It’s a New Year and this race season is sure to have plenty of memories in the making. The first of these unforgettable moments is about to take place at the Tulsa Expo Center, now known as the River Spirit Expo. Beginning Jan. 10, over 358 dirt midget competitors will fire up their engines for the 31st annual running of the Chili Bowl Nationals. RacingJunk.com slid Behind The Wheel with event organizer Donna Hahn to find out how both her father Emmett Hahn and Lanny Edwards have made this event a favorite among drivers and fans and why this year’s event will be like no other in its history.
Initially sponsored by the Chili Bowl food company, the inaugural Super Bowl of midget racing played host to 52 midgets who battled for what is now one of the most coveted race wins among the best of the best in open wheel midget racing. Rapid Rich Vogler, who was both a National Alliance of Midget Auto Racing (NAMAR) champion as well as a USAC National Sprint Car Series champion, would be the first coveted winner, but recent Sports Hall of Fame Inductee Donnie Beechler would be the first to hoist the equally famous “Golden Driller” in 1995. This unique trophy, modeled after the 76-foot tall, 43,500-pound statue of an oil man that stands outside the Expo Center, has now become one of the most sought-after awards among most drivers today.
Other than to receive yet another event winning trophy, why does every dirt midget driver want a Chili Bowl win on their resume?
“Other than obtaining the bragging rights that come with competing on some of the toughest clay in Oklahoma, these drivers come to our hand-built indoor quarter mile to compete against the best of the best in dirt open-wheel racing,” said Hahn. “Even two-time Chili Bowl winner and recently retired NASCAR driver Tony Stewart loves this event. In fact, he has assisted us in putting this race on the map after telling USA Today that this is the one race where ‘you can take the best Midget drivers from USAC and Badger [Midget Auto Racing Association], and guys in the Rocky Mountain Midget Association, guys from USAC Sprint Cars and Silver Crown Cars and the World of Outlaws to have some of the best racing that you’re going to see all year’.”
Along with Stewart, many drivers feel that the Chili Bowl is the best-kept secret in racing. According to two-time winner Rico Abreu, “You can’t even explain it to someone who has never been here. It’s just something that the naked eye has to see.”
So, for those of us who haven’t had the opportunity to witness the spectacle of this race, how can I paint you a picture? Imagine your favorite short track race and triple the excitement as well as celebrity appearances.
The competitors enjoy competing in these large midget dirt cars due to the challenge that exists. “It is all about the driver in a car like this,” said Hahn. “You can ask any dirt or asphalt racing driver and they will tell you that they need talent to win this race; luck has nothing to do with it.”
Despite competing at the highest levels of both, current and former NASCAR and IndyCar drivers say that they would prefer competing in the highest profile dirt racing event imaginable than winning races like the Indy 500.
Although he has had the opportunity to become both a NASCAR and IndyCar legend over his storied career, Stewart said that winning the Chili Bowl was a bigger deal to him than winning the IndyCar championship.
This explains why the number of drivers for this historic race has grown from 52 midgets to an anticipated 350+ midgets, from across the country, who will each attempt to race their way into one of the coveted 24 slots in Saturday night’s A-Main feature.
“We are actually on target to break our record of 349 entries in 2015 to over 350 entries this year, and we expect the same for the future of the Chili Bowl,” said Hahn.
2017 Chili Bowl to Honor Bryan Clauson
Other than the excitement on the track, what will set the 31st annual running of this historic race apart?
“Every year we try to jazz up this race and give both competitors and fans a reason to come out,” said Hahn. “Although we never want the reason to be losing a talented driver like 2014 Chili Bowl winner Bryan Clauson, we won’t be mourning him during our 2017 festivities. Instead, we will be celebrating the amazing legacy that he has left in saving the lives of others.
“While we are looking forward to welcoming Bryan Clauson Racing’s six cars/drivers that will be coming to compete, the 2017 Chili Bowl nationals is celebrating the legacy that Clauson left behind,” said Hahn.
Following the death of the young motorsports legend, the family of Bryan Clauson made it their mission to save lives through organ donation.
“Thanks to being an organ donor, Bryan Clauson saved the lives of five people after his organs were donated to recipients that needed life-saving transplants,” said Hahn.
While three of these recipients will be attending their first Chili Bowl, event organizers like Hahn are also assisting the family of Bryan Clauson to promote the importance of becoming a national organ donor, through the National Organ Donor Registry (Donatelife.net).
“Although he was a great driver, that is not the legacy that Bryan Clauson and his family is leaving us with,” said Hahn. “The legacy that he has left is that we should all help each other by becoming national organ donors. In fact, his death single–handedly resulted in a higher number of national donor registrations more than anyone else in history and that is what we want to celebrate at this year’s event.”
Along with recognizing Clauson’s organ recipients and family, including with a video that will feature the final days of Clauson’s life, both the Indiana Donor Network as well as Lifeshare of Oklahoma will also be in attendance to help attendees become registered organ donors on-site.
“The Chili Bowl was Bryan Clauson’s hands-down favorite race and we are so glad that we can honor both his memory and his legacy by doing everything that we can to help his family carry on his mission,” said Hahn.
To find out more about the Chili Bowl Nationals, including the 2017 event schedule, visit ChiliBowl.com. If you are unable to make the trek to Tulsa, Oklahoma, check out the RacinBoys Broadcasting Network or MAVTV to tune into all the action from the 2017 Chili Bowl.