Event goes onto the bucket list

We find ourselves saying goodbye to 2016 and moving forward to 2017. Before we do, there was one of the biggest events of the year on New Year’s Eve.

The 30th annual Chili Bowl Midget Nationals took place inside the River Spirit Expo Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma. This year, 380 teams showed up to race for the 24 starting spots in the Saturday night 55-lap main event.

Racing began on Tuesday night on the quarter-mile clay oval constructed by track crews and maintained by former NASCAR champ Tony Stewart and his group.

Drivers come from many backgrounds to race these small but extremely fast and powerful open-wheeled race cars. They run various four-cylinder engines from several manufacturers. They produce more than 300 hp on methanol and only weigh approximately 850 pounds.

No wings means that these are some of the toughest racing machines on the planet to control. Racing begins with qualifications and heat races leading to a series of preliminary main events that have letter designations.

This year they started with N Mains. In this format, racers start their main event and if they finish in the top two positions they advance to the next letter and start in the rear of that event. Example: N moves to the M which in turn moves to the L and so on. Because of the car count, the field was divided and two each of these races were held.

I hope you are not too confused? It just means you race your heart out for four days just to have a chance to race in the feature.

NASCAR and USAC drivers, along with NHRA drag racers and stars from several Midget racing sanctioning bodies all do battle.

In the 29 previous races, only five drivers have won more than once. Sprint car champion Sammy Swindell has won it five times: in 1989, 1992, 1996, 1998 and 2007; and his son Kevin Swindell has won four, from 2010 to 2013.

Drivers with two wins include Dan Boarse, 99 and 2003; Tony Stewart; 2002 and 2007; and Cory Kruseman, 2000 and 2014.

The winners list reads like a who’s who of racing. Beginning in 1987 with Rich Vogler and then followed by Scott Hatton, 1988; Jon Heydenreich, 1990; Leyland Mc Spadden, 1991; Dave Blaney, 1993; Andy Hillenburg, 1994; Donnie Beechler, 1995; Billy Boat, 1997; Jay Drake, 2001; Tracy Hines, 2005; Tim McCreadie, 2006; Damion Gardener, 2008; Bryan Clauson, 2014; and defending champ Rico Abreu in 2015.

It is quite an accomplishment just to make the A Main starting lineup. This year, a promoter’s option was exercised and five-time winner Sammy Swindell was added to the rear of the field after having a crash in the B Main.

The starting lineup was: Row 1, Bryon Clauson and Christopher Bell; Row 2, Alex Bright and Rico Abreu; Row 3, Tim McCreadie and Jerry Coon Jr.; Row 4, Joey Saldana and Zach Daum;  Row 5, Tyler Thomas and Kasey Kahne; Row 6, Thomas Meseraull and Shane Cottle; Row 7, Tracy Hines and Ricky Stenhouse Jr.; Row 8, Daryn Pittman and Tanner Thorson; Row 9, Damion Gardener and CJ Leary; Row 10, Blake Hahn and Shane Colohie; Row 11, Dillon Welch and Kyle Larson; and Row 12, Joe B Miller and Justin Grant with Sammy Swindell in 25th position.

The race began with Christopher Bell taking the early lead, and as he began to lap the rear of the field, a slower car suddenly stopped and with nowhere to go he smashed into the rear of that car, ending his domination. He fought back to finish 12th.

Bryan Clauson took the lead and set sail with Zach Daum on his heels. The race had a few cautions and one short red flag period for accidents. The little man with the big right foot began his charge to the front. Rico Abreu was cutting through the traffic and with 10 laps to go he took the lead from Clauson and never looked back.

This man is only 4 feet 2 inches tall and only weighs 85 pounds but, man, he can wheel a race car. He became only one of six people to win this event more than once. His victory celebration was worth the price of admission. He did what he calls a “Hurricane,” where he spins the car in a tight doughnut while it does a wheelie. Then he climbed on top of the roll cage and jumped into the arms of Bryan Clauson, who had come to congratulate him. To the delight of his fans, he then climbed the catch fence.

He will continue in 2017 in the Camping World truck series and there is a bright future for this driver.  The top 10 was Abreu, followed by Clauson and Daum; fourth was Jerry Coons Jr.; fifth was Kyle Larson from 22nd; sixth was dirt Super Late Model standout  Tim McCreadie; and seventh through 10th were Tyler Thomas, Thomas Meseraull, Tanner Thorsen and Joey Saldana.

There were other notable finishers. Monster Energy Cup series drivers Kasey Kahne and Ricky Stenhouse Jr finished 13th and 16th, respectively. Sammy Swindell made it to the top 10 before a crash caused him to finish 18th.

This event is definitely on my bucket list of things to see! There were more than 60 cars that flipped during the week, along with numerous crashes and spins with only a few bruises and some injured egos and pocketbooks. This is truly hard short track racing in its rawest form.

The left turns of Daytona are only a little more than 50 days away and remember, at the end of that long straight there’s a high-banked left turn.

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