Bruce Yentes

Bruce Yentes

It all begins on a Tuesday with a dizzying array of heat races and features held nightly on a makeshift, 1/5th-mile indoor dirt track on the floor of the River Spirit Expo Center at Oklahoma's Tulsa State Fairgrounds.

With more than 360 cars entered, by the time Saturday rolls around the race director is nearly forced to borrow from the Latin, Greek and Roman alphabets in order to identify all of the B-Main, C-Main and D-Main, etc., qualifying events on "championship night."

To hardcore dirt track racing fans, it's known as "racing nirvana." Joining them annually at the expo center are the less strident and the simply curious who help swell the crowd up to 15,000 nightly and as many as 20,000 for the finale.

To all, it's known as the Chili Bowl, a midget racing extravaganza started nearly 30 years ago that's blossomed into one of the largest indoor motorsports events in the world. 

"The experience, in itself, is a neat deal," said Elkhart's Chris Urish, quickly noting the "bucket-list" appeal of the event. "If you've never done it, you have to do it at least once."

Urish is a Mount Pulaski High School graduate and a competitor in the MOWA Sprint Car and USAC Silver Crown series ranks. He was among a record 365 drivers, a number from Illinois, who in mid-January vied for the "Golden Driller" trophy, a replica of the 76-foot statue that stands outside the arena that was built over a half-century ago to host The International Petroleum Exposition.

This past season, Urish won a feature and finished fourth in the MOWA sprint car series. In the Silver Crown ranks, he competes in the one-mile dirt track events at the state fairgrounds in Springfield, DuQuoin and Indianapolis.

He's done very little midget racing, however, and was a bit behind the curve at Tulsa when stepping into a car fielded by Tom Casson of Jacksonville.

"As a team, we're pretty inexperienced," Urish said. "We learn every time we hit the race track. In my sprint car and Silver Crown car, we've got a notebook on the tracks where we compete.

"With this, we don't have much of a notebook and we're in the process of building that. There's a lot of factors that go into it and it's a lot of trial and error until you can get it right."

With the huge field divided into four groups, Urish was assigned to the opening night prelims. His prospects for the week took a hit when he was involved in a crash in his heat race and damaged the car's front end.

He was able to rebound to pass a number of cars and finish third in the night's C-Main. Moving up to the B-Main, he started from the back of the field and again passed a number of cars, but ran out of laps to get around enough to move into the night's featured event.

"We had a fast car that night," Urish said. "We passed a lot of cars and got a lot of track time, but you can't spot that many positions."

The 365-car field was whittled to 25 for Saturday night's main event. Qualifying for the A-Main came through a series of "semi-features" that day that started with the letter "O" for the slowest.

The passing points Urish accumulated on his preliminary night advanced him all the way up to the D-Main on championship night. He finished eighth in the 10-lapper for the highest overall finish for a Pantagraph area driver.

The Saturday night main event was won by Christopher Bell of Norman, Okla., a former USAC National Midget Series champion who competes in the NASCAR truck series for Kyle Busch Motorsports and finished third in that series' standings last season as a rookie.

Bell has won POWRi midget events in the past at Lincoln and Macon.

Zach Daum of Pocahontas, the reigning POWRi series champ, also has won features at both tracks and added a win at Fairbury last summer.

Daum was the highest-finishing Illinois competitor on championship night in Tulsa, finishing seventh in the A-Main. 

Only one Illinois driver has ever won the Chili Bowl. Springfield's Donnie Beechler captured the title in 1995 before launching an Indy Car career that found him race in four Indianapolis 500s, one of them in a car fielded by the legendary A.J. Foyt.

The Chili Bowl attracts competitors from a wide spectrum of motorsports disciplines.

Former World of Outlaws Sprint Car Series champion Daryn Pittman led for much of the finale and finished second to Bell. Perennial World of Outlaws champ Donny Schatz was named the event's rookie-of-the-year.

NASCAR's Ricky Stenhouse, a former open-cockpit competitor and winner of the Tony Bettenhausen 100 Silver Crown Series race at Springfield in 2007, advanced to the feature and finished 14th. His NASCAR cohorts, Kyle Larson, Justin Allgaier of Riverton and J.J. Yeley, all failed to advance to the A-Main.

Reigning ARCA champion Chase Briscoe did make it up the ladder and finished 22nd.

A pair of dirt late model drivers, each a former winner of the Prairie Dirt Classic at Fairbury, entered the event. Tim McCreadie, the Chili Bowl winner in 2006 and PDC champ in 2014, came close to qualifying for the main event, but came up short with an 18th-place finish in one of the B-Mains.

Jonathan Davenport, the 2015 winner of the PDC and the Lucas Oil Dirt Late Model Series champion the same year, had a bit of a rough go of it in Tulsa. Davenport's Golden Driller quest came to an end in the "L's."

Bruce Yentes covers area motor sports for The Pantagraph. Contact him at byentes@pantagraph.com

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