5 Things You Need to Know before Chili Bowl Saturday01/16/2021
The Chili Bowl Midget Nationals is dirt racing’s version of the WWE Royal Rumble.
In the Rumble, 30 professional wrestlers periodically enter the ring over the course of an hour, with eliminations taking place as a result of one participant sending another over the top rope.
In the Chili Bowl, instead of 30 participants, there’s more than 350, and eliminations occur when competitors fail to finish brief sprint races within the highest percentage of the field.
The first main elimination race, typically lettered ‘N’ or ‘O’ starts at 10:30 in the morning, Eastern Time, and races continue in reverse alphabetical order throughout the day.
You get the picture.
How far a driver has to come back through the “Chili Bowl Alphabet Soup” has been determined throughout the week during a series of qualifying preliminary nights. The top two finishers from each night’s main event automatically earn a berth in Saturday night’s main event.
Those 10 drivers have also been entered into “pole shuffle”: a series of four four-car races that will determine both the pole-sitter and the starting lineup for the $10,000-to-win main event.
The entire process features an eclectic collection of superstar drivers from every major North American motorsport discipline including USAC, the World of Outlaws, NASCAR and IndyCar. There are even a handful of amateurs who will have rented a cheap Midget for a couple grand just to say they were a part of one of the most prestigious motorsport events in the world.
All told, Saturday at the Tulsa Expo Center Raceway in Oklahoma is one of the most exciting and star-studded events in motorsports. The amount of talent entered into this race is as diverse and impressive as next week’s Rolex 24.
Representing NASCAR are Christopher Bell, Kyle Larson, Ricky Stenhouse, Alex Bowman, Justin Allgaier and Chase Briscoe. From IndyCar come Conor Daly, Santino Ferrucci and James Davison. World of Outlaw champions Donny Schatz, Brad Sweet and Daryn Pittman are in the field. The race is represented by virtually every USAC living legend and championship mainstay.
The racing is close, and the Golden Driller trophy has become one of the most sought-after prizes in any racing category.
Five things you need to know before tuning-into the action on Saturday can be found below.
1. KYLE LARSON AND CHRISTOPHER BELL VS THE WORLD
The Golden Driller runs through Kyle Larson and Christopher Bell.
Combined, the two friends have won the Chili Bowl Midget Nationals for each of the past four years and look every bit capable of extending that streak on Saturday night. Larson and Bell each won their preliminary features on Wednesday and Thursday with Bell also winning the Invitational Race of Champions on Tuesday.
Bell was poised to win four straight last year before he lost the track and the lead to Larson with 11 laps to go.
He didn’t match Kevin Swindell’s record four-consecutive wins, but he had the car under him, and believes he has the same type of car this year too.
“It feels really good, and I felt the same way last year until the track got really curbed up in the 55-lapper,” Bell said. “I like what we got. It’s been really fast every time we’ve hit the track and we should be really good.”
Bell is just able to drive his car wherever it needs to go, which combined with his instincts, makes him the undeniable favorite to win four out of five and find himself one short of the overall record held by Sammy Swindell.
The other preliminary lock-ins are stout, too.
Cannon McIntosh emerged on the national stage last year when he finished third after winning his Monday preliminary. He won a second Monday preliminary this year and was able to hang with Bell in the Race of Champions.
Having arrived in Tulsa with a coil-bound setup, Thomas Meseraull feels extremely confident after finishing second to McIntosh in the Monday preliminary.
“I think we can (be that team) because there are only a handful of guys that are here on coils,” Meseraull said. “We had a really good package last year. I started 10th and was up to 6th, got into some racing deals and got turned over, but that’s whatever.
“We came back with coils because we knew there would only be five or six cars here on coils. So, if we strike gold, and I’m gambling … we’re going to strike gold big.”
Tanner Thorson is also on a coil-bound set-up and showed speed, overcoming adversity during his Friday preliminary by driving from his C to the A feature, and starting fourth in Saturday B Main 1.
Justin Grant was great in lapped traffic on Friday night, while Ricky Stenhouse Jr. drove from the C to the A alongside Thorson and Tucker Klaasmeyer.
Before Bell and Larson rolled off four in a row, Rico Abreu won two consecutive, and Bell believes he will be back in the mix, too.
“Rico looked fantastic and Cannon is really good here, second in the race of champions,” Bell said. “This is always a fantastic race. One thing for sure, Larson will be up there and there’s going to be a handful of others.
“We’re going to be in for a treat on Saturday night.”
2. MAKING THE ‘A’ THE HARD WAY
Unlike in 2019, when a series of unfortunate events forced USAC legend and NASCAR mainstay JJ Yeley to start the very first race and begin methodically working his way through the alphabet soup, there are no surprises early this Saturday morning.
That’s fortunate for this year’s contenders, because it’s virtually impossible to start at an O-Main and work your way up from the back in every single race.
Well, maybe, with one exception, according to Chase Briscoe.
“I don’t think anyone will ever do it, maybe Bell could because he’s that good,” Briscoe said. “But you need to catch the cautions at the right time. It’s not even a matter of speed, oftentimes. You’re starting at the back, and when you advance, you just turn right back around and go down the ramp.
“It can be mentally exhausting more so than physical.”
This year, the drama doesn’t start until the I, when Jason McDougal (I1) and Justin Allgaier (I2) begin their respective (unlikely) journeys towards the main event. In simplest terms, that means they will have to score top-sixes, fives and (then) sevens for eight straight races — each of those races coming from the rear of the field.
Should either of them make the A-Main, it will be the greatest number of features consumed to make it, a record currently held by Yeley when he came from the F to finish third in the feature back in 2004.
Once drivers advance to the Cs, the field begins looking like an A-Main from any other prestigious event across the country, with names like Sammy Swindell, Kasey Kahne, Yeley and Gio Scelzi making it even harder to go from the rear to the front.
But again, it’s been done, once.
All told, it’s a thrilling way to whittle the field down from 309 to 24.
3. WHAT STARS WILL BE MADE ON SATURDAY?
The Chili Bowl makes superstars and turns them into legends each January.
Much of the attention will be placed on who wins, and rightfully so, but there will also be compelling stories down the results sheet on Saturday night.
Last year, it was McIntosh finishing third to Larson and Bell after becoming the youngest preliminary winner earlier in the week.
Simply having a good day puts you on the national map with the racing world being made aware of Larson, Bell and Abreu for their Chili Bowl exploits, but not necessarily because they won.
Giovanni Scelzi, of the NHRA clan, is starting to turn heads as a Sprint Car contender and NASCAR prospect and will begin the alphabet soup from a C-Main. Brian Carber is a 28-year-old who earned his top-flight Keith Kunz Motorsports ride via winning an invitational race at Millbridge — the Giveback Challenge. He also starts from a C-Main.
Blake Hahn, 25, is the grandson of event promoter Emmett Hahn and will be aiming to start his fourth feature after finishing third in the Monday preliminary.
Spencer Bayston garnered attention with a third-place finish in 2018 but has yet to get back to that level in Tulsa. He starts from a B.
Logan Seavey, Cole Bodine, Jacob Denny and Daniel Robinson are all names dirt fans know but contending for a Driller makes them a national curiosity.
Only one driver will earn the Golden Driller, but there will be several winners on Saturday.
4. HOW CHASE ELLIOTT FARES
It’s a cliché topic, but when the reigning NASCAR Cup Series champion enters the Chili Bowl Midget Nationals, it’s a BFD.
For what it’s worth, Elliott has been embraced by the dirt midget community, and it wasn’t that much of a challenge.
The 25-year-old still carries himself with a modest unassuming demeanor. Before making way to Tulsa for Chili Bowl, Elliott competed in a midget race at Millbridge Speedway in North Carolina, just one week after returning to his roots with a third-place finish in the pavement Super Late Model Snowball Derby.
All of that is to say that Elliott is a friend to the grassroots community.
He’s taking this endeavor seriously and he wants to try it again regardless of how Saturday night goes.
“I would love to come back and do more of this kind of racing and not necessarily at the Chili Bowl,” Elliott said. “The guys who are really good at this don’t just show up at the Chili Bowl. They race all year long and they get in these cars as much as they can.
“That’s what you need to do to be competitive and put in the right amount of effort. If I’m going to do this like I have aspirations to, I’m going to put the right amount of effort and learn the right way, because that’s racing.”
But how will he do?
You’ll probably have to tune in early in the evening to see him as he starts racing from the F-Main, and he has the modest goal of just advancing into the D.
But he’s going to start 15th out of 20 in that feature and will need to finish fifth or better to make the D.
“If I can just transfer out of the F and into the E would be a major plus for me,” Elliott said. “I need to log laps to learn, so hopefully we can do that. If we can go further than that, great.
“But if not, try to run all the laps I can and keep the car in one piece.”
No matter how this goes for Elliott, he brought a spotlight and new audience to the Chili Bowl, and the usual devotees of this discipline have embraced him wholly.
5. FIRST LADY
In the first 34 years of the Chili Bowl Midget Nationals, there has never been a woman to start the main event.
In recent years, largely thanks to the efforts of Toyota Racing Development, that barrier is getting closer and closer to have getting broken each winter.
First, here are the closest women to achieve the feat.
1989: Bev Griffis, B
2005: Michelle Miller, C
2010: Randi Pankratz, C
2014: Harli White, C
2016: Harli White, B
2017: Holly Shelton, C
2018: Holly Shelton, C
The best shot on Saturday will come in the form of 19-year-old Kaylee Bryson. She will start seventh B-Main 2.
Toyota believes they have a potential breakout talent in Bryson, who earned a best finish of third in USAC National Midget competition at Caney Valley Speedway in July. She had one top-five and five top-10s during the 2020 USAC slate with three top-fives and 11 top-10s on the POWRi tour.
BROADCAST DETAILS, START TIMES
FloSport has carried throughout the week a live stream for that includes everything that precedes the pole shuffle, C mains, B mains and A-Main. That includes every race of the ‘Alphabet Soup’ before the television broadcast begins.
A $150 yearly subscription to FloSport is required and that also nets you the All Star Circuit of Champions Sprint Car Series and USAC National Midget Series schedule.
The alphabet soup O mains begin at 10:30 ET, followed by the N, M, L, K, J, I, H, G, F, E and D mains until 7 p.m. ET.
The MAVTV cable television broadcast begins at 7:30 with opening ceremonies. The pole dash is scheduled for 8:15 p.m. The A-Main is scheduled for 11:30 p.m. ET. Everything offered by the MAVTV broadcast will also be available via the LucasOilRacing.TV subscription package. The Chili Bowl is only available for viewing via the $100 yearlong subscription service.
The starting lineups can be viewed here. Autoweek will be offering live coverage via our racing-themed Twitter account.
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