Tonight, MavTV American Real will be the first cable television channel to air Tulsa, Oklahoma's legendary Chili Bowl since the race's inception in 1987. Why should you tune in to a mid-January oval race in Oklahoma? It's rather simple, really. The race is one between superstars in midget-style sprint cars. Indoors.
What is a Midget car?
Imagine for a second a golden age "Indy roadster" Indianapolis racer of the 1950s. A big engine in the front, skinny tires all around, a fuel tank in the back and a small space for a driver in the middle. Now, picture something like that, but about one third the size while maintaining similar amounts of power.
That's a midget racer.
Yes, a midget racing car is 1000 pounds of terrifyingly small dirt racer powered by a 400-or-so horsepower 4-cylinder and a driver that associates the word "Fear" with "No Fear", an energy drink, because it once sponsored Boris Said in NASCAR moreso than they do the feeling that would tell any sensible human being that 400 horsepower on an indoor circle of dirt is a bad idea.
Where is the Chili Bowl?
(Photo by Caleb Long)
All the great racing circuits are beautiful and drenched in history. At Monza, they say you can hear the echos of races past rushing through the trees. At the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, they say you can look upon that yard of bricks and see a hundred years of history pass you by. In Tulsa, Oklahoma? Well, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, there's another building next door known as the "Ford Truck Arena & Livestock Complex". It's a pretty straightforward exposition hall, really. It looks exactly as you'd imagine an exposition hall in Oklahoma would look.
But, that's the beauty of the event. The circuit the race takes place on pops up inside a building that would otherwise be best associated with a 76 foot tall statue of an oil prospector seemingly overnight, and ceases to exist for another year after the event finishes. Somehow, the entire dirt racing world descends on an Oklahoma convention center in January for what may well be it's greatest event of all.
How does the Chili Bowl work?
Remember alphabet soup? Well, it's not just a chicken noodle soup variant more popular in works of fiction than it is in reality, i's also the nickname given to the mind boggling qualifying procedure for the Chili Bowl.
On the first four days of the event, the equivalent of four race weekends with four entirely separate fields are run. The results of these preliminary races directly seed the field for the final event into 20 separate races, 19 of which are qualifying races for the final "A-main". The top three on each night are already qualified for the A-main, while everyone else has to race (and transfer) through the fabled alphabet soup on Saturday afternoon. If a driver starts in either of the J-mains (the lowest qualifying races actually being run on Saturday), for example, they have to finish in the top three-or-so of nine consecutive races to make their way into the A-main. Think of it like the NFL's bye week playoff system, but instead of introducing newer, stronger competition solely in week 2, it introduces newer, stronger competition between every race.
There's also a "race of champions" event ran on Monday, but this author genuinely doesn't understand how that effects the race weekend, so if you're curious about this, ask someone who competed in it. Probably Chad Boat, he's pretty clever.
As ever, the Chili Bowl is the ultimate all-star race of dirt track racing. Just as the Rolex 24 at Daytona, it benefits from an off-season date that lets stars from all walks of life compete without worrying about scheduling conflicts, and by extent you've got everyone from weekly dirt track racer and perennial Indianapolis 500 seat searcher Bryan Clauson to former NASCAR star of the future turned career stock car journeyman JJ Yeley entered. However, only 12 pilots are locked in to the A-main. The top four of those won their preliminary races, and that group is made up of the following:
Caleb Armstrong - A member of a famed racing family most notable for exploits in sprint cars on pavementthat somehow also includes relatively disappointing NASCAR pay driver Dakoda Armstrong, Caleb became a first time Chili Bowl preliminary winner on Wednesday night by way of holding off the legendary Sammy Swindell. Armstrong ran a few ARCA races for Billy Venturini's team in 2013 with limited success.
Christopher Bell - Bell is a young rising talent from the frying pan-shaped land Bob Stoops and indoor sprint car racing itself, Oklahoma. He took victory on Thursday, in part thanks to repeated issues for Kevin Swindell, the Chili Bowl's dominant force of late.
Bryan Clauson - Clauson has consistently been either one of the best or the very best driver in USAC-sanctioned dirt racing for a good while, and in 2012 that success lead him to a run at the Indianapolis 500 with Sarah Fisher's team. He was also once a development driver for Ganassi in NASCAR, where he shared a car with Dario Franchitti. He won the final preliminary race on Friday night in an absolutely dominant performance.
Jonathan Beason - Beason is the second Oklahoma native in the A-main. He took his preliminary race victory on Tuesday night in a packed race that included Kyle Larson, Brady Bacon, Joey Saldana and P.J. Jones himself.
Also locked into the A-main are Zach Daum, Sammy Swindell (Winner of the race on five separate occasions), Damion Gardner, Tim McCreadie, Chris Windom, Dave Darland, Michael Pickens and Alex Bright.
The big surprise of the week to date has been the amount of stars that aren't locked into the A-main. Among that group are four time consecutive and reigning champion Kevin Swindell, Rico Abreu, 2014 NASCAR Cup series rookie Kyle Larson, Brady Bacon, Tracy Hines, Chad Boat, Joey Saldana, Christopher Beltram Hernandez "JJ" Yeley, Kasey Kahne, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., PJ Jones and Jac Haudenschild, who starts the "Alphabet soup" qualifying races in the H-main, eight full races from the front of the field.
Where to watch
The event is, for the first time, being shown live on cable television. It is being aired on MavTV American Real, a Forrest Lucas owned channel best described as "Those weird 'Lucas Oil On The Edge' shows from SPEED, but all the time", and is set to be hosted by legendary racing broadcaster and SPEED castaway Dave Despain. The broadcast starts at 8:30 Eastern time, 5:30 PST.