal was in the A-Main for the night. Now playing with house money, his goals were pretty modest.
“In the A, all I wanted to do was ride around and take what I could,” he said. “At that point, all I needed to do was finish and I’m in a C (for Saturday night).”
McDougal started 20th, but stayed out of trouble as others found it, and steadily moved up. By the time the checkered flag waved, he had climbed all the way up to seventh.
Now, thanks to that improbable run, McDougal will start in one of the B Mains on Saturday night. If he can finish in the top six out of 20 cars, he’ll make the prestigious A Main — this after facing near disaster earlier in the prelim night.
“Honestly, this is a pretty solid night,” he said. “It’s one of those nights people dream of. But, I mean, it happened.”
Other Chili Bowl coverage:
Night 1 — Kyle Larson wins for his father