By Patrick Stephan of TrackSideOnline.com presented by Honda Racing/HPD
Well, another Chili Bowl is in the books, and while I couldn’t be here for the entire week-long festival of midget racing, I did thoroughly enjoy the last two days.
First, I have to thank Rich and Kathy from R&K Motorsports for all of their hospitality. It’s nice to just drop in for a couple days, and almost instantly feel like part of their racing family. Also a big thanks to Chris Sheil for putting up with all of my questions while doing a great job wheeling the #12 car. Chris will again be racing that car in the 2017 RMMRA championship while also planning to run some pavement supermodified races at Colorado National Speedway.
Random thoughts: The Team INDYCAR promotion was a great idea and one that will get copied by others for next year – I can pretty much promise that J It’s beautiful in its simplicity, cost effectiveness and the good old “fun” factor.
For probably half what it would cost to buy someone a ride and fully brand a top flight midget (thinking a Keith Kuhns prepped car – $6k-$12k I hear), IndyCar got represented by 10 drivers from across the country with diverse racing backgrounds – good move by the IndyCar PR and marketing departments and Doug Boles over at IMS (his name came up a lot when talking to Team INDYCAR drivers).
I also like this type of promotion because it spreads the money around. There were 10 driver’s that got some benefit from this promotion, that’s a good thing.
So, how did the driver’s we were watching run:
We’ll start with a couple driver’s that were NOT part of Team INDYCAR, but who we were watching:
Kevin Olson – KO started 4th in I Feature #1 and won the race to transfer. He got caught up in someone else’s mess during H-Feature #1 – ending his day in 8th position. Note: I purchased Kevin’s book and found in flipping through, found a couple great stories pretty quickly, including one he’d told me personally several times. That story involved KO spinning his friend (and IRL founder) Tony George out of a transfer spot and then blaming Tony for “coming down on me.” The long version is in the book – and quite funny. BTW, I’m told KO showed up at the Chili Bowl this year with a long trench coat lined on the inside with watches and gold chains he was trying to sell. Once I get a chance to read the book, I’ll report back, but if half the stories he’s told before are in there – it’ll be a pretty interesting read. He’s seen (and done) a lot!
Chris Sheil – driving the TSO sponsored #12, started and finished in 7th position in E#2. He told us the car just wasn’t rotating very well around the bottom and that he was having to really get it up on the berm to make it turn. That led to him also not getting off the corners as well as he would have liked. The race went caution free also. And it was interesting that the track at this point (and in E#1) had developed two distinct lines. No one was running the middle – it was low or high and the high side had gotten pushed way out to the wall. Each line seemed pretty equal so there wasn’t a lot of passing in those races. Chris bicycled the car a couple times early and had to repass the cars that got by because of that. The team was generally happy with the week, but before they had even packed up, Chris and his car owner were already thinking of what they needed to do to the car to get just that little bit better here next year.
Track conditions: The track at the Chili Bowl is the “raciest” when the cushion is more “middle” track. But, track conditions are part of the game here and that’s why just making the A-Main is so tough and such an accomplishment. A lot of variables to fight through and a bit of luck is needed some times. As noted, what we saw in the F and E-Features wasn’t great for passing, but a few people were still moving forward. Generally the track held up well, and it was certainly a “fair” track from what I could tell.
This week’s hard charger went to Thomas Meseraull. He started on the pole of D#1 and won that race. He then finished 3rd out of 20 cars in C#1. In B#1, he started 17th and finished 5th to make the A-Main where he had a DNF for 23rd. That would be 24 positions gained – and doing that from the D is pretty impressive. Last year Sheil passed 26 cars in the M, L, and K features to win the award named in honor of the late Rich Vogler.
Ok, here are the Team INDYCAR drivers and how they finished (starting in order of when they ran their first race on Saturday):
Davey Hamilton, Jr. – Started 6th in J#2 and finished there. He told me after the race that he knew he needed to move up, but he just couldn’t find a spot where he was comfortable to make that move to the outside. He told me he learned a bunch this week and after his first races in a dirt midget, he’s looking forward to running some more later this year. DJ is also working on racing in numerous other series, including Indy Lights – where he really wants to have a ride in 2017. That seems to be his true goal.
Tyler Seavey – started 9th in G#2 and finished 12th. Seavey was running in a team car to Kyle O’Gara for Sarah Fisher Racing’s Development team.
Kyle O’Gara – Started 4th in F#2 and his day was quickly over. He wound up finishing in 16th with a DNF. Andy O’Gara told me that when Kyle hit the throttle the car just didn’t go due to a fuel pick up problem picking the exact worst time (the start of a race) to develop. Tough day for Kyle. The O’Gara’s told me that they have a lot of fun at this race and are considering bringing even more cars in 2018. Sarah Fisher was here with the team but with the restaurant, karting center and other businesses, she was just too busy to race herself this year. She came out on Friday to join with the team. Andy told me that rumors of them getting back in to the IndyCar business may be a bit premature. They do WANT to do that again at some point, but 2017 won’t be the year. He kind of joked that the 2018 Indy 500 might be the goal.
Davey Ray – Started 9th in D#1 – and an apology to Davey, I never got a chance to chat with him this weekend, and that’s too bad –great guy when we talked last year. Davey got caught up in a crash and wound up with a DNF to end his Chili Bowl.
Chad Boat – Started 7th in C#1, and was able to get to the 5th spot to make the transfer to B#1. It wasn’t easy though, as this was a pretty rough race. At one point he had a car up on his left side in the fight for the transfer spot. That bent the headers on his car so that it was pointed up, but he was able to finish the race. One of my friends saw the car post race and said it was a miracle the headers were still attached. Notably if you lose your muffler here – you immediately are sent off the track. In most prelim races there is no work area, so you’re just done. As it got closer to the A-Main there was a work area, but they didn’t wait for anyone. So a flat had to be changed VERY fast or you were done. A couple guys got lucky and the next restart had another crash, allowing them just enough time to get back on track.
In his B-Main, Boat was eventually able to must a 9th place finish but they were only taking the top 6, so his Chili Bowl was over. All in all, and good week for him. I talked to both Billy and Chad Boat and they confirmed a high level of interest in running some Indy Lights races this year. Chad really wants to race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and has a lot of big track pavement experience (NASCAR Trucks and Nationwide). Like most teams, Billy told me they are working on the financial aspects of running Lights now and have the long term goal of Chad running in the Indy 500. I know they are talking to a lot of people in the INDYCAR and MRTI world so we will be keeping our eyes out for more information.
David Gravel – Started 8th in C#2 and quickly got up to about the 5th spot. Unfortunately he then got shuffled down to I think about 13th or so when things got crazy. The during the second half of the 15 lap C-main, he started to make his comeback. A yellow with three or four laps remaining set up what was to be one of the best moves of the night. Gravel restarted around the 10th spot and then with 3 to go, dove under a trio of cars that were racing hard for the transfer spot – taking it four himself – all in one corner. He was able to hang on to the 6th position for the few remaining corners, securing a transfer to B#2.
In that wild race, Gravel was eventually able to finish in the 9th spot – after starting 20th.
Jerry Coons, Jr. – Started 9th in B#1, and by lap 3 was already in the top-6. He kept moving forward and on lap 5 was in 3rd. He lost that spot briefly, but around halfway was up to 2nd in the yellow plagued race. When the checkered flag fell, he was still second, and safely transferred to the A-main.
In the final race of the night, Coons was still fast and raced his way from 15th to 8th. Coons, Jr. picked up an extra $500 from INDYCAR for making the A-Feature as part of the Team INDYCAR program.
Donny Schatz – Started 10th in B#1, and ran a pretty solid and clean race and was up to 7th around the fifth lap. He had 6th a couple times it appeared but also got dropped to 8th at one point. When the checkered flag fell on the 20 lap race, he got just beaten to the line my Michael Faccinto who took the final transfer spot. Schatz did pick on the 2017 Chili Bowl Rookie of the Year award (yep, he was a Chili Bowl “rookie”). He’s won the Knoxville Nationals 9 times in a winged sprint car and the World of Outlaws title 8-times. And he also just got back from racing a sprint car in Australia – perhaps that’s why he hasn’t had the time to run the Chili Bowl before. To come within a few feet of making the A-main in your first try is still a nice week for anyone.
Dave Darland – Started 9th in B#2, and I’m sure some other interesting stuff was happening in this race, but I got fixed on Darland and his battle with the legendary Sammy Swindell. There were a couple if incidents. The first came a handful of laps in to the race, when Darland dove under Swindell and slid up in front of him. They got together and Swindell wound up on his side in Turn 2 – much to the delight of many fans in attendance who cheered Sammy’s crash. If you are not familiar with short track racing, Swindell’s nickname is “slammin” and while fairly quiet outside the car, he’s never been shy about moving someone that is in his way. For that, he’s probably offended the fans of many other driver’s over the years, and he’s certainly the “black hat” cowboy in this old western movie of an event.
Swindell’s car was able to re-fire once they got the car turned back over, and he rejoined at the rear of the field.
At this point, Darland was running 8th and by the time the next yellow came on lap 12, he was still in that spot. He would move up to battle Alex Bright for the transfer spot and they too would have lots of contact.
With three laps remaining, Darland was in the final transfer spot, with Swindell 3 spots back but charging. Just after Darland took the white flag, the duo entered Turn 1 together – and neither of them made it to Turn 2. Darland entered the corner in the middle, and Swindell put his car in that same spot. Sammy’s right front climbed over the left side of Darland’s car and they both spun to a stop a few feet later.
Clearly, this was not a pro-Swindell crowd, so many in the stands (and pits) were not happy with that move. After the green white checkered restart, Darland would be credited with a 13th place finish, and the two looked to “rub” a bit more on the cool down lap.
Swindell stayed in his car as it was pushed back to his pit area, and then exited to the boos of many observers. A crowd of a couple hundred swarmed the Swindell pit area. The only “action” occurred when a member of Darland’s crew came over and expressed his displeasure, which of course riled up a couple of Swindell’s guys, but that was fairly quickly sorted out.
I went over a couple minutes later and found Dave Darland standing in his pit area, talking to his crew. He came over and we chatted for a couple minutes. Darland told TSO, “its racing! Just a couple of fast race car driver’s going for a Chili Bowl transfer spot.”
He calmly walked me through both major incidents with Swindell. Of the final one that took them both out of contention, Darland initially said, “he ran me over,” then later corrected that to “he got in to me.” The latter of course a less egregious level of infraction in the racing world.
Darland summed it up with, “It would have been nice make the race in the last transfer spot, but that’s racing.”
Dave then opened up the beer he’d been holding and I walked away from that conversation enormously impressed by Darland’s grace and class. For certain, he’s seen a lot in his hall of fame career, so while this was a big day, it was also just another day at the office.
Tyler Courtney – started on the inside of row two in the A-Feature and held that spot for a while. Unfortunately, some faster cars were able to get around him as the race ran on, and he had to settle for 6th when the checkered flag fell. The A was one of the few races I didn’t get to watch from the Turn 4 viewing platform as that had become overcrowded. Instead I watched the race on a TV in the pit area – not exactly the best way to track anyone except the leader. Courtney was the top finisher among the Team INDYCAR drivers, picking up an extra $500 from INDYCAR, in addition to the $500 he got for making the A-Main (and in addition to the initial sponsorship money).
That brings me to one of the more interesting aspect about the Chili Bowl – its expense! And how little most people seem to worry about that. This is despite teams having to be there all week – running up hotel, rental car, and other bills. As noted before, they get nearly 400 entries and can barely accommodate all the fans and racers, despite being in the cavernous Tulsa Expo Center. In fact, they have very strict rules on who even gets to pit inside. Some teams combine entries to get extra space, multiple cars out of one trailer (and the actual trucks and tractors are left outside). If your trailer is more than 24 feet, you MUST bring more than one car, or they won’t even let you bring that trailer in – you’ll find friends to combine with, or they’ll help you do that. TSO knew a couple teams that had to leave their trailers outside and pit out of someone else hauler – it’s just a fact that with this many entries – everyone has to work together to make it work.
For those reasons, they don’t exactly “need” to pay a bigger purse to draw entries, and while a $10k to win race was at one time a big deal in short track racing, it is not what really brings in the teams or fans for this event. Several teams (on both ends of the racing economics spectrum) told me they wouldn’t want to see it become a $50k to win or $100k to win type of show. Those are now fairly common especially in the sprint and late model categories (where several of the big name driver’s running the Chili Bowl really make their livings).
Certainly, many teams would like to see more money paid farther down the alphabet, or cheaper pit passes for actual crew members (as opposed to fans – like me – that simply buy pit passes because the grandstands have long been sold out). Money that might help cover costs – yes, they’d appreciate that, but no one wants to see the overall formula changed a whole lot.
For example, there aren’t a bunch of provisionals to guarantee the big names are in the big show. There is one past champion spot – and Rico Abreu had to use it this year. That spot goes to the most recent champion not already qualified for the A-main. But, for example, since Rico took that spot, Sammy Swindell had to watch the feature.
The smaller teams appreciate this “level” field. They aren’t being forced out of the A for a “name” driver. They also appreciate the cold hearted way this race is officiated. No waiting for ANYONE. And you stop – you go to the tail – in every race, all week long.
It’s brutal and often not fair for drivers that had to stop for a crash that blocked the track – but this prevents arguments about the officiating. You can complain about the “bad luck”, but not about someone’s judgement calls. The only time you’ll see anything close to that is when the flag man waves off a restart or something.
And finally the reason no one is pushing for any major changes is because what they are doing now is working pretty well. It’s a fun event, that fans and competitors alike enjoy, and until it stops being “fun” any changes should be along the lines of just making things more “comfortable.”
That said, recent improvements in the ventilation system here have made things better inside, though you will still breathe a lot of dust and a bit of fumes. The latter part is MUCH better than when I was here in the mid-2000’s for sure. I remember having to open the big doors at times just to make the air breathable – that doesn’t seem to be the case now. They get the air quality pretty good most of the time. They also require you to use ONLY their fuel, can’t even have any of your own in the trailer – that’ll get you kicked out.
Bottom line on this subject is the Chili Bowl is one of those events that needs to be on your “bucket list,” to see at least once. And I recommend not just coming for Saturday. Gotta hit at least one prelim night to truly appreciate things, and also because those are great nights for talking to the competitors that run on different days. They are pretty relaxed and happy to chat, while do some car prep and mostly just hanging out.
Another random thought: I’m amazed at the sheer number of dirt midget cars that are run at this race and also those available for sale. This is truly one of the best ways to go racing right now. Solid cars can be had for reasonable amounts (in racing dollars). In addition to all the officially entered cars, there were several others here as back-ups, and most of them had for sale signs on them. $15k would buy many of the cars here, and you’d have a fairly decent race car – and certainly good enough to get started. Once the driver and team catch up to the cars performance a jump to a $12k to $15k engine would be enough to win in many sanctioning bodies.
Yes, there are also teams here with $50,000 engines (the full factory TRD effort that won the race for example) but for this race, on this track, you don’t need one of those to be competitive and to have a lot of fun racing. And you’d be fine with that same entry level car at many events across the country.
Now, I’ll be honest, and not to disparage some folks hard work, but there are a few cars that are just well past their useful life cycles. But, those folks bring those cars here every year to have some fun. That said, the days of bringing one of those and hoping to advance out of ANY Saturday main (even the O) – are over. There are just too many good drivers and good cars. And nearly every feature has a couple good cars that had bad luck in qualifying, so they are going to be on the move. It did seem to me that the number of “outdated” cars is on the decline here. Again, too easy to get “decent” stuff right now so no need to keep bringing the old ones.
My final thoughts – things that were NOT good this year. Not a lot to complain about and really, this is an event that you need take in as it is – not try to make it something it’s not – but some things can always be improved.
This year they made a couple changes that were negative. The number one complaint being some VERY long breaks on Saturday night after the D, C’s, and B. One of those intermissions even included some very bad “professional wrestling.” I’m sure some portion of the long intermissions was due to the TV schedule, but one of the beauties of the Chili Bowl is how fast they move along the action – with nearly constant racing most of the time. These extra breaks really put a damper on this.
Plus, with running “O” features this year, they decided NOT to have any hot laps – except for cars in the A-main. The absence of those hot lap sessions didn’t seem to cause much debate until we wound up with too much down time later in the night.
Another final thought is that for 2018, TSO is going to try and cover this event “completely.” It’s tough for me to get off for an entire week in January for both job and “kid” reasons, but I am going to see what we can pull off. This event deserves more attention from the world and is part of our long term plan to utilize TSOLadder.com to cover more and more aspects of the open wheel racing world.
And with that – I’ll call our Chili Bowl wrap-up complete. Thanks for everyone’s patience. My next event is the big open test at Phoenix International Raceway for the Verizon IndyCar Series.