After calling races for five days on the Chili Bowl track public address system, announcer Blake Anderson still has enough energy to help me break down Christopher Bell’s exciting win in Tulsa.
After walking down a red carpet-covered path, guests munched on chef-prepared food, grabbed a drink and found a comfortable spot to watch some of the racing action on a TV.
They hung out, laughed and perhaps talked a little business, then walked out to the racetrack for a better view.
That’s the kind of scene that would take place at a major-league race, like NASCAR or IndyCar. But this slice of the hospitality experience is actually in the pits of the Clauson-Marshall Racing team at the Chili Bowl, right in the middle of the action at the River Spirit Expo center.
Tucked in the back of the work area for the team’s eight cars, the Clauson-Marshall party area might be a glimpse into the future of dirt racing. After all, series like NASCAR have excelled in part because of the marketing platform it provides to sponsors, who want to bring guests and employees to the track.
“What we wanted to do is showcase our sport,” said co-owner Tim Clauson, father of the late Bryan Clauson. “The Chili Bowl and the Hahn family (founders of the event) give us the venue to do that. We made the decision a couple years ago to go that way, to try and attract bigger sponsors not only to our team, but hopefully to other teams in the sport.”
It worked. With the help of a company called Spire Sports and Entertainment — which represents drivers like Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Kyle Larson — Clauson-Marshall was able to get a six-figure commitment from NOS Energy Drink to sponsor all eight of its Chili Bowl cars.
“It’s a viable marketing platform,” Spire’s Joey Dennewitz said. “That type of investment into dirt shows you there’s marketing value in the grassroots. We just had to clean it up a little bit and show it to some of the corporate partners we’ve been working with for NASCAR stuff.”
But the hospitality area has made Clauson-Marshall catch some side-eye from other teams. The other pits all up and down the expo center building are nothing more than a trailer with a car out back and a bunch of crew members working away. No other team has a party area in its pits — even powerhouse Keith Kunz Motorsports.
Co-owner Richard Marshall said the team heard “a lot of complaints” last year when it first set up the hospitality zone, because “it’s dirt racing, and everybody ought to have greasy wrenches laying around everywhere.”
“But I don’t care, because as far as I’m concerned, this is the way you should take care of your sponsors,” he said. “That’s the way it should be done.”
The sponsorship has allowed the team to continue to make gains on Kunz, whose cars have been dominant as usual heading into Saturday’s main event.
Kunz-prepared cars driven by Kyle Larson, Rico Abreu and Christopher Bell won the first three nights of the Chili Bowl prelims while Clauson-Marshall drivers Tyler Courtney and Shane Golobic locked in A-Main spots but didn’t win.
On Friday night, though, Clauson-Marshall driver Justin Grant beat out KKM’s Spencer Bayston for the A-Main victory to give the team some momentum heading into the night that really counts.
“I think we’ve got a pretty good chance,” Clauson said.
As Grant took pictures on the stage with his winner’s plaque, the platform became filled with a couple dozen people who joined in on the celebration. Not only crew members were encouraged to come up, but their families as well.
“It’s like our Christmas and Thanksgiving. Why not?” Marshall said. “It’s the way I’ve done business my whole life. I want the employees to feel like they’re important. I want their families to be involved. And it’s a culture we enjoy.”
— Jeff Gluck (@jeff_gluck) January 13, 2018
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.”
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
Mike Larson sat in his usual seats in the River Spirit Expo Center on Tuesday night, watching the prelim races from the Turns 3/4 grandstand just like he always does during Chili Bowl week.
Except something about Tuesday was very different than normal.
“I hardly ever get nervous, but all day today, I’ve been nervous,” Mike said. “I’ve been clammy all day long. I kept saying to myself, ‘You never get like this!’ I could never just calm down.”
That’s because Mike was the car owner for a vehicle driven by his son, all-around racing star Kyle Larson, for the first time since 2008. Kyle was 15 back then.
After that, Kyle was in bigger cars that required a professional owner and a sponsored ride. So Mike was content to enjoy the races just like he always had — as a spectator.
But a couple years ago, Mike became the owner of a midget prepared by Keith Kunz Motorsports (the team Kyle usually runs for). The arrangement is similar to a Joe Gibbs Racing/Furniture Row Racing relationship in NASCAR, Kyle explained.
Mike hadn’t had much success so far, though. His car made the D-Main the first year it entered the Chili Bowl and then only got to the F-Main last year. Kyle could tell his dad was disappointed.
So this summer, Kyle came up with an idea: Since he was already locked in for the 2018 A-Main (based on his win in the 2017 Race of Champions), what if father and son teamed up to race together?
“I was like, ‘Why? Why would you want do that?'” Mike recalled. “He goes, ‘Because I’m locked in, Dad. And I can get your car in the main event.
“I was touched, really. I’m surprised he even thought of that.”
“Knowing my dad, he probably cried or choked up, at least,” Kyle said. “I’m sure it meant a lot to him.”
There was a significant problem, though. Mike had promised Kunz and co-owner Pete Willoughby he wouldn’t take Kyle away from their stable — and he had no intention of breaking his word.
So Mike told his son if he really wanted to do it, Kyle had to call them and broach the topic himself.
“I didn’t know he made a deal with Keith and Pete to not take me,” Kyle said. “That (conversation) was a little nerve-wracking.”
But Kunz approved it — likely on a one-time basis — and so there was Kyle on Tuesday, racing around the expo center for his dad once again.
The reunion ended with the best possible result, at least for a prelim night: Kyle held off future brother-in-law Brad Sweet for the win as Mike watched from his usual seats before running down to victory lane.
Once there, father and son greeted each other with wide grins and handshakes. Kyle got a plaque for being the winning driver; Mike got one as the winning owner.
Now they’ll go after a Golden Driller trophy on Saturday night. Together.
“On the stage, Pete told my dad, ‘Enjoy this moment, because he’s not racing for you ever again,'” Kyle said with a chuckle. “So I guess I’ve got to take full advantage of it on Saturday.”
— Jeff Gluck (@jeff_gluck) January 10, 2018