BriSCA F1 star Tom Harris competes on the big stage in Tulsa this week at the Chili Bowl Nationals – the ‘Super Bowl’ of Midget racing in the States. NEIL RANDON reports on his bid to repeat an historic achievement of 12 months ago when he qualified for the main event
Former four-time winner Kevin Swindell, who now runs his own team, yesterday summed up the Chili Bowl Nationals in a sentence after his father Sammy, himself a six-time winner, tripped up on qualifying night, finishing 15th in the A-Main feature, and so failed to make a top-two finish to automatically lock himself into the ‘Big Show’ on Saturday night.
“Man,” Swindell says. “This place breaks my heart sometimes…”
And that is the Chili Bowl in a nutshell. The race for the Golden Driller – the trophy awarded to the winner of the 55-lap A-Main feature on Saturday night – is hard-fought. With more than 370 cars competing for 24 slots on the grid for the main event there is always blood, sweat and many tears along the way.
For some, the dream ends virtually before it has even started, while others successfully fight, scrap and battle their way through the heats, qualifiers and finals – in front of 15,000 passionate fans inhaling and exhaling the dust and fumes of the indoor Tulsa Expo Raceway – to line up for the final race of the week against the very best oval racers in the world on this tight fifth-mile clay track.
The Chili Bowl a very big deal in the States. Anybody who is anybody in dirt racing, whether in Midgets, USAC sprint cars or World of Outlaws, travel from around the world to be there.
Drivers have to earn the right to make it to the Saturday night A-Main feature – there is not hiding place here. To do so they compete on one of four qualifying nights. From eight-lap heats, they either make it through 10-lap qualifiers and then on to the feature race of that particular night or they are forced to run feature event ‘alphabet soup’. This requires competing in one of two C-Main events, in an attempt to qualify for the B-Main and then hopefully into the A-Main.
Not many succeed.
But last night, one man in particular did – BriSCA F1 stock car star Tom Harris. Finishing one place behind Swindell in the A-Main feature, Harris had earlier begun a bid to repeat his remarkable achievement of last year, when he became the first European driver ever to make the Saturday night A-Main feature in the event’s 33-year history.
Only the first two go through automatically to the Big Show during each of the four nights of qualifying. Last year Harris finished fourth on his qualifying night A-Main and was presented with the Hard Charger award of the night for passing the most cars in the race.
But he hadn’t finished. Harris then made it to the Saturday show by finishing fourth in one of the B-Main events on the night.
Achieving those landmarks made Harris stand out from the crowd. So much so, many of the big names in the sport came up to him afterwards to congratulate him.
He reflected on what it was like to experience that attention in the F1 stock car book Shock and Roar.
Harris was part a four-car East team, his three team-mates being multiple World of Outlaws Sprint Car winner and third in the overall points in 2016, David Gravel, 2014 USAC National Sprint Car Champion, Brady Bacon, and six-time USAC/CRA Sprint Car Champion, Damion Gardner.
“That’s how big the Chilli Bowl is out there,” says Harris. “It’s the one time of year you get the guys from NASCAR, World of Outlaws, Modifieds, all in one place in that one building.”
While his three team-mates were more experienced and bigger names, Harris was the only one of the four to qualify for the A-Main feature.
He was making a big impact, and suddenly one of the stars of the show who was gaining the respect of both his fellow competitors and the US motorsports media.
Not only that, but these big names were giving him a helping hand with his car – there are no prima donnas in this form of racing. Everyone involved in the series is willing to help.
“We had a four-car team and I was the only one who made the show. At the beginning of the week you would have put your money on Gravel, Bacon or Gardner. Not me. After the B-Main on Saturday night we had some oil issues with the car. Well, Brady Bacon and David Gravel were under my car to help try and fix it.
“And while I was putting new tear off strips on my helmet, the PR guy from Bell helmets came over and took my helmet away and came back with new tear offs and a new visor for me. It was overwhelming really.”
“To make the A-main on your preliminary night with 97 cars is good really good, but to make the Saturday show is out of this world. People don’t realise that getting to the B- C- or D- Main on Saturday night you’ve done something pretty special.”
Harris had made a big impact, and suddenly he was one of the stars of the show and had gained the respect of both the media and his fellow competitors.
“Kasey Kahne stopped to talk to me for 40 minutes,” he says. “The first person to come over to me in the car after the A-Main was Kevin Swindell.”Extract from Shock and Roar by Neil Randon
Yesterday, however, driving the PPM Racing #9P car of Scott Ronk, sponsored by J.Davidson Scrap Metals, his night did not begin well. In fact, it couldn’t really have started any worse.
Out in heat four, Harris suffered a flat tyre before the race had begun in earnest, and was forced to pull off the track. Added to which the car had been suffering a fuel problem.
“It was pretty frustrating at the beginning of the night,” says Harris. “We had fuel problems and the car wouldn’t run right, and then I got a flat in the heat…”
While the majority of the other competitors take part in Midget events around the States, or in NASCAR star Kyle Larson and reigning champion Christopher Bell’s case, major championships in New Zealand prior to arriving in Tulsa – the only time Harris ever competes in these 450bhp machines is once a year at the Chili Bowl…
So, rather than gaining some valuable seat time finishing in a position to compete in one of four qualifiers, Harris had the start near the back of the grid in the second of two 12-lap C-Main features.
If he was to progress further he had to finish the 12-lap affair in the top four to qualify at the back of the B-Main.
It had the makings of a long night, but in the 16-car event, Harris surged through the field to finish a storming second behind Shane Stewart from ninth on the grid. It was an impressive drive.
He had begun to find his pace. While the night’s hot favourites, two-time winner Rico Abreu and World Of Outlaws star David Gravel, seamlessly headed towards the night’s A-Main feature, Harris still had plenty of work to do.
In the second B-Main feature, Harris started 14th of the 16 starters. Once again he had to finish in the top four to get on the back of the A-Main grid.
And once again, he made it. From 14th he picked off his rivals one by one to finished fourth after 15 hectic laps. It was a remarkable drive.
And so after staring a disappointing night in the face, having travelled so far to get there, Harris now found himself once again in an A-Main feature on a qualifying night.
Twenty five laps around the clay oval, where the track conditions change virtually with every lap, is hard work – and especially so when you are racing against the best drivers in the world like Abrue and Gravel.
Last night, from 24th – plum last – Harris fought he way through the pack to finish 16th behind the brilliant Abreu – a tremendous achievement in the circumstances, and it gives him something to build on when he lines up in one of the C-Main features on Saturday.
“I’m getting more and more comfortable with the car,” Harris says. “And the guys are getting it better and better every time I hit the track.”
Two-time winner Abreu scored an emphatic victory after a race-long battle with Gravel. Gravel has now made it into his first Saturday night A-Main feature after many years of trying – something Harris achieved before he did.
At four feet, four inches tall, Abreu is small in stature – he was born with achondroplasia, a common cause of dwarfism – but he has a huge heart.
For him the Chili Bowl is THE place to be.
“I don’t get nervous racing anywhere I go,” says Abreu. “But when I walk into this building I get the butterfly feeling in my stomach and I tell myself that is the attraction, the energy this place creates. It just builds with everybody. It’s a pretty special place.”
It certainly is – as we will see later this week.
Neil Randon 2019
Photos courtesy of Colin Casserley