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Drivers look ahead to Chili Bowl, 2014 season


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With the 2013 season in the record books, Keith Kunz and Pete Willoughby are busy preparing their cars for the 2014 season.

However, the 2013 season will be a very tough act to follow. They won the 2013 USAC National Dirt Midget championship with their standout rookie driver Christopher Bell. Their other two drivers, Rico Abreu and rookie Tanner Thorsen, finished fifth and 11th, respectively.

Bryan Clauson finished second in the drivers’ points followed by Darren Hagen and Tracy Hines,

Jerry Coons Jr., Zach Daum, Andrew Felker, Brad Kuhn and Caleb Armstrong.

As usual, Kunz and Willoughby will begin their season Jan. 13 with the Chili Bowl in Tulsa, Okla.

The outcome of the Chili Bowl has nothing to do with the USAC points race, but most midget fans believe that it is the biggest race of the midget season.

The Chili Bowl is big, in part because it attracts upward of 300 cars. Also, it attracts the top drivers from virtually all forms of motorsports, from micro midget drivers to those who compete in NASCAR Sprint Cup cars. The opportunity for all of these drivers to assemble and compete against each other for what amounts to “bragging rights” makes the show worthy of the ticket price.

Since the indoor venue has a relatively limited seating capacity, a Chili Bowl ticket might be harder to get than a ticket for the night race at Bristol, Tenn.

People who didn’t renew their Chili Bowl tickets on time and are determined to attend can purchase pit passes. They can then watch the races on jumbo monitors in the pits.

The Chili Bowl is at least as important to Kunz and Willoughby as it is to the world of midget racing in general, and the fact that Kevin Swindell has won the past four Chili Bowls goes down particularly hard in the Kelly Street shop.

Since Swindell and his father, Sammy Swindell, who is also a four-time Chili Bowl champion, only run the Chili Bowl, they don’t have to worry about their cars being in accord with USAC specifications. Consequently, they have designed and built cars that get around the tight indoor quarter-mile faster than anything else.

While it doesn’t make sense for Kunz and Willoughby to retool a special car for the Chili Bowl, it is likely that they will tweak their cars a little to sort of level the playing field. When this is added to their drivers’ skill, they should be in the hunt for the championship.

In the past Willoughby and Kunz have done a little “driver shopping” at the Chili Bowl. However, since Christopher Bell, Rico Abreu and Tanner Thorson are all scheduled to return, that won’t be the case this season.

In addition, they have entered a car for their former driver, 2013 NASCAR Nationwide Series Rookie of the Year Kyle Larson. A recent visit to the Kunz shop revealed that four new cars were under construction. They will get the cars done in time, but there likely will be some long nights involved.

POWRi announces world event

The POWRi series has been gaining strength since joining forces with Lucas Oil. If there is anything that Forrest Lucas and his company understand, it’s motorsports marketing. And, they have upped the ante by announcing the POWRi Midget World Championship.

Open-wheel racing has long been popular in Australia and New Zealand, but for a series to span the Pacific Ocean is unique.

The promoters “Down Under” have played a major role in making this series happen, including financing the travel of the American stars. The series opened at Western Springs Speedway in New Zealand on Dec. 26.

From New Zealand, the series travels to Brisbane, Australia. The Pacific portion of the series will conclude with races Jan. 31 to Feb. 1 at Lismore Speedway in Australia.

The series will resume in the United States with races at Angell Park Speedway in Sun Prairie, Wis., on May 24 to 25, followed by a race at Bloomington Speedway on May 30 and one at Brownstown Speedway on May 31.

The series will conclude with Illinois Midget Week beginning June 5 with the four races that make up Illinois Midget Week.

The wild card in all of this is the Chili Bowl. It is likely that most of the American drivers who compete in the series will do so driving for local car owners.

This is, of course, due to the cost of shipping cars, spare parts and equipment across the ocean. Should teams elect to sell all of these things to local car owners, the sales would likely be subject to substantial tariffs.

The top drivers who elect to run this series likely will want to compete in the Chili Bowl. This will necessitate two round trips across the Pacific for everyone who elects to compete in the POWRi Midget World Championship and the Chili Bowl.

Since plane fares alone could cost in the neighborhood of $20,000, the promoters in Australia and New Zealand are investing a lot in making the series a success.

American drivers who plan to run the series include Abreu, Bell, Clauson, Coons Jr., Daum, Felker, Hagen and Davey Ray.

Clauson also is excited to be participating in a series that will crown a World Champion. He said, “It’s pretty neat to have a world championship for Midgets. Obviously, overseas they are very passionate about midget racing. I’ve been in New Zealand three times and it’s something special to race there. I’ve heard a lot of stories about what it’s like in Australia and am excited to see it for myself.”

Tim McKinney writes a weekly racing column for The Republic. He can be reached at 379-5632.

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