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RACING SCENE (Tulsa Chili Bowl)

RACING SCENE (Tulsa Chili Bowl)
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The 31st annual Lucas Oil Chili Bowl Midget Nationals presented by General Tire in Tulsa (Okla.) completed five nights of racing Tuesday through Saturday, January 10-14, 2017. It was another huge success despite rain, ice and temps in the low 30s Friday and Saturday. There was an all-time record 375 midgets entered (including backup cars); 365 entries competed. The old record was 335 midgets in 2016.

The 11-acre site is the cavernous River Spirit Expo Center. The petroleum expo building occupies 44,800 sq. ft. and has a 76-ft giant golden driller statue outside the entrance. Winners receive a much-coveted, unique golden driller trophy. The petroleum industry originally used the building for expos. A quarter mile clay track (fifth-mile on the pole) is situated at one end of the building. All pits and race haulers, plus a racing trade show, occupy the other side of the building.

Promoter Emmett Hahn revealed he decreased track banking about four inches this year to promote more side-by-side racing. It worked. Seating was a modest total when I attended the Chili Bowl event in 1991-92. Seating has increased gradually to the current 20,000 capacity. All seats for the weekend were sold out. Standing room only in the pits was available. Those ticket buyers were able to watch racing on a giant TV screen located behind the largest grandstand at the third/fourth turns. Two tickets were offered on Stub Hub for $480.

According to the Tulsa World daily newspaper, attendance for five nights of Chili Bowl racing topped 70,000. The economic impact for the Tulsa area was an estimated $24,000,000. Many entrants arrived early for Monday practice and spent money for lodging, food, entertainment, gas, and other necessities during the week. A Tulsa TV station reported 11 female drivers were entered. A reporter on air interviewed event rookie Holly Shelton, from Gold River California.

The similar Tulsa Shootout event during the final week of December ran its 32nd annual event and had more than 600 smaller race cars in six categories from 600cc to 1,200 cc winged and non-winged micro sprints. Tristan Guardino, from Fremont, Calif., won the 55-lap feature for 600cc non-winged cars. Joe B. Miller led the final two laps of the 55-lap 600cc winged cars over laps 32-53 leader and runner-up Gary Taylor. MAVTV televised those events on a delayed basis.

Lucas Oil MAVTV again presented a live telecast Saturday of two 15-lap C, two 20-lap B mains, plus the 55-lap A-feature from 5:30 to 8:30 pm (PT). As usual the telecast went overtime to 10:02 pm (PT). MAVTV stayed live with interesting, informative coverage and deserves an A+ for the telecast. As in the past, on-air talent was host Dave DeSpain, announcer Ken Stout, analyst Rob Klepper and pit reporter Dave Argabright. All four are knowledgeable and informative. HBO televised the 2008 Chili Bowl Saturday night live on PPV for $24.95. MAVTV has presented the 2014-17 Chili Bowls and hopefully will continue to do so indefinitely.

Time trials were not used. Entrants draw heat race starting positions on preliminary race nights. Passing points are awarded and drivers try to make the 24-car A-main. The first three finishers advance directly to Saturday's A-feature. This year many newer drivers earned those coveted top three A-main finishes. None of the seven prior Chili Bowl champions entered were among the 12 drivers who made the Saturday A-main on four preliminary nights. Only two of the seven made Saturday's A-feature after encountering problems.

Past Chili Bowl winners who had trouble included 2014-15 winner Rico Abreu, five-time winner Sammy Swindell, 61, and yet to win a Chili Bowl Kyle Larson, who did win Tuesday's Race of Champions. Abreu had to use the one provisional starting spot reserved for the most recent Chili Bowl winner who needed it. He started last (25th).

Midget drivers consider the open-competition Chili Bowl event their Indianapolis 500, Daytona 500 and Knoxville Sprint Nationals. It is one of midget racing's famous “Triple Crown” events. The Thanksgiving Turkey Night Grand Prix in California, the Belleville (Kan.) Midget Nationals in August the other major midget events.

PRELIMS: Tuesday – 90 drivers raced and six flipped; Wednesday – 88 raced and 12 flipped; Thursday – 96 competed and 11 flipped; Friday – 91 raced and nine flipped. The top three in each of the 25-lap A-mains on four prelim nights transferred directed to Saturday's A-feature that paid $10,000 to the winner. Those drivers were: (Tues.)-Tyler Courtney, Larry Wight, Zach Daum; (Wed.)- three Californians--Travis Berryhill (in one of the oldest cars--a Stealth/Fontana), Jake Swanson, Colby Copeland; (Thur.)-Christopher Bell, Danny Stratton, C. J. Leary; (Fri.)- Justin Grant, Daryn Pittman, Ronnie Gardner. Grant had become the father of twins five days earlier. After Saturday racing concluded, 46 drivers had flipped.

Saturday – all drivers raced. A pair of O mains Saturday began racing at 9:30 am Tulsa time and advanced top finishers to one of the two N mains (last year racing started with a pair of N mains). M, L, K, J, I, H, G, F, E, and D mains followed to about 4:30 pm. It is called “alphabet soup” racing. Winners from California were: Matt Streeter (1st M), Austen Figueroa (1st L), Maria Cofer (2nd J), Ryan Bernal (1st H), Chad Boespflug (1st F), Josh Lakatos (1st E), Thomas Meseraull (1st D), and Shane Golobic (1st B). O through E mains were 10-laps, D and C-mains were 15-laps and B-mains were 20 laps.

Track reworking from 4:40 or so by NASCAR champion Tony Stewart on a tractor followed before the C-mains went live on TV at 7:30 pm local time. Spectators toured the pits or trade show and had dinner during down time. MAVTV presented tributes to the late 2014 Chili Bowl champion Bryan Clauson and event co-promoter Lanny Edwards who also passed away in 2016. An interview with track preparation guru Stewart was informative. TV also presented taped highlights of the 25-lap features from the four preliminary nights and the final 14 laps of the 2016 CB Saturday A-main.

The two 15-lap C-mains televised live went to sprint car star Jac Haudenschild and 2016 USAC National Midget Champion Tanner Thorson. Two 20-lap B-mains went to Golobic and NASCAR Cup driver Ricky Stenhouse. A highlight of the second B was a pair of tangles involving S. Swindell and USAC champion Dave Darland. The 55-lap A-feature went to C. Bell, 22, on his third Chili Bowl try. His best finish had been third place. He became the 20th different Chili Bowl champion and first from Oklahoma since Andy Hillenburg in 1994. Saturday hard chargers in the A-feature were: Thomas Meseraull (D to C to B to A) and Thorson (C to B to the A, where he started 20th and finished fourth).

DRIVERS: Noteworthy entrants came from the ranks of NASCAR (Ricky Stenhouse, Justin Allgaier, J. J. Yeley, Larson, Abreu and Bell); ARCA stock car 2016 champion Chase Briscoe; WoO Sprint Car champion Donny Schatz, Paul McMahan, David Gravel, Jac Haudenschild and his ASCoC sprint car driver/son Sheldon; Joey Saldana, Daryn Pittman, and Jason Johnson; dirt late model champions Tim McCreadie and Jonathan Davenport; plus big block modified champion Larry Wight, from New York. Numerous USAC, POWRi, BCRA and ARDC midget drivers competed. USAC/CRA sprint car driver Rickie Gaunt even came out of retirement.

Youngest driver was 16 and the oldest, many-time BCRA champion Floyd Alvis, 81. Event rules list the minimum age for drivers at 16, so USAC Western midget driver Courtney Crone was unable to compete until 2018. So her car owner Jerome Rodela hired USAC sprint car veteran Chase Stockon to drive his second No. 25 Breka with teammate/New Zealander Michael Pickens in his other 25 car.

The 365 Chili Bowl drivers this year came from 36 states. The top states were: Okla-67; Calif.-55; Ill.-33; Tex.-28; Ind.-26; Mo.-17, Ohio and Ariz.-eight each. Ten foreign drivers came from four nations—Canada, Australia, New Zealand and one from England. Female drivers included: Shannon McQueen, Michelle Decker, Holly Shelton, Kaitlynn Leer, Ashley Hazelton, Maria Cofer, Hannah Adair, Michelle Melton, Holly Porter and Raven Culp.

ROOKIES: There were 80 first-time Chili Bowl drivers. Rookies included: Davey Hamilton, Jr., WoO and Knoxville National multi-time champion Donny Schatz, and California residents Mike Snider, Austen Figueroa, Ryan Robinson, plus female drivers Cofer and Shelton. Schatz won the rookie of the year title as the highest finishing event rookie overall. He placed seventh (one position out of a transfer to Saturday's A-main). Next highest rookie was USAC's Ryan Robinson with P. 12 in his B-main. Several rookies, including Shelton and Oregon's Bricen James, made Saturday C-mains.

Drivers in the 55-lap A-main Saturday came from nine states. Eleven were from California. Four each came from Oklahoma and Indiana. One each hailed from Arizona., Illinois, Mississippi, New York, Nevada and Washington. Midget owners this year included some interesting names—Indy Car driver/owner Sarah Fisher; NASCAR driver Alex Bowman; touring sprint drivers Joey Saldana and Johnny Herrera, plus former sprint car and NASCAR West driver Troy Cline.

TEAMS/MOST ENTRIES: Teams with the most 2017 Chili Bowl entries were:

   > Keith Kunz – 7 cars - Nos 67, 67K, 71, 71K, 71W, 97, 97K. (Three made the Sat. A-main.)

   > Clauson-Marshall Racing – 6 cars – Nos 7BC, 15, 17BC, 17W, 39BC, 41. (Four made Sat. A-main.)

   > A. J. Felker – 5 cars – Nos 37, 37B, 37F, 37T, 37X.

   > Camfield – 5 cars -Nos. 10C, 16C, 17C, 77C, 87C.

   > Daum – 4 cars – Nos 5D, 5E, 49, 79. (One made Sat. A.)

   > Bobby Martin – 4 cars -Nos. 51F, 51J, 51R, 51S.

   > Loyet Motorsports – 4 cars – Nos. 05, 05B, 05T, 05X. (One made Sat. A.)

   > Tucker-Boat Racing – 4 cars – Nos. 15X, 17B, 51X, 84X. (One made Sat. A.)

Three-car teams included: Cory Kruseman, Ted Finkenbinder, Hard 8 Racing, Nicole Nussbaum and Zero Motorsports.

CHASSIS/ENGINE: There were 26 different chassis builders represented in the 2017 Chili Bowl field. By far the most popular was Spike with 160 cars. Stealth had 33, Boss 32, Triple X 18, Bullet 16, Beast 12 and DRC 9. ... There were 23 engines listed (some entries did not list chassis/engine.) The leading builder by far was Esslinger with 131. Gaerte had 38. Chevy powered 35 cars. Fontana supplied 32, Toyota 31, Mopar 22, Stanton SR 11 – 15, and Ford 14. There were four Honda, and one each Kawasaki, Arias and Autoresearch VW.

Nine different chassis and nine engine brands made Saturday's 25 car A-main. Chassis reps were: Bullet, Spike, Stewart, Eagle, Beast, Stealth, Triple X, Bondio and DRC. Engines were: Speedway Toyota, Esslinger, Stanton Mopar II, Stanton SR 11, Toyota, Chevy, Fontana, Barnes and Honda. The winning car was a Bullet/Speedway Toyota. It was the sixth victory for Keith Kunz and the third in a row for his Bullet/Speedway Toyota team. Sixty past Saturday A-main drivers raced at the 2017 Chili Bowl.

Justin Grant started Saturday's A-main on the pole and led the first 25 laps. Christopher Bell, 22, started second and used an outside pass on the front straight on lap 26 to take the lead. He won by almost 30-yards over Daryn Pittman, who followed Bell past Grant on lap 26. Pittman drove the No. 21 Pittman-Zarounian Spike/Esslinger. He said his engine blew on the final lap in the final turn. Grant felt he let down car owners Tim Clauson and Richard Marshall and was disappointed with third place. Bell's No. 71W (same number Kyle Larson drove to the 2016 Thanksgiving Night 98-lap GP victory in Ventura) carried DC Solar sponsorship at Tulsa.

So Cal-based Six-8 Motor-sports is owned by Mitchell Johnson, 28. He entered a pair of Rick Stewart midgets (68 and 68W). Mitchell uses 68 on his cars because that was his roller hockey jersey number. Ronnie Gardner, 28, won the last four USAC Western Midget Series championships in the 2008 chassis, which he prefers. Mitchell purchased that car in 2009 from original owner Walt Wadsworth.

Mitchell bought his other frame from Arizonan Stewart shortly before he died in November, 2009. USAC-CRA driver Jake Swanson, 23, drove the newer car in Tulsa. Mitchell and his dad Walt Johnson, a former TQ midget and midget driver, build all their midget bodies, front axles, motor-plates, nerf bars and running gear to keep racing affordable.

Six-8 team members departed for Tulsa from their North Hollywood shop Sat. January 7. Walt and Ronnie towed the trailer with the two 68 cars. Mitchell co-drove the trailer with the No. 02 Spike/Esslinger of driver Robby Josett. Mitchell and Robby shared driving on their 1,500+ mile trip. Later Robby's car owner dad Ron flew to Tulsa, as did Jake and his dad Chris Swanson.

Chili Bowl veterans Ronnie and Jake both qualified for their first Saturday's A-feature via their preliminary night 25-lap A-mains. Jake finished second Wednesday and Ronnie placed third Friday. They were ecstatic. In the 55-lap A-main Saturday Jake started fifth; he ran third at lap 15 and fourth to lap 54. Thorson dropped him to fifth on the final lap. Ronnie started and finished ninth, one position ahead of 2008 Chili Bowl champion/four-time USAC/CRA sprint car champion Damion Gardner, who started 16th.

Later, www.RacinBoys.com, which broadcast the entire Chili Bowl event for subscribers, awarded Jake Swanson their Jason Leffler Award for spectacularly passing the most cars. He started 18th and finished second in the Wednesday 25-lap A-main. In Friday's prelim main, P. 3 Ronnie edged fourth place/current NASCAR Cup driver Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. and fifth place Michael Faccinto, from California.

The Johnson and Josett teams departed rainy/icy Tulsa Sunday about noon and encountered six inches of snow plus ice in Oklahoma. They stopped in Amarillo, Texas. Walt and Ronnie and USAC/CRA sprint car driver Max Adams drove the Johnson trailer. Mitchell and Robby drove the Josett trailer in their I-40 convoy to Flagstaff, Arizona. They arrived home safely on Tuesday from their highly successful “business trip” to Tulsa.

Mitchell will field one midget for Ronnie at all 14 USAC Western events. The season opener is March 11 at Bakersfield Speedway. Jake again will be driving the No. 92 Sertich Chevy in the USAC/CRA 410 sprint car 24-race series starting March 4in Perris. Last Year Ronnie won six of 14 USAC Western Series features in Mitchell's No. 68. Jake won his first USAC-CRA feature in Peoria, Ariz. last September.

The 32nd Chili Bowl dates are January 9-13, 2018. The 33rd Tulsa Shootout micro sprint event will be at the end of December as usual. Make your plans ASAP.