TULSA, Okla. – A buzzing noise fills the air almost immediately after the drivers floor it and start whirling around a track that has no real backstretch.
There’s a standing room crowd, packed in to see some of racing’s biggest stars go up against the up-and-comers who hope someday to be the next Tony Stewart – or at least finish ahead of him on one night.
Welcome to the Chili Bowl, Tulsa’s annual indoor midget car race that’s entering its third decade and cementing its spot as one of the hottest tickets in town.
“To me, it’s the biggest race of the year. You look at all forms of racing. You don’t get guys from Formula One and Champ Car and IRL to all come together at one race and race against each other and have 60 or 70 cars,” said Stewart, the two-time Sprint Cup champion and defending champion of the five-night racing event.
“But you come here where they’ve got more than 200 cars entered, and they’ve got the best guys from different regions of the entire country.”
Among the Chili Bowl-record 286 entries this year are Stewart and fellow NASCAR drivers Kasey Kahne and J.J. Yeley and Jason Leffler, drag racers Gary Scelzi and Cruz Pedregon and who’s who of dirt-track racers from four-time Chili Bowl winner Sammy Swindell to World of Outlaws star Danny Lasoski. There also are 70 rookies seeking to make a name for themselves.
The Chili Bowl has sold out each of the past three years, and organizer Donna Harris said there could be as many as 25,000 people in the QuikTrip Center – the former Tulsa Expo Center – for Saturday night’s grand finale. Many will pile in without the chance at getting a seat, instead choosing to stand or watch on one of the video screens hanging inside.
“Every year it just gets bigger and bigger, and they never can sell more tickets because it’s sold out every year,” Stewart said. “But the event just keeps growing and growing and growing.”
For the first time, Saturday’s main event will be shown on pay-per-view by HBO, opening the door for even those who can’t crowd inside to experience the smells and sounds of the unique indoor races.
“I don’t want to see people that are successful. I want to see people that are trying to achieve the dreams that they have already got,” said spectator Larry Crocker, who drove down from Jefferson City, Mo. “This is the grassroots for anybody that’s in NASCAR. Right here, this is what made NASCAR.
“You look at all the drivers in NASCAR, where did they come from?”
Kahne remembers first coming to the Chili Bowl with his father in 1993 just to watch. Now, he’s skipping part of testing for the Daytona 500 to chase down his first Golden Driller trophy.
“Regardless of that testing, it’s something that you still want to do and find a way to do it and make sure you can come,” said Kahne, who has won seven Sprint Cup races. “Until I win the race, I don’t see myself not coming here.”
The races, which got their name from the Chili Bowl company that originally sponsored them, got going in 1987 with only about 50 entries. There were 167 racers entered for the 2002 event won by Stewart, and that number has nearly doubled again.
Harris, whose father, Emmett Hahn, is one of the co-promoters, said several domed stadiums have inquired about moving the races to a bigger venue. None offer the unique setup to hold a trade show featuring 125 vendors of racing and sponsors’ merchandise, plus room for fans to walk along aisles of cars lined up one after another under the same roof.
“There’s no other building in the world like this,” Harris said.
Stewart got off to a fast start in Thursday night’s qualifying, leading throughout his eight-lap heat against seven other competitors. But in the night’s 25-lap main event, Stewart ended up fifth, one spot shy of clinching one of the 24 positions in Saturday’s 50-lap finale.
He still can fight back to qualify for a chance at the championship at the quarter-mile clay track. Yeley also wasn’t among the four automatic qualifiers, and Kahne was scheduled to go through qualifying Friday night.
With so many competitors seeking so few spots, “once practice is over, you cannot have one mistake or it will cost you the whole weekend,” Stewart said.
“It’s a lot of pressure, a lot of stress this week, but it’s a lot of fun too,” Stewart said. “You take away the driving side, and the days that you’re not running you’re seeing guys that you raced with and ran around with. You get the chance to see guys that you only see once a year.”
It’s that camaraderie combined with the competition that keeps the big names coming back, and it doesn’t hurt that it’s a break from the regular grind.
“There’s just a bit of everything here, and it’s fun to race against that competition also,” Kahne said. “It’s fun to kind of switch it up and race with guys that do it all the time and guys that hardly ever do it and see how long it takes you to adapt and pick things up.”
For Stewart, it’s even more meaningful because he doesn’t get to return to his roots that often and trade stories with old friends he often doesn’t get to see.
He was up until nearly 5 a.m. signing autographs and running on adrenaline after emerging from a 267-driver field last year for his second Chili Bowl championship.
“If they said, ‘OK, you could only go to one event a year as a driver,’ this is the event I would pick,” Stewart said. “I wouldn’t pick the Indianapolis 500, I wouldn’t pick the Daytona 500, this is what I would pick.”