The annual Chili Bowl in Tulsa, OK, is a week-long series of Midget races that draw in drivers from all sorts of other racing series. The temporary 1/4 mile oval track inside the Tulsa Expo Center hosts six days of heats, qualifiers, and preliminary features to funnel them down to 24 drivers in a 55-lap final. Of the nearly 400 entries this year (the 36th), there were 13-year-old rookies, 60-year-old retired former pros, nationally known NASCAR stars, IndyCar drivers, World of Outlaws Sprint car drivers, and local Late Model and Modified drivers from around the country.
Christopher Bell led most of the race, but Tanner Thorson managed to get by him on lap 37 and hold him off till the end. Third (Rico Abreu), fourth (Buddy Kofoid), and fifth (Tanner Carrick) were all Keith Kunz Motorsports Toyota TRD powered cars as well, all of them with Wilwood Brakes. Kaylee Bryson, the first female driver ever in Saturday's A-main, also drives for KKM.
Each weeknight, there are a series of eight-lap heats, which feed into ten-lap qualifiers, 12-lap C mains, 15-lap B-mains, and the 30-lap A-main feature. Saturday, the main event consists of the top two finishers from the five nights of feature races and 14 others who race in through an "alphabet soup" of qualifying races that night.
Everyone was pleasantly surprised to see 17-year-old Daison Pursley in the pits after a crash in November, which many thought might leave him paralyzed. He was not racing, but he was walking normally without crutches or assistance. The accident at the USAC Western World Championship in Arizona had severely injured his spinal cord, causing surgeons to fuse two vertebrae to protect and repair it.
Tanner Carrick won the Monday night feature to advance directly to the Saturday main event, leading the last eight laps. To make the A-main, he had charged from sixth to second in his heat, then fifth to second in the qualifier, placing him on the outside pole to start.
Tanner was biding his time just behind the leaders for the first 20 laps until they tangled, and he inherited the lead. Then it was just clean driving keeping him out from, more than a second ahead of the next fastest car. However, on the victory lap, Tanner took a tumble just past the start-finish line but was uninjured and landed right side up.
Tuesday night's feature was won by 19-year-old 2021 USAC champ Michael "Buddy" Kofoid. He chased NASCAR star and former two-time Chili Bowl winner Kyle Larson, who started on the pole, for most of the race. On a yellow flag restart, Buddy dove low to get ahead of Larson and make it stick. Kyle nearly retook the lead several times but finally dug into the cushion on lap 28 and lost momentum, allowing Kofoid to win by 1.7 seconds.
Kaylee Bryson, the fast qualifier at the Turkey Night Grand Prix, won her heat and finished second in her qualifier, sending her directly to that night's feature. In the feature, she held on for a sixth-place finish, which was good enough to put her in a B-main for Saturday.
Rico Abreu, past Chili Bowl winner in 2015 and 2016, was a force to be reckoned with on Wednesday. He won his heat, and his qualifier, before leading the last half of the 30-lap main, winning that race too. At the line, second place was just .353 seconds behind him. This is the fifth year in a row that Rico has won his preliminary feature.
Turkey Night second-fastest-qualifier, and Oklahoma University cheerleader, Taylor Reimer finished third in her heat, then second in her qualifier, to advance to Wednesday night's feature. During practice laps, she also turned an unofficial lap that may have been a track record! Unfortunately, running mid-pack in the feature with a few laps to go, Taylor went high and dug her wheel into the cushion, landing on her side. After being rolled back over, she still went on to finish 18th and try to make the Saturday feature.
Christopher Bell tied Sammy Swindell's all-time Chili Bowl preliminary feature win count with his eighth Thursday. Bell won his heat and managed second in the qualifier but still had a three-way battle for the feature win. Luckily his car was equally at home in the high and low lines around the track for the 30-lap fight with Shane Golobic and Tanner Thorson. Bell had Thorson on the lap 22 restart, only to lose the lead at the next corner. After yet another restart at lap 24, the two raced high and low until Bell made a pass stick on lap 27 and held on to win by just .380 seconds.
Friday night's preliminary feature was the only one where a Keith Kunz Motorsports driver didn't win, with Justin Grant battling a field rich with NASCAR pros. Ryan Newman finished in the 13th spot, Kasey Kahne finished eighth, and Ricky Stenhouse fought hard to finish in second, just .5 seconds behind the leader.
Grant took the lead at the halfway point from Sam Johnson, who had led from the start, with Stenhouse not far behind. Grant was taking the high line and riding the cushion, when Stenhouse passed him running low on a lap 24 restart, only to have the track go yellow again, undoing the pass. They battled and bumped for the next few laps, but Grant protected the low line forcing Stenhouse to try to pass around the outside, and he couldn't make it happen.
Drivers who weren't lucky or good enough to take first or second place at the preliminary weeknight features can race their way in Saturday. At the Chili Bowl, Saturday's long lineup of features, A through Q, is known as the "alphabet soup". The top five or six finishers advance to the next higher race, meaning it's possible to race all day, 175 laps, before even starting the A-main.
Having won his preliminary feature and the four-lap race among feature winners, Christopher Bell started on the pole and held onto the lead for 36 laps. Coming around the 37th time, though, Tanner Thorson slid under him to take first and hold it for 12 laps, only to have Bell get back around him. But, contact with a lapped Brady Bacon brought out the yellow flag and reverted Tanner to the lead on the restart. Trying the high line to get around Thorson, Bell went a little too wide and clipped the wall, losing momentum and nearly ending up in third, behind Buddy Kofoid.
In the end, Bell was beaten across the finish line by less than a second. Rico Abreu got around Buddy Kofoid to finish third and fourth, respectively. Tanner Carrick finished in fifth in his first appearance in a Chili Bowl main event, beating out two-time winner and NASCAR star Kyle Larson in sixth.
Kaylee Bryson didn't advance directly to the Saturday A-main but raced her way in from the B-main. Starting in 10th, she raced to the front and won the second 20-lap B-main Saturday night. By starting the A-main, Kaylee made history as the first female driver to make it to the big show. She finished 18th out of 24 cars.
Now 66 years old, three-time World of Outlaws champ Sammy Swindell drove more laps than anyone Saturday after failing to make the feature on his preliminary night. Wednesday, he DNFed in his heat, raced from sixth to second in the D-main, then was disqualified for rough driving in the C-main. That put him in Saturday night's "alphabet soup", with a long road to the feature. Showing veteran skills, he raced from seventh to third in the N-main, 13th to third in the M-main, 11th to second in the L-main, 12th to third in the K-main, and 11th to fourth in the J-main, before contact with another car caused him to DNF the I-main. In all, he raced 50+ hard laps Saturday without even making the feature.
All images are courtesy of Keith Kunz Motorsports or each driver's social media.