It would be fun to set Emmett Hahn down for a moment and ask him to reflect on the past 35 years of the Chili Bowl, with a specific focus on the most vexing obstacles he and the late Lanny Edwards encountered over these many years. Which challenge, it would be interesting to learn, posed the biggest threat to the event. Was it the logistics needed to get the inaugural race off the ground? Was it the persistent grouchy neighbors he was perpetually trying to appease? Or how about the air quality control squad complete with quasi-undercover operations.
Those were big. However, one has to believe that the 2021 edition faced the stiffest odds of all. Hahn is a smart man. Rue the individual who thinks otherwise. He can speak in a down home Oklahoma style that can bespeak of just being a humble good ole’ boy just trying to get by. Yet, he has been savvy enough to work with the political movers and shakers in the Oil Capital, and has successfully smoothed ruffled feathers when needed, and secured the backing necessary to keep this great event going.
Certainly those Tulsans with an ounce of civic pride know the importance of a yearly happening that puts a spotlight on their city and helps fill restaurants, bars, and hotels. However, this was going to be a whole new ballgame. Raise your hand if you thought there was no way that this race would be run. Raise your hand if you thought there was no way over 300 cars would sign in to compete for the Golden Driller. Yet, in spite of prognostications of doom, America’s greatest short track open-wheel race was open for business once again.
The tone was set early. Through various media outlets, the rules were made clear. First there would be a reduced number of fans in the grandstands. Second, masks were absolutely mandatory. With the Tulsa Shootout streamed to a nationwide audience, I suspect many – friend and foe – had their eyes glued to the crowd and infield. As intended, masks were ubiquitous. Given the stodgy and independent streak one can find in the average race fan, this was encouraging, if a bit surprising. Once the Chili Bowl began in earnest, one of the most significant moments occurred when a fan was invited to leave the building for refusing to comply with the rules. It was a move that was largely applauded.
It was easy to understand. There was a joint desire to save this race from the axe and keep a wintertime tradition alive. Once it seemed that the overall mission was accomplished, people felt free again to complain about the racing surface, slide jobs, officials’ calls, and the orange cone. In the second decade of the 21st century that’s just what some fans do.
Yet, for those who made it to Tulsa it was different. It seems unusual not to be jostled as one walks down the midway, and the trade show looked more like one found in the early 1990s. Yes, you still had to have your head on a swivel in the pits, but not nearly so much as before. Was there a bit less of a buzz? There was. However, there was nothing Emmett and his hardworking crew could have done about that. On top of it all, they were undoubtedly already frazzled from endless meetings and negotiations.
For those promoters who dream of turning a mere race into a must-attend event, the Chili Bowl covers all the bases. It has to be tempting for some to put pencil and paper in hand and start taking notes. It isn’t that simple. This entire experience is an example of a perfect storm. The building itself is unique and proves to be ideal for the task at hand. The race is in the winter, thus allowing participation by a diverse set of participants. In fact, it has become such a destination race that it is no longer fruitful to methodically broadcast the big names who sign in to have fun. Yes the NASCAR champion was here, but that doesn’t make the average Chili Bowl fan’s hair stand on end. More of those in attendance this year were probably sad that Dave Darland and Cory Kruseman were absent than they were thrilled that Chase Elliott was on the grounds.
What was learned, however, is a primary lesson every promotor should already have burned into their brain. The most important ingredient of all are fans. This year not all could get in and, in a sport that has a fair number of devotees who are gray at the temples, some were reluctant to attend in the face of COVID.
Here the fans aren’t just important to the participants, they are important to each other. The ability to see friends from across the nation is what makes this place and time so special for many. That was lost. However, in the final analysis, the good news far outweighed the bad. A race did go on. As per normal, there were any number of plots and subplots, from the continued showdown between Kyle Larson and Christopher Bell, to Daniel Robinson’s one finger salute to the all-time event champion.
Amazing as it still seemed, cars and teams were safely in the building and wheels were soon turned in anger. Among those slated for night one included former winner Tim McCreadie, 2020 USAC midget champion Chris Windom and his main nemesis Tyler Courtney, former open-wheel regular and now NASCAR Cup series driver Chase Briscoe, and first-timer Carson Macedo. Popular veteran Jerry Coons Jr. was back, along with two drivers who had strong performances in 2020: Blake Hahn and Cannon McIntosh.
With passing points the order of the day, the temptation is to take chances early, and some sadly learn that one miscue in your heat race can wreak havoc on your entire week. Only the top two finishers in each of the five preliminary feature events held throughout the week were automatically locked into the main event on Saturday.
Chase Briscoe and Californian Ryan Bernal were the big movers in heat races, which put them in good stead for the remainder of the evening. When all the preliminaries were done, Bernal was on the pole with Cannon McIntosh alongside. Bernal would lead the first three circuits before McIntosh made a high-side pass in turn two to power to the front. Unfortunately for Bernal, he began drifting backwards and eventually found his way to the work area.
Some of the more interesting action in this race was the battle between Courtney and Hahn, with “Sunshine” able to get the final transfer spot at the end. One of the stars of the night was Tim McCreadie, who began his night in the C-Main but fought all the way back to the eighth position. The other head-turner was Jacob Denney, who finished in the sixth position. The young Buckeye has been a star in USAC’s regional midget series, and his performance on this night has led his Petry Motorsports team to look for more opportunities for the talented shoe this summer.