There is something truly majestic about the annual Chili Bowl. Every year, more and more of the best drivers on planet Earth pile hundreds of race cars into the Tulsa Expo Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma, to duke it out every night for a week. Out of about 400 drivers, only 24 will make the main event on Saturday. The intensity truly smokes from the building. Every single person there has something to prove. By winning the Chili Bowl, a driver can immediately establish themselves as one of the best in the world. Walking through the pit area, you can feel the rumble of heartbeats just as strongly as the rumble of the engines.
The type of race cars driven are called midgets. They primarily race in the Midwest and California, and they are some of the wildest mechanical beasts that have ever been built. They manage to hold about 400 horsepower in the 800–900 pound race car, which, in other words, means that they are extremely fast and extremely light. The track inside of the Tulsa Expo Center is a 1/4 of a mile dirt track, which also is one of the smaller tracks that the midgets race on.
NASCAR racers like Chase Elliot, Kyle Larson and Christopher Bell were a part of this year’s event. The lineup also included NHRA, World of Outlaws, IndyCar, USAC Sprint Cars, as well as many other drivers from the most elite divisions and organizations in the world. Some of the most fearless and driven racers in the world duel every night leading up to Saturday, where only the top 24 drivers compete in the 55-lap finale race.
The schedule of the first night, Monday, includes two rounds of qualifying races that set the lineup for the night’s A-Main. The schedule is the same for the remaining nights of the week. Out of the about 75-85 drivers competing each night, only two are selected to be locked into the final showdown. The drivers that do not lock into the main event are forced to run what are called lower mains.
While the A-Main is the primary race of the night, drivers that do not qualify straight into the A-Main after the qualifying races run B-Mains, C-Mains, D-Mains, etc. Usually, the top 4-6 drivers are taken from each lower main into the next main. For example, if someone finishes second in the C-Main, they will advance to the B-Main. If this driver were to also finish in a top spot of the B-Main, they would advance to start toward the back in the A-Main. Given the massive number of cars that enter the race in the Chili Bowl, a bad qualifying night could put somebody as far back as a Q-Main on Saturday night’s main show.
To racers, there is simply nothing more magical and validating than doing well at the Chili Bowl. All of the grueling hard work put into their pristine machines and all of the literal blood, sweat and tears that go along with it can be ruined in just a split second by one 100-mile-per-hour mistake. Or it can all pay off with a ticket to the biggest race that has ever graced the century-long history of motorsports.
What is even more compelling about the event is that these drivers are racing for virtually nothing. The best midget race car money can buy is anywhere from $40,000 to $60,000. This is not even to mention the cost of the trailers and equipment needed to make a racing team work. What does the Chili Bowl pay to win? A measly $10,000. While it is unfortunate that such a large event pays so little, it also goes to show the dedication and love racers have for their sport. They are not racing for any incentive other than to prove themselves to the world.
The Chili Bowl happens at the beginning of every year and has been going strong since 1987. There are only a few drivers that have managed to win it on multiple occasions including Kevin Swindell (4), Sammy Swindell (3), as well as Tony Stewart, Kyle Larson and Christopher Bell, who have all found a way to win the event twice. This year, a new driver by the name of Tanner Thorson found a path to the famous Golden Driller trophy. This year, he was the grand warrior of the war in the most intense Chili Bowl yet.
Another notable aspect of this year’s event includes Kaylee Bryson’s tremendous feat. After winning the extremely prestigious B-Main, she found herself the first woman to ever reach the main event of the Chili Bowl. This is not surprising. Bryson has been a growing force of nature in dirt track racing for the last couple of years, and it seems as if she is beginning to master her abilities as there is no other possible way to make this race without an insurmountable amount of skill. Expect her to be a household name soon enough.
While you may have missed this year’s Chili Bowl, be sure to tune into next year’s event. The fearless, heartful, passionate nature of the event is not to be explained, but rather felt. Every single lap is the race of every driver’s life, and it is evident even to those not familiar with dirt track racing. There are so many colorful personalities to get to know, and always a moment of absolute mayhem to keep the average viewer entertained. Beyond that, it will be the reason you fall in love with the sport of racing if there is ever meant to be a reason. This race is truly spectacular, and as dirt racing continues to become one of the fastest-growing sports in America, it is only right that you jump in on the fun and give it a try.
Make sure you witness the 2023 Chili Bowl, support your local dirt racing tracks, and before you say, “It’s just left turns,” just remember that you can always go drop tens of thousands of dollars and put your money where your mouth is.