Gallery: Discover the Chili Bowl, a race that rivals Daytona in the hearts of NASCAR’s best
Four years ago, NASCAR star and avid dirt-track racer Kyle Larson stated that winning the Chili Bowl—an annual indoor midget race in Tulsa, Oklahoma—would be a bigger deal for him than winning the Daytona 500.
That hierarchy may come as a shock, but visit the Chili Bowl once and you’ll see why Larson’s statement is far from unreasonable. Prolific drivers, zealous fanatics, spartan tube-frame open-wheel machines, dirt, noise, suds, and speed—it’s all poured into an indoor slow cooker and set to simmer for a week. Contents boil and pressure builds until the checkered flag flies on Saturday night’s grand finale.
A lot has happened to the California-born phenom they call Yung Money since his notorious quote, including a pair of Chili Bowl victories in 2020 and 2021 and his first Cup Series Championship last November. Despite having claimed more trophies on dirt (and on pavement) in the past year than most drivers earn in their entire careers, Larson was back in Tulsa last weekend looking for more. He was joined by nearly 400 other drivers looking to capture clay-clumped glory at the 36th annual Lucas Oil Chili Bowl Nationals.
Just like every winter since 1986, a portion of the oil town’s SageNet Expo Center is transformed into a 1/4-mile dirt bullring, while the remaining footage houses race cars, their trailers, souvenir tents, tractors, tow trucks, and anything else needed to conduct the world’s largest motorsports circus. The main attraction: midget racing. These archaic, mini-front-engine-roadsters have favored the brave since 1933, as only the most daring sardine themselves into claustrophobic cockpits for a shot at the crown. Steering wheel in their lap, legs straddling the torque tube, they toe a throttle whose linkage resembles that of a piano pedal—the spring-loaded arm is anchored above the driver’s foot, rather than on the floorpan. Nowadays, mechanical fuel injection squirts alcohol from the bulbous rear tail tank into an inline four-cylinder race engine. For the sake of weight savings, midgets lack a starter and receive a friendly push from 4×4 trucks to fire off.
Over 15,000 dirt-track faithful squeezed into one of the largest clear-span buildings in the world to watch. They wore masks and visors not only to prevent the spread of COVID-19 but to mitigate inhalation of high-octane alcohol and dust. From the first green flag of the week, fans encircled the tight oval, swinging from the rafters as they hooted and howled for their favorite grassroots gladiators.
Drivers were divided into five preliminary nights, where they competed to lock into Saturday’s 55-lap finale. “You could beat over 300 drivers and still fail to make the main show,” says Toyota TRD–contracted employee John Procida. Like Larson, Procida ranks a Chili Bowl victory above most motorsports accomplishments. He assists Toyota in its driver development path, which often runs directly through the Bowl. Christopher Bell, a native Okie and the most recent Toyota development driver to ascend to Sunday stardom, has won the indoor race three times.
For proven stars like Bell—and his Cup cohorts Chase Elliott, Ryan Newman, and Chase Briscoe—a Bowl victory installs another award on a crowded mantle. For others, like up-and-coming scrapper (and 2022’s eventual winner) Tanner Thorson, a victory in Tulsa might be the key to opening a new door in their motorsports career.
Hagerty’s vice president of media Larry Webster made his midget debut this past weekend, pitching his rented open-wheeler through the gradually banked corners. He made it as far as the K-Main on Saturday, where he rubbed Hoosiers with famed sprint-car ace “Slammin’” Sammy Swindell and subsequently fell from contention. Joining Webster on the dirt was a highly eclectic roster ranging from ages 13 to 70 and including IndyCar icons Conor Daly and Santino Ferrucci, funny car champion Cruz Pedregon, an Oklahoma Sooner cheerleader, and 20-year old female phenom Kaylee Bryson. Will they have that kind of diversity in the Daytona 500 next month?
Click through the gallery to see the sights from this year’s Chili Bowl.