Life in the fast lane
The Chili Bowl Nationals, held Jan. 10-14 at Expo Square, continues a 26-year tradition of top-tier racing that has brought hundreds of the world’s best drivers, and thousands of fans, to Tulsa.
Waylon Weaver has been watching the Chili Bowl for 23 years. If he couldn’t get a seat inside, he would look over one of the fences from outside to get a glimpse of the cars and drivers. He knew even then, at 7 years old, that he would one day be a part of this race.
On Jan. 10, the opening night of the 26th annual Tulsa Chili Bowl Nationals, Weaver’s dream came true.
Every year, two weeks after Christmas, the QuikTrip Center at Tulsa’s Expo Square transforms into a quarter-mile, oval-shaped clay track hosting approximately 275 cars called “midgets.” This is the time of year when winter is interrupted by the loud roar of engines, the smell of rubber and fuel, and the sight of flying mud. On Saturday night, the Golden Driller trophy awaits one driver as the final checkered flag waves after 55 laps. Afterward, 17,000 fans walk away, many wearing the distinctive, brightly colored T-shirts that show the racing world they were the lucky ones who got tickets to one of Tulsa’s biggest annual events, dubbed the “Super Bowl of racing.”
The now formally titled Lucas Oil Chili Bowl Nationals made its debut in 1987 when Emmett Hahn, a local racing legend who went head to head with Ray Crawford in the 1970s and ’80s, and his partner, Lanny Edwards, brought to life an idea inspired by the Tulsa Shootout. Considered the minor leagues of racing, the Tulsa Shootout, now in its 27th year, welcomed drivers from 7 to 65 years old to participate.
Hahn and Edwards wanted to create a showcase for the elite drivers of the sport, an event that would welcome them to make an annual trip to Tulsa. Their race would help Hahn keep his racing dream alive while also creating financial rewards for race organizers and the city of Tulsa as a whole.
To fund the race, Hahn enlisted Bob Berryhill’s Chili Bowl Food Co. as a sponsor, and the event was aptly called the Chili Bowl.
Since then, the event has become much more than a local race. The 2012 Chili Bowl featured drivers and fans from across the country and from as far away as Australia. In fact, out of approximately 275 cars, only 38 were local drivers. According to Hahn, 85 percent of the tickets sold for the race are to people from out-of-state, generating approximately $12 million for the city.
“The Chili Bowl is one of the only events (the other event being the PGA Championship) that every rental car in the city of Tulsa is rented, hotel rooms are filled and don’t forget that all these fans, drivers and crew members have to eat,” Hahn says. “This race makes a huge financial impact on our city every year.”
Talking with fans at the 2012 event, there seemed to be an agreement: The Chili Bowl is the best of the best in racing. A fan from California said she and her family make the annual trip because “this is the race.”
The five-day event includes multiple races starting on Tuesday night and continuing every night until the main event on Saturday. The races on Tuesday through Friday are qualifying events that will determine which 40 of the 275 competing drivers will earn a spot in the final race. This is determined based on points won during the heat and qualifiers.
But racing is not all that is on display during the event. The Chili Bowl also includes a massive trade show — free to the public — where attendees can buy anything from car parts to apparel. The show includes more than 100 vendors and occupies roughly 20,000 square feet.
At noon on Friday, the J.W. Hunt Charity Auction sells donated items, with 100 percent of funds raised benefiting the Parent Child Center of Tulsa. From 1991 to 2011, more than $170,000 had been donated to the center, helping more than 2,150 children.
While racers from around the world gather for five days, organizers spend the previous 50 weeks tirelessly working to ensure that this Tulsa tradition runs much like what it showcases, a well-oiled machine.
The work begins Feb. 1, the day fans can begin ordering their tickets for the next year’s event. The Chili Bowl office employs seven people who work nonstop in roles ranging from ticket sales to reserving spots for trade show vendors.
“It takes the entire year to prepare for this race,” Hahn says. “We want to make sure the 11,000 fans, drivers and crew members have a smooth ride. This race is a different animal and we only want to make it better every year.”
The 26th annual Tulsa Chili Bowl Nationals was held Jan. 10-14. The event welcomed 259 competitors from 32 states, as well as Australia, Canada, Finland and New Zealand, who competed in a total of 20 feature events, according to the Chili Bowl website.
Wandering around the enormous area at the 2012 event, the racing community had clearly become an extended family. When someone needed a tool, a spare tire or just manual labor, race neighbors came together to help one another out. This is the very atmosphere that keeps racers coming back year after year, families in tow, according to the ticket sales office.
But the event is a playground for racecar drivers of all kinds There were national superstars, such as Nascar champion Tony Stewart, who has won the event twice, and Chili Bowl legends, such as seven-time winner Sammy Swindell and his son, Kevin, who returned in 2012 as the reigning champion — already boasting back-to-back wins.
The pits at the Chili Bowl were equally impressive. Outside the trailers, drivers and their crews tirelessly tweaked the cars, polishing and pushing them down pit row to the ultimate goal of racing in one of the most unique and prestigious races in the country.
Each day leading up to the main event, the electricity in the air grew. Fans inhaled fumes, endured the deafening sounds of the cars circling the track and got pelted by dirt clots and wet mud race after race. But all of them would say that they would relish the chance do it all again.
As Saturday approached, Donnie Ray Crawford was considered a contender to win it all. The grandson of Tulsa racing legend Ray Crawford was carrying on the family tradition, along with Blake Hahn, grandson of Ray’s former rival, Emmett. However, rather than racing as adversaries, the two competed on the same team, Hard 8 Racing. They had both qualified for the main event earlier in the week, but early Saturday morning, the day of the big race, tragedy struck.
At 24, in a shocking change of events, Donnie Ray was shot by his grandfather, who was also killed.
Emmett Hahn says he can recall only two racers during his 50 years in racing whom no one had anything bad to say about. Donnie Ray Crawford was one of those. To honor Crawford, Hahn offered a tribute before the main event that included a video of the young racer from a previous Chili Bowl. The racers in the main feature also drove five additional laps, for a total of 55 — Crawford’s race car number in the sprint car racing division, in his honor.
The news of Crawford’s death seemed to draw the breath out of the QuikTrip Center and the entire racing community. But as most families do, everyone wiped the tears, pulled together and displayed a loving tribute to Crawford as the 2012 Chili Bowl came to an end.
Kevin Swindell, a 22-year-old from Germantown, Tenn., won the Chili Bowl for the third consecutive year, beating his father, Sammy, a five-time Chili Bowl champion. More than 17,000 fans crowded the QuikTrip Center to witness the win.
Waylon Weaver also lived his dream. Although he didn’t win the Golden Driller trophy, he looked up after his final race with a big smile on his face and simply said, “That was fun.”