Record entrants and record crowds turns Chili Bowl into biggest event of the off-season.
TULSA, Okla. – The 2015 Chili Bowl National was a show for the ages.
With a record 326 entrants and a packed Tulsa Expo Raceway, more than 15,000 fans were treated to a tremendous display of talent from the best midget drivers in racing.
And when the checkered flag fell on Saturday night, Rico Abreu added his name to a list of just 18 racers who can claim Golden Drillers in their trophy case.
A star in the making
From the many young racing enthusiasts carrying around life-size stand-up of the diminutive 4’4” racer around the pits, to the cheers of “RICO! RICO!” and the fans lined up in rows six deep outside the Keith Kunz Motorsports hauler to congratulate the Rutherford, Calif.-native, it’s clear that the engaging Abreu is well on his way.
The support was not lost on Abreu.
“Getting all the handshakes from all the fans and hearing the fans cheer, the fan base I’ve built here is unreal,” Abreu said. “I never thought it would be so big – and then the chanting. Let alone Tony (Stewart) coming up to me after the race – someone I really looked up to and someone I’ve got to be close friends with. I flew here with Tony on Sunday night and we talked about this race the whole flight.
“It’s just so cool for all these people to be a part of it – then to win it.”
Dave Wilson, president and general manager of Toyota Racing Development, U.S.A., is closely watching several of the drivers in the USAC paddock including Christopher Bell and Abreu.
I think there are a couple of guys from this camp that will be doing other things sooner than later.
“I think the world of Rico Abreu,” Wilson said. “He’s a special talent. He’s surrounded by a good team here at Keith Kunz Motorsports – and if you look at the drivers that have come through this organization, Keith really knows what he’s doing. He has a tremendous eye for talent.
“We consider this a development series. This is where the talent comes from. What the future holds? Stay tune. I think there are a couple of guys from this camp that will be doing other things sooner than later.”
While Abreu’s name has been mentioned for a possible candidate for K & N Pro Series team down the road, he says nothing is set – yet. He would like to run Late Model races before moving up into the NASCAR ranks.
Certainly modifications would have to be made with the cars to accommodate Abreu’s frame – which is not as much as a consideration in midgets as it would be with NASCAR’s stringent rules. Abreu has “never really sat” in a stock car, so he’s not sure how it would have to be altered to suit his size. In the midget, the difference is “not much”.
“There’s just some foot blocks underneath my feet that are about two-and-a-half inches tall,” Abreu said. “In the Sprint car there are six-inch blocks and the A frame is moved forward six inches, so there’s a lot of open space behind the cockpit of the Sprint Car and then the midget isn’t much because the cockpit is smaller. It’s easier for me to fit in those cars.
So where does the 22-year-old see his career going?
I think I’ll stay in open wheel racing and if there’s a chance to run some stock cars, I would.
“Definitely racing 100 races each year,” Abreu said. “I just enjoy this sport so much. I get to race every weekend – two to three times each weekend with some great people. I have Keith Kunz to show up and be able to drive his equipment. Then I have Paul Silva and our Sprint Car team. He’s done a phenomenal job building our Sprint Car stuff and we’ve won so many races together. I’m just really enjoying it and I’m really fortunate to be put in this opportunity and you just have to take advantage of it.
“So, I think I’ll stay in open wheel racing and if there’s a chance to run some stock cars, I would. I don’t know what we got going on now, but I’m really looking forward to this year and next weekend and the next weekend in Florida. We have a lot of Sprint Car races and midget races to run this year. “
NASCAR and IndyCar team owner Chip Ganassi echoed Wilson’s sentiments. Although he did not attend the CBNs, Ganassi’s second ever tweet could provide a preview:
Where there’s Smoke…
From Monday morning before the first practice until the checkered flag waved on Saturday night, Tony Stewart was overseeing maintenance on the quarter-mile track.
Over 800 truckloads of clay are brought into the Tulsa Expo Raceway long before the haulers arrive. But there’s the constant challenge of grading the surface and controlling the moisture level so the track is not too wet or too dry. Throughout the weekend it wasn’t unusual to see the three-time NASCAR champ and two-time Chili Bowl winner on a tractor blading the clay, in the water truck or just pacing the track like an expectant father.
As a track promoter and competitor, Stewart understands the importance of getting the racing surface just right.
It’s just one of those event that once you go, you never stop coming.
“It’s just one of those event that once you go, you never stop coming,” Stewart said. “You don’t just go once and say, ‘ok, I’ve seen enough.’ Once you go, you keep coming and coming. I mean, it’s slammed packed. There’s as many people watching in the pits as there is in the stands.”
Although Chili Bowl co-founder and promoter Emmett Hahn believes that sponsor Lucas Oil and the subsequent TV deals have helped expand the audience, he credits Stewart with his undying support over the years.
“He loves this place,” said Hahn. “He came here before Tony was Tony. I love the guy. I remember when he was running IndyCars and was testing in Orlando. That was before he had the jet. He was flying back and forth. He came back on that Saturday for the main event, blew an engine and pulled into the infield. I went over there and felt so sorry for him. He just looked at me and said, ‘Man, I just love this place.’ He really just loves this place.
“Tony has probably helped us more from a spectator standpoint than any one drive He’s promoted it year-round for us. When he shows up, he just helps us at Chili Bowl a lot.”
Stewart’s love for the event has been passed on to younger racers including Abreu. During their plane ride to Tulsa, Stewart raved about the Chili Bowl.
“We talked about how cool this event is and how excited he was to be able to do all the track prep,” Abreu said. “I know he was tickled to death that Emmett let him do that. He was down there prepping the track every night to make sure he got it right and worked with all of us to make changes on the track if we thought there needed to be changes. He was fine with all that.”
The Captain cometh
Leading the list of first-timers to Chili Bowl was none other than Roger Penske who served as the event's Grand Marshall.
At the insistence of truck magnate John Christner, Penske enjoyed the features on Saturday night.
This is a great opportunity to come out and see a lot of these young people that are going to be great stars.
“John Christner is a good friend of ours and we do some business with him,” Penske said. “He’s been a great supporter of this event for many years and to me, this is a great opportunity to come out and see a lot of these young people that are going to be great stars.
“When you think of Tony, Kyle Larson and the rest of them. You never know what I’m going to see. I’m going to have a good time. I like to go racing when I don’t have to worry about my cars, my drivers or my sponsors, so tonight I’m going to have fun.”
Hanh described Penske’s visit to Chili Bowl as “the icing on the cake”.
“To get Roger Penske to take time out of his schedule to come here and see this,” Hahn said. “He told John Christner that when he goes down to Daytona, the Chili Bowl is all the kids are talking about so he had to come and see it for himself. Maybe he’ll be looking at some talent, hopefully.”
Other celebrity sightings including Bobby Unser, Don “the Snake” Prudhomme, Gary Scelzi, Danica Patrick and Kurt Busch, who hopes to move from spectator to competitor in 2016.
TRD’s Dave Wilson was particularly proud of Toyota’s first Chili Bowl win.
“We came here with 16 entries of 326 and eight of them made the A Main,” Wilson said. “So, I just think that’s a testament to the team partners that we have. This is a special win for Toyota on the record books.
“I’m really happy for Keith (Kunz), Pete (co-owner Willoughby), Rico and the whole team here.”
Abreu offered props to his owner and was grateful to Toyota for increasing its support.
“Keith’s team has been phenomenal the last two years,” Abreu said. “He’s gotten his program so good and to be able to race for him is just unbelievable.
"Toyota’s motor package has been great this year and last year. They just keep getting it better and better. Rick Long has been building their engines and it’s so cool what they’ve done. The horsepower and torque that they build into the motors – and they’re great and drivable. I’m looking forward to next year.”