By Tim Kennedy
Los Angeles, CA. - The 22nd annual open competition Dodge Chili Bowl Nationals Midget Classic was another artistic and competitive success. Expanded to five days at the block-long Tulsa, OK Quik Trip Center last year, the event took place this year from Tuesday, January 8 through Saturday, January 12. The long sold-out event fills all seats, most of which are between the third and fourth turns. The Tulsa World newspaper reported Saturday attendance as 16,329, Friday 15,000 and Wednesday 14,212. Estimates from persons present place the Tuesday and Thursday attendance in the 13-14,000 range. Fortunately, Lucas Oil sponsored the first live telecast of the final five races Saturday night on HBO-Pay Per View. The commercial-free telecast was well worth the $24.95 cost and it should become an annual production. Some Californians spent up to $1,200 in airfare, car rental, motel and tickets to all five nights of racing. Forrest Lucas and Lucas Oil Executive VP Bob Patison attended the Chili Bowl for the first time. Their enthusiasm for the event came across on TV when they were interviewed during the telecast. That fact would indicate Lucas will continue to sponsor the Chili Bowl PPV telecast in coming years.
The Chili Bowl record entry list this year was a reported 286 and 274 cars actually competed on at least one of the five nights. December 15 was the entry deadline. Pre-entrants paid $150 to December 15 and post-entrants after that date paid $200. CB veteran drivers and newcomers of known experience were assigned to race in only one of the three preliminary nights. They drew for heat race starting positions each night and had to race for all-important finishing positions. There were 76 races and 776 laps of action during five days. This year there were 70 Chili Bowl rookies and most of them raced on the Tuesday pre-qualifying night with that advanced the top finishers in the 76 car field to the regular Wed., Thur. and Fri. preliminary qualifying nights. Winners of the 25-lap four qualifying main events were: Tues.- Josh Most, Red Oak, IA; Wed.-Josh Ford, Oxnard, CA; Thur.-Brad Kuhn, Avon IN, and Fri.-Damion Gardner, Concord, CA & Pittsboro, IN. Gardner said he got his ride three weeks before the event when NASCAR driver Jason Leffler, owner of his USAC sprint car ride, called him. Leffler said he had a midget in his garage and Gardner could take it to Tulsa "and win it all or wreck it." He complied completely with that admonition and won both of his A-features.
Drivers at the 2008 Chili Bowl came from 29 states and two foreign countries (Canada and Australia). With its race dates coming so early in the year, the Chili Bowl attracts drivers from many still inactive racing disciplines. Drivers came from many midget organizations, such as USAC, BCRA, ARDC, Badger, AMRA, SRMS, RMMRA, plus various sprint car groups, such as World of Outlaws, USAC, CRA, and the Pennsylvania Posse, NHRA drag racing, dirt late models (star Josh Richards), ARCA stock cars and various short-track touring circuits. There were seven female drivers in competition-Michelle Decker, Trish Dover, Shannon McQueen, Michele Miller, Randi Pankratz, Samantha Taylor and Jessica Zemken. Pankratz, the daughter of 2000 USAC Western Midget Champion Wally Pankratz, was the highest finishing female driver in the Saturday alphabet main events with her P.8 in a D-main. Decker and McQueen, a certified public accountant, made E-mains in McQueen's team cars. The oldest drivers were French Grimes and Floyd Alvis, both 73. There were many young drivers in the age 14-16 bracket.
Chili Bowl web site entries showed a wide variety of chassis and engines and combinations. Leading chassis in 2008 in number of cars was Spike with 97. Stealth was second with 71. Next in order were F-5 (17 cars), Bullet (15), Beast (10), Dave Ellis (9), TCR (8), Buzzard (6), Edmunds and Maxim (4 each), and with three cars each-Bishop, DRC, Hawk and Twister. There were 16 other car builders listed with one or two cars each. Thirteen entries did not specify a chassis builder. In the Chili Bowl engine department, there were 35 different names on engines powering midgets and Esslinger led the pack with 78. Fontana was next with 42 engines in various chassis. Gaerte had 19, Chevy 17, Mopar 16, Gary Stanton Mopar 13, Ford and Gaerte Chevy 10 each, Hawk Chevy 9 and Pontiac 8. Builders such as Ed Pink, Earl Gaerte, Pro Flyer and Bob Wirth built various engines with Chevy, Ford, Buick, Mopar, Fontana and Toyota-based engines. The Saturday A-main winning car driven by Gardner was a Stealth/Esslinger.
There were 22 duplicate car numbers at the 2008 Chili Bowl that accounted for 161 of the 274 cars present. Letters following or preceding the number or 0 in front of the number individualized all 274 cars for scoring purposes. There were five triple digit numbers; 0 and the letter X also adorned cars. Most popular number was No. 5 with 18 cars using that digit. Next most popular was No. 7 with 16 cars. Surprisingly, No. 1 was only third best with 13 cars. No. 11 had 10 cars. Nos. 6 and 71 tied with 7 cars, and No. 10 had 7 cars. Next in line were Nos. 2, 4, 12, 17, 21 and 37-6 cars each, and Nos. 8, 9, 14, 15, 20, 27, 33, 51 and 73 with 5 cars each. Car numbers that were not used on any 2008 Chili Bowl entries were 16, 38, 40, 46, 60, 62, 65, 66, 72, 74, 77, 79, 80, 82, 90 and 95. The No. 13 Zero/Mopar entered for Tyler Walker was a no-show. A-main winning cars all five nights were Nos. 6C, 73, 71X, 71G and 71G again. There were a reported 59 flips or rollovers during the five days of racing. Fortunately there were no serious driver injuries and most of the midgets returned to action.
Father/son drivers were Sammy and Kevin Swindell, Ron and Casey Shuman, and Billy and Chad Boat. Billy was on hand to coach his son, but talented Ron Shuman, 55, came back to the cockpit to race for the first time in ten years. And race he did. He finished 7th in one of the two B mains Saturday and was actually 6th (the final transfer position to the A-feature) at the checkered flag. But the checker/yellow flags were displayed on that lap, so the official finish reverted to the last completed green flag lap. Ron admitted that he was tired following the 20-lap B, but he clearly was miffed to miss the feature because of the untimely yellow/checker flags. Ron's last race was at Perris, CA in a 1997 SCRA sprint car race in which he won the SCRA championship. Traditionalist Kevin Olson "K.O" gets the "throw-back driver" award for wearing a plain white helmet, old-style goggles and a bandana covering his mouth as he raced the No. 4 KO. Curiously absent from midget rides at the 2008 Chili Bowl were the California-based Galedrige brothers (Bradley and Alfred) and the Swanson brothers (Kody and Tanner).
STRONGEST MULTI-CAR TEAMS: There were numerous multi-car teams at Tulsa this year. I'd rank them in strength (based upon the highest alphabet main event each driver made Saturday) as follows: P.1 - Knowledgeable KEITH KUNZ (8 cars for talented young drivers)-Bryan Clauson (A), Jason Leffler (A), Chris Windom (B), Matt Sherell (B), Cole Whitt (B), Travis Rilat (B), Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. (C) and Caleb Armstrong (C). P.2 - TONY STEWART (4 cars)-T. Stewaret, Tracy Hines and Levi Jones (all in the A), Josh Richards (D). P.3 - KASEY KAHNE (4 cars)-K. Kahne and Brady Bacon (both in A), Brad Sweet (B) and Joey Saldana (C). P.4 - LOYET MOTORSPORTS (5 cars)-Jon Stanbrough (A), Brad Loyet and Danny Lasoski (both B), P. J. Jones (C) and one backup car. P.5 - WILKE RACING (4 cars) Jerry Coons, Jr. and Terry McCarl (both A) Kurt Davis (J) and one backup car. P.6 - CRUZ PEDREGON Toyotas (4 cars)-Josh Wise and Sammy Swindell (both B), C. Pedregon (H) and Brian Camarillo (J); P.7 - A. J. FELKER (5 cars)-Ron Shuman (B), Casey Shuman and Tyler Brown (both D), Joe Walker (E) and Colby Copeland (H). P.8 - CLIFF BLACKWELL (4 cars Nos. 27 a, b. c. d) -Tony Elliott (B) and rookies in the other three cars. Three other teams deserve honorable; mention as multi-car teams. They are LEHMANN RACING (4 cars), SCOOTER ELLIS (4 cars Nos. 73 e, f, i, s), and CHRIS WALKER (4 cars) with four rookie drivers.
Saturday racing at the Chili Bowl began at 11 a.m Tulsa-time with a pair of 10-lap K mains. They advanced the top four finishers in each race to the back of the two 10-lap J mains, with the top four moving up to the I mains and similar advancements through the "alphabet soup" mains to the H, G, F and E 10-lap mains. A pair of 15-lap D mains transferred the first five finishers to the back of the twin 15-lap C mains. Extensive track preparation then took place prior to the HBO-PPV telecast going on-air live at 7:00 p.m (5:00 p.m PST). The scheduled five-hour telecast actually lasted four hours to 9:00 p.m (PST) because racing went more quickly than one would expect on the indoor quarter-mile clay track. The pair of 15-lap C mains advanced the first five finishers in each C main to the back of the twin 20-lap B mains, which transferred the first six drivers in each B main to the back of the one 50-lap A feature. They joined the top 12 locked-in drivers who earned feature berths by finishing in the first four positions in the 25-lap A-mains Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. Drivers from the first B main occupied the inside row of the A and the second B transferees occupied the outside positions in rows seven through 12 in the 24-car field.
HBO-PPV TELECAST: On-air broadcasters were announcer Ken Stout, experienced analysts were Dave Argabright, Larry Rice and Pat Sullivan at the four-wide anchor desk. Pit-reporters were Rob Klepper of USAC and Matt Yocum, who usually reports from NASCAR pits. Three of the Speed Freaks TV/radio show broadcasters-Kenny Sargent, Crash Gladys and Gordon "Lugg Nuttz" Stewart handled pit interviews/features. Broadcasters performed well and appeared genuinely enthusiastic about the Chili Bowl event. The first on-track action on TV was the hot-lapping session for the 12 already qualified A-main drivers. All 12 drivers were on the track at the same time for about five laps on the freshly groomed track. Then the two C-mains ran and SoCal's Chris Rahe flipped in turn one on lap one. He restarted, but victory went to Don Droud, Jr. (Spike/Brannon Chevy) over Josh Wise in Cruz Pedregon's Spike/Toyota. Winged sprint car veteran Terry McCarl, from IA, won the second C-main over Levi Jones. It started at 6:10 p.m (PST). BCRA champion Justin Grant, 17, rolled in this event.
The first B-main went to Tony Stewart in one of his own Spike/Hawk Chevy midgets. He started outside in row one next to Davey Ray's green midget. They exchanged the lead in criss-cross moves about five-times without contacting each other in the opening laps to show how competitive midget racing is on a well-prepared dirt track "bullring". Stewart won over Torrance, CA veteran sprint/midget driver Bobby Michnowicz, who drove Ron Bach's TCR/Esslinger. The second B-main started two hours & four minutes into the telecast and went to Kevin Swindell, from pole position, over Tracy Hines. On lap 14 Bobby East tangled with Sammy Swindell leaving turn four and flipped wildly. Both veteran drivers were unhurt, but eliminated from competition.
The 50-lap A-feature started at 8:22 p.m (PST), some three hours & 22 minutes into the fast-moving telecast. USAC-CRA sprint regular Josh Ford grabbed the early lead from the pole and led fellow front-row starter Gardner for ten laps. Then Gardner took command on lap 11 and paced the balance of the race that had seven caution flags and one red flag (about lap 40) after a wild flip by 2007 USAC National Midget Champion/Midget Driver of the Year Jerry Coons, Jr. During the race, winner Gardner made a sensational save in the third turn on lap 25 after he bicycled on two wheels in Joey Chitwood Auto Daredevils-style. On lap 48 at turn two Gardner again bicycled a bit, but he won by ten yards in his sixth Chili Bowl attempt and second Saturday A-main start. USAC multiple champion/2007 USAC Turkey Night Grand Prix winner Dave Darland drove Steve Lewis' Spike/Ed Pink Toyota to a solid second place.
It was Lewis' first trip to the Chili Bowl in ten years. Why? To get that answer I contacted Lewis. He told me his team has emphasized winning the Copper World Classic Midget race on the Phoenix Int'l Raceway each January or February and that effort usually conflicted with the Chili Bowl race dates. This emphasis paid of for the Lewis 9 Racing team because it had CWC victories at PIR with drivers Stan Fox, Chuck Gurney, Tony Stewart, Jason Leffler, J. J.Yeley, Bobby East and Dave Steele. Last year PIR shifted the CWC race date from early in the year to November in conjunction with the three days of NASCAR racing. That shift allows Steve's team to return to Tulsa. Having Darland as his driver and Ed Pink Toyota power made the trip rewarding. "Dave did a tremendous job and I was very proud of the entire effort of Kelly Drake (crew chief) and everyone else involved that helped during the hectic Chili Bowl week. You can count on the 9 racing team to be back at the Chili Bowl next year." Steve also said his team only took one car to Tulsa this year so the team could concentrate entirely on getting Darland into Saturday's feature. "I did not want to burden Kelly and the crew with too much on our first year back in ten years. Kody Swanson (Team 9's second driver) will be running full-time for us this year and will have the opportunity to get accustomed to the dirt program. He is a fine young driver with lots of talent and we are very pleased to have him as a part of our team for 2008."
The checkers flew at 8:50 pm (PST). Following interviews with the first four finishers, the HBO-PPV telecast went off the air at 9:00 P.M (PST). Gardner became the 16th different Chili Bowl Saturday A-main winner in the 22nd edition. Four prior Chili Bowl winners-Cory Kruseman, Tony Stewart, Tracy Hines and Tim McCreadie-raced in the 2008 event. Only Stewart (P.8) and Hines (P.11) made the 2008 Chili Bowl A-main. ON-BOARD TV CAMERAS: HBO-PPV had on-board cameras for the following drivers: C-main-Cory Kruseman and Darren Hagen, B-main-Danny Lasoski and Tony Stewart, and A-main-Darland (O2), Stewart (P8), Kasey Kahne (DNF-engine smoking) and Jerry Coons, Jr. (Flipped). I didn't see the total purse paid by promoters Emmett Hahn and Lanny Edwards, but the winner of Saturday's A-main received $10,000. It would have been $20,000 if he had been eligible for the bonus for using a Mopar engine. Published picks by many media "experts" before the 2008 CB got rolling included the names of the usual expected drivers. No one picked eventual winner Gardner. My picks prior to Saturday were Coons or Darland based upon their skill and up-front starting positions.
ROOKIE: My choice for Chili Bowl rookie of 2008 would have to be Brad Sweet, who had the best run through the toughest alphabet soup mains. Brad, from Grass Valley, CA, finished second in his D main, then fifth in his C main and was sixth (the final transfer to Saturday's A) in his B main when he got slammed by the P. 6 car and spun out. Brad came back to finish 11th and missed the A-main by five positions. No other Chili Bowl rookies made the A. Levi Jones is the driver who rammed Sweet entering turn one, spinning him. Jones continued non-stop and made the A-main after executing the nastiest pass of the races televised on HBO. Event rules should have a provision used by some NASCAR short tracks that if a driver spins out another driver so flagrantly, both drivers (spinnee & spinner) have to restart at the back. A referee should make all such calls. Drivers might police themselves better if there were consequences for rough driving.
HARD LUCK AWARD: Gary "Bubba" Altig (No. 67a) became the first retiree from Saturday's A main after he hit the wall during warm-up laps before the lap 1 green flag. It was understandable why he declined an interview with the TV pitreporter. Another hard luck driver was Garrett Hansen who had a solid A main transfer in the second B main when ignition failure sent his family-owned No. 70 Stealth/Fontana to the sidelines as he raced in P. 3 with only four laps remaining. He finished 17th. Garrett said the Chili Bowl is his favorite race of the year and the one he takes most seriously. That's what makes it tougher to swallow when something so small ends his hopes prematurely and forces him to wait until next year. Bobby Michnowicz, from Carson, CA, and Nathan High, from Goodyear, AZ, turned in strong runs at Tulsa Saturday. Both made the A-main. High, in a Spike/Esslinger, finished tenth, while Michnowicz did not finish and received 21st place. Future star Cole Whitt, a 16-year old sprint, midget and stock car driver from eastern San Diego County, also made the A-main Saturday and placed 13th.
DISAPPOINTING RESULTS: Most disappointing results at the 2008 Chili Bowl by normal front-runners follow from lowest to highest Saturday "alphabet soup" mains. Ryan Kaplan (H-P6), 17-year old Hunter Schuerenberg (H-P5), Johnny Rodriquez (G-P10), Mike Spencer (G-P6), Bud Kaeding (F-P6), Troy Rutherford (E-P15), J. J. Yeley (D-P15), Casey Shuman (D-P12), Cory Kruseman (C-P17), Darren Hagen (C-P16), P. J. Jones (C-P11), Bobby East (B-P18-Flipped), 2006 CB winner Tim McCreadie (B-P16-DNF), A. J. Fike (B-P14), Joey Saldana (B-P12) and Don Droud (B-P10). Ironically, the two NHRA drag racing stars/Midget car owners wound up in the same Saturday main-the first H-main. Gary Scelzi finished 12th in his No. 41 and Cruz Pedregon placed 15th in his No. 71C. Tulsa weather during the Chili Bowl last year was frigid and icy. Departures from Tulsa for some teams and fans were delayed by road or airport delays. This year Tulsa weather cooperated. Tulsa highs and lows (per the US Weather Service) for the 2008 Chili Bowl were 67-43 (Tues.), 54-28 (Wed.), 49-40 (Thur.), 56-27 (Fri.) and 43-29 (Sat.).
The HBO-PPV telecast production was by Nu-Wave Productions, which does other Lucas Oil shows such as the one-hour Lucas Oil Motor-sports Hour on the Versus Network. At the conclusion of the telecast credits rolled quickly and revealed versatile Cary Agajanian (attorney/drivers' agent/promoter/car owner-sponsor) as the chief executive producer of the Chili Bowl telecast. I checked with Cary to find out how many "buys" the first-ever Chili Bowl PPV telecast had. Cary answered today and said various cable systems take months to report that information. He said he had just received the final accounting last week on Eldora Speedway's Prelude telecast that was run in June 2007. … Chilli Bowl starter Roger Slack as usual waved his flags at the inside edge of the track, not from an elevated platform. The reason could be tradition or that drivers see a track-level starter better than an elevated starter because of the close competition on the indoor quarter-mile. The $8.00 CB program had 100-pages plus an insert with the entire entry list. People at the speedway heard an announcement that the programs had sold out. I watched the inaugural Chili Bowl live telecast of the final five main events of the 21 main events Saturday on a friend's 52" plasma TV and enjoyed it. If you did not see the CB telecast live, try to catch a re-telecast through January 26 or a taped version of it ASAP. It is time well spent for RACING fans.