This is my first time at the Chili Bowl, and I keep running into people who ask the same question: So what do you think?
They ask it with a big grin and a twinkle in their eye, because they already know the answer. Drivers, crew members and fans who have been coming to the Chili Bowl for years discovered its secret long ago, and they want to see my reaction now that I’m in on it.
They love it, and they’re genuinely excited and happy to see someone new love it, too.
I have to be honest: I had high expectations and knew it would be cool, but it’s even better than I anticipated. Part of the reason is this is also serving as my introduction to open-wheel dirt racing in general (I’ve still never seen a sprint car race), so this is a whole new world.
My entry point into motorsports was NASCAR, so the type of racing in the Cup Series is how I reference everything. When stars like Tony Stewart or Kasey Kahne would talk about their fondness for dirt, I didn’t truly get it.
I think I get it now — or at least I’m starting to.
I used to think NASCAR drivers liked coming to the Chili Bowl because there was no pressure compared to NASCAR. Uh, no. There’s plenty of pressure. The Chili Bowl means so much to everyone here, and all of them want to win it — badly.
On a prelim night, the drivers are nervous and stressed and fearful of something going wrong that would make their path to Saturday night’s A-Main much more difficult. But that doesn’t mean the drivers aren’t having fun.
The challenge of each race is fun. The cars are fun to drive. And they have fun with each other in the process. It’s very genuine, and you can’t help but enjoy the racing along with the rest of the crowd, which surges forward when there’s a thrilling move (which is, like, almost every race).
When you walk around the expo center building, there’s a happiness hanging in the air alongside the dirt and fumes. The first reason it’s so cool and entertaining and exciting is the racing itself. I’ve seen video clips and TV broadcasts, but that really doesn’t compare to sitting in the stands and watching whatever car you want for several laps and seeing what that driver does. It’s pretty impressive.
I didn’t understand the degree to which the drivers sideways-sling their cars into the corners and race on all sorts of lines — even ultra-low (almost in the infield) and super-high (practically scraping the wall when the track widens out that far).
The track conditions themselves are almost like ocean tides. Early in the day, only half of the dirt might be usable for racing. By the time the night is over, it might have two more lanes open up.
Because of that, drivers have so many options. And when they have to make decisions on where to run while accounting for what the other drivers are doing in a super-short race (heat races are only eight laps!) on a tiny track at top speed? Well, that means you can actually see the driver skill come out — and you don’t have to be an expert to understand which drivers are good and which are the “squirrels,” as they call them here.
All that I just wrote could apply to many dirt races. But when you add in the complex structure of the Chili Bowl, it elevates it even further.
There are almost 360 cars in the field, so 90 different drivers run on each night in a total of 22 races (heats, qualifiers, A/B/C/D mains). That creates a unique storyline for each day.
For example: On Night 3, two of the top drivers — Tanner Thorson and Michael Pickens — both had problems in their heat race. That relegated them to the D-Main, which greatly diminished their hopes of making the A. But both of them made their way to the front of the D, then the C, then the B. Just like that, they were right where they were supposed to be. It was highly entertaining to see, and you could watch it evolve through five races.
The other side of the format is one driver can’t dominate the week. Kyle Larson is one of the best drivers here, for example, but he raced on Tuesday. Fans won’t see him in a car again until Saturday. The spotlight is shared by many until they all come together for the big day tomorrow.
There’s always something to watch, and it just keeps building throughout each night. You can’t get bored; the races aren’t long enough and there’s too much variety in the field. Plus, when things aren’t going well for a driver or they need passing points (which set the lineup) or one position to transfer, you can actually see their desperation come out in the moves they make on the track.
In NASCAR, I can’t see that. Unless Larson is doing something totally out of the ordinary like running the wall or there’s a crazy move on a restart, I can’t tell if a driver is making the difference. That’s probably why over the years, drivers have said NASCAR success has 80 percent to do with the car (see the 2013 version of the 12 Questions for more comments on that) and 20 percent with the driver.
But in midget cars, the percentage is much different. I asked a few Chili Bowl drivers about that this week; two said it’s 50-50 here and one said it’s 80-20 (80 percent driver, 20 percent car). As someone watching a race, that’s very attractive because you can immediately identify a good driver with the naked eye — no expert level knowledge required.
One of the best parts — something you won’t see on TV — is the community feel of the whole thing. It reminds me of covering high school sports — like a wrestling or swim meet — because the athletes hang around with their family and friends the whole day until it’s their turn to go. Afterward, they linger as people pack up for the day and walk out to their cars together in the parking lot.
Even drivers like Larson, who are stars in NASCAR and would get mobbed at the track there, casually walk around at the Chili Bowl. Pit passes are $45 and they don’t sell out, so anyone can go talk to the drivers and get an autograph, grab a photo or buy a shirt — sometimes from the drivers themselves — with relative ease.
It’s sort of like a block party combined with the NCAA Tournament, except instead of eliminating teams, the opening days are just for seeding — and then they all play on one day, eventually whittling the field from 358 to one.
Meanwhile, everyone is just having a good time — and they’re happy to see others doing the same.
“Thank you,” said Christopher Bell, “for coming to our little slice of heaven.”