Rolling in the dirt

TULSA, Okla. – Every year, they come to Oklahoma for the muck. The fans in overalls and ball caps spangled in flames and Chevy logos. The kids with earplugs. The Hooters girls. The young drivers strutting in their jumpsuits and the graying vets craning over crankshafts.

They all come to get dirty.

For racing devotees, there's only one place to be in January during the motorsport world's off-season: Tulsa's Chili Bowl Midget Nationals – the biggest, most-eclectic dirt-track race in the country. Car owners plan their year around it. Drivers spurn their regular circuits for it. And the Oklahoma dirt – sweet mercy, the dirt! – flies a good deal higher than an elephant's eye.

It takes less than a minute for a clay missile to seek me out while sitting in the grandstands of the Tulsa QuickTrip Center, the Chili Bowl's massive column-free clearspan home – imagine an airplane hanger about four football fields in length. It hits me in the neck.

Crewmen leave the track.

Dirt is a big part of the Chili Bowl.

"Better than the nuts," the man in charge of the muck tells me later.

Yes, it is.

I'm a racing novice, but in less than a day I grasp what everyone else here has been saying about the Chili Bowl, which takes its name from its now-defunct original sponsor, a local beef-and-bean outfit. The event showcases the finest dirt-track racing anywhere and the most luminous and motley arrays of driving talent and fandom under the sun.

Or, in this case, halogen lights.

Having grown from its humble origins in 1987 to cult status today, the race, in its 22nd iteration, now attracts almost 300 entries, all gassers and gearheads from myriad backgrounds. Many of the racers got their start driving on small dirt tracks like this one – a quarter-mile oval that Chili Bowl co-founder Emmett Hahn calls a "little bitty bull ring."

Some of the racers are now famous.

NASCAR standouts Tony Stewart and Kasey Kahne, both Chili Bowl regulars, arrived here earlier this week. Stewart, a two-time Chili Bowl winner and the defending champ, has sequestered himself from the crowds – more than 60,000 people are expected over the five-day event – while Kahne greets fans outside his team trailer, signs autographs and strolls the pits honeycombed in the expo center behind the track, a unique set up in the racing world.

Crewmen leave the track.

Kasey Kahne at this year's race.

"I came here in 1994 with my dad to watch," says Kahne, who was a rising dirt-track driver at the time. "We had a blast."

From NASCAR stars to drag racing specialists to teenagers looking to take on the big names, the Chili Bowl is an automotive stew, spiced with sectarian bonhomie.

"The competition is as tough as anywhere," Kahne says. "I haven't won yet, but I'm going to keep coming until I do."

It's easy to see why. As fans pile into the arena and the whine of the midget engines rattles the windows and the clouds of burned methanol begin to collect under the ceiling, the excitement grows. The backslapping picks up. Stories are swapped.

There's the one about Stewart winning a Jeff Gordon jacket off someone in a pool game last year and returning it to the loser with a Tony Stewart signature. Or when "Fireball" Hartley flipped his car over the fence and ripped out the seat of his jumpsuit exposing his backside to the crowd. Hahn's favorite is the one about a stuntman named "Smokin" Joe, who tried to drive the pace truck through a flaming puddle of gasoline and ended up singing his hair so badly it started smoking. (Smokin' Joe later died in a stunt gone wrong.)

But mostly there is the chatter of grease monkeys reunited after a year apart. The men have names like Bubba and Gravel and Critter. They talk of the moisture and the crap, of slides and needles, of airspeeds and airmuffs, of chassis dynos and chain drags, of carburetors and sweeping volume. Of things well beyond the layman's ken.

"I race once a year," says team owner Andy Bondio, who's here from California. "The Chili Bowl is the only race that's worth coming to, as far as I'm concerned. … It's the Indy 500. It's the only race where you can build your own stuff."

This year Bondio has entered two of his hand-crafted midgets, one of which will be piloted by NASCAR driver J.J. Yeley. Many other owners have done the same. And many of their cars cost more than the $10,000 purse for winning the race.

"There's people renting cars here that's paying $10,000 just to drive," Hahn says.

For them, Stewart, who is here with his own five-man team, has become a standard bearer – the face of the Chili Bowl. A former champ in midget cars (basically souped-up go-karts with 400 horsepower and roll cages), Stewart calls this race the last one he'd like to run before retiring. He's also used his NASCAR celebrity to bring a new level of publicity to the event.

"It's a race among the best of the best," said Stewart, a two-time NASCAR champion.

Bragging rights, at least until Saturday, still belong to Stewart, who once entered the Chili Bowl under the name "Smoke Johnson."

His bright yellow car has Stewart's nickname, "Smoke," emblazoned on it. And pictures of Smoke clutching his "Golden Driller" trophies abound throughout the arena.

The trophy is a miniature version of the 76-foot tall oil roustabout that looms Bunyan-like in front of the expo center, its right hand resting on a derrick, a symbol of Tulsa's bygone glory days as the "Oil Capital of the World."

Crewmen leave the track.

The 76-foot oilman stands outside Tulsa's expo center.

Today, Tulsa is a storm-tossed hardscrabble town of around 400,000 people. Piles of deadwood line the streets, the result of a brutal ice storm that devastated the region last month. For Tulsans, the Chili Bowl has never been more important. The extravaganza will pump an estimated $10-12 million into the local economy, according to the Tulsa World, making it one of the biggest moneymakers for the city.

"It means quite a bit, and it gets bigger every year," says Doug Spiller, a native Tulsan who's been coming to the Chili Bowl since 1999, when he brought his wife Susan on their first date. Back then, they sat in the cheap seats in Turn 2 where the dirt would fly so hard and so high it would blow out the center's windows.

They come back every January.

"I turned her into a racing fan," Spiller said.

Since it started in 1987, the Chili Bowl has grown exponentially. Back then, there were only 35 cars and the race cost promoters Emmett Hahn and Lanny Edwards $20,000 to put on.

"It would be an understatement to say it was unsuccessful," says Hahn, himself a former dirt-track racer.

According to his son, Steve, "The first few years, you could shoot a shotgun in the stands and not hit a soul."

Not anymore.

As word-of-mouth spread and drivers like Stewart, who entered his first Chili Bowl in 1993, moved on to greater renown but continued to return to their roots, the race attracted more attention. The number of cars has ballooned.

"Everybody's got dreams and aspirations for what would happen," Hahn says. "Not in my wildest dreams would I ever imagine this thing would get to this magnitude. This is not a race. This is a happening."

Part of it is the timing: There isn't anything else happening in January. Part of it is the close confines of the building: You might easily wind up behind Smoke in the cheesesteak line.

But the main reason for the Chili Bowl's success is the current level of talent and the event's grueling qualifying format, which deftly builds tension and packs dozens of races into five days – more action than most NASCAR fans get in a month.

Drivers must first make it through heat laps, from where the best advance to qualifying races. The top qualifying drivers then move on to the main event on Saturday night. Do badly in a heat or a qualifier and you still have a second chance to get in the main event by winning a second qualifier. The race is designed to weed out the weak and unlucky.

"You're never out," Kahne says. "And you're never in."

The event has gained such stature that HBO will broadcast Saturday's main races on pay-per-view this year, beaming what was once a humble Okie race to a nationwide audience.

"We decided to get involved in a big way," says Tammy Ross, vice president of pay-per-view at HBO. "Fans are going to literally feel the dirt hitting their faces because it's going to land on the camera."

HBO initially planned to shoot the race in high definition but decided against it because the amount of airborne muck would cause the cameras to over-pixilate, says Ross.

Which is something I now understand.

It is, after all, hard not to be drawn into the action once you've been personally over-pixilated by some of the 642 truckloads of clay on the Chili Bowl track.

"You gotta get dirty," Spiller explains.

It also helps to declare a rooting interest. On Tuesday, when the rookies and novice drivers run pre-qualifying races, mine is Caleb Armstong. I approach the New Castle, Ind., teenager before his race because he looks younger than anyone in the building. He's 15. Too young to drive on city streets, but old enough to race.

Crewmen leave the track.

Fifteen-year-old Caleb Armstrong

Standing in front of his black "Bullet" chassis midget, he promises me he hasn't forged his birth certificate. He cops to being nervous but doesn't show a trace of it, neither in conversation nor behind the wheel.

For an afternoon, I watch Armstrong whip around the track. The midget cars are menacing little wasp-like creatures, four-cylinders and one gear. They require a push to get started.

Once in motion, they careen around the oval in rugged loops, their back ends rooster-tailing on the turns, the drivers turning into the slide to keep control, then punching the throttle to regain traction. The exhaust pipes belch fire. The power-to-weight ration of the cars makes them pop up on two-wheels at times. There is a crash almost every race, some of them resulting in spectacular somersaults. Two years ago, Stewart flipped twice. The audience gambles on how many flips there will be each year.

But it's impossible to follow everything on the track because the midgets blur past so quickly. I focus on Armstrong. He finishes second in his heat, driving on the inside, smooth and controlled, almost catching the leader and moving on to the next round of pre-qualifying.

In his second race, Armstrong fends off a furious challenge on the outside to finish third. He advances to the main race of the night. Starting near the back of the 25-car pack, Armstrong steadily picks his way past the competition to finish 10th. He qualifies for yet another race on Friday that will determine whether he makes the finals on Saturday, where he might face off against Kahne, Yeley or midget legend Jerry Coons, Jr.

He might even get to stare down Stewart.

"I'll just try to think of him as a normal person," Armstrong says.

You hear that, Smoke?

Luke O'Brien is a freelance writer from Washington D.C.