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THE Chili Bowl Nationals has become an important racing series the past few years.
It began as a premier midget race; however, it probably wasn’t noticed beyond a small group of competitors. As it has grown, it remains the most difficult ticket for a race fan to get.
This is due not only to the race’s popularity but also to the constraints of the facility. There is only so much room to erect a grandstand around the tight quarter-mile track in the end of the Tulsa Expo Center.
The small limited space available has prevented promoters Emmett Hahn and Lanny Edwards from growing the event too fast. They have sold pit passes when seats were not available, allowing those who really wanted to be part of the Chili Bowl to watch the racing on one of their giant screen TVs. All of this reminds those with tickets to get their renewals in on time and those without tickets to try again to order them.
Hahn and Edwards carry the exclusive theme down to their T-shirts. The official shirt is available in limited quantities, and announcements are made when a few more are available. The trade show that has become a part of the event is made available to the fans for extended periods of time and keeps the fans occupied and generates revenue to the promoters. They have succeeded in turning the event’s limitations into advantages.
Larson leads the pack
On top of everyone’s short list of the best open-wheel competitors is Kyle Larson. Larson was discovered and introduced to racing’s big leagues a couple of years ago by Pete Willoughby and Keith Kunz when they entered him in a Chili Bowl race. Since then, Larson seems to have taken advantage of every opportunity to prove that he is as good as his press notices. This includes winning all three of the USAC features in the Four Crown Nationals at Tony Stewart’s Eldora Speedway and winning the NASCAR K&N East championship as a rookie.
Larson came to Tulsa on a four-race winning streak, having won four straight on a midwinter racing tour of New Zealand. On top of that, he would again be in the familiar cockpit of the Keith Kunz Motorsports Bullet/Toyota and working with Willoughby and Kunz to get the car set up.
Larson won the preliminary feature, followed by Brady Bacon and Tony Stewart. These three transferred to the championship race on Saturday night. There is no doubt that any of these guys would, under the right circumstances, be capable of winning the title.
Wednesday at the Chili Bowl
The evening of Jan. 9 featured the usual list of Chili Bowl stars including, at the top of the list, four time Chili Bowl champion Sammy Swindell. Preliminary racing put former Chili Bowl champions Damion Gardner and Swindell against each other for the preliminary feature win.
Swindell proved why he already had four golden drillers lined up across his mantle. Gardner clearly had nothing for him; however, he did hold on to finish second. World of Outlaws star Jac Haudenschild fought his way to a third-place finish.
Thursday at the Chili Bowl
On the evening of Jan. 10, there seemed to be little doubt about who would collect the first E ticket to Saturday night’s feature. Defending Chili Bowl champion Kevin Swindell drove to a fairly easy win. Following his preliminary feature win, he commented that he probably wouldn’t have taken some of the chances he took had he known the size of the lead that he enjoyed.
Brad Sweet came home second, while dirt late model star and former Chili Bowl champion Tim McCreadie collected the final ticket to Saturday night’s championship race.
Friday at the Chili Bowl
Billy Boat won the 1997 Chili Bowl and his son, Chad, went to Tulsa last weekend intent on following in his father’s footsteps. However, it would not be an easy task to transfer to the Jan 12 feature.
He would be up against two-time champion Cory Kruseman, two-time World of Outlaws champion Jason Meyers, Dave Darland and a whole host of other open-wheel stars.
Boat advised that he has been going to Tulsa for seven years and had only qualified for the Saturday night feature once.
Boat took the early lead with Levi Jones in hot pursuit; however, Jones gave way to Darland. Boat cruised on to win the Friday night preliminary feature, trailed by Kruseman and Darland.
Following the Friday night preliminary feature, a drawing was held among the top three drivers in each preliminary feature to determine the lineup for the first 12 drivers in the Jan. 12 championship race. As if they needed it, Sammy and Kevin Swindell drew the top two spots. Sometimes you need to be lucky and other times you need to be good. This time the Swindells were both.
Saturday at the Chili Bowl
It took 25 years for a driver to win back-to-back Chili Bowls, and it took six years to get a repeat winner. We have now had back-to-back winners three more times, and each time it has been Kevin Swindell.
As the feature event got under way, a complete restart was needed; and a yellow flag necessitated yet another restart. As if that weren’t enough, another half-dozen drivers including Tony Stewart, Billy Wease, Bryan Clauson, Jac Haudenschild, Jerry Coons Jr. and Jonathan Beason tangled, bringing out the yellow flag again.
One might expect that everyone would have had enough carnage by this time; however they were not yet done. Brady Bacon flipped down the frontstretch. Beginning on Lap 13, Larson and Sammy Swindell swapped slide jobs.
Neither driver wanted to spot the other any quarter; and it seemed as if it might be bare knuckles to the finish.
As the race wore on, Swindell pulled out to nearly a 3.5-second edge over Jason Meyers.
Swindell had attempted to get in line behind him; however, he couldn’t get slowed down enough to make the maneuver stick. By this time, the track had taken rubber to the point where it had become a one groove racetrack.
Both Swindells charged on, with Kevin winning his fourth consecutive Chili Bowl championship. Sweet came home third ahead of McCreadie, Darland, Coons, Shane Golobic, Clauson, Wease and Kruseman.
Tim McKinney is an auto racing columnist for The Republic. He can be reached at 379-5632.
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