How Toyota Forged Its Place in the ‘Can’t-Miss’ Super Bowl of Midget Racing

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Photo via TeeJay Crawford

It’s the Super Bowl of midget racing, known as the Chili Bowl Midget Nationals — or, more simply, the Chili Bowl. For five days, the Tulsa Expo Raceway, a quarter-mile clay oval inside of the Tulsa Expo Center, becomes home to some of the best midget racers in the country.

The 2019 event, which took place this past week, is a big one for Toyota, as the manufacturer had 37 competitors with TRD-powered engines on the entry list and has now had a driver win the A-main each of the past five years. This year, it was Toyota’s Christopher Bell who captured his third consecutive win.

“The Chili Bowl is hard to describe as you’re essentially racing under a dome,” said Toyota Racing Development President David Wilson. “The entry list is continuing to grow each year, and the spectacle has gone well beyond just a race in the middle of winter to become a can’t-miss event.”

Toyota has continued to build its support of the event, this year powering 37 drivers across 14 teams. Over the past several Chili Bowls, Toyota has backed nearly 10 percent of the 300-plus drivers attempting to race their way into the A-main on the final night of racing.

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“We’ve had quite a record the past few years,” noted Wilson. “Having powered so many cars and having several with a Toyota engine in the A-main shows that there is a high demand for our engines. It’s flattering, but it’s truly all about the great partnerships that we have.”

One of those partnerships is with Keith Kunz Motorsports (KKM). Kunz hosted the KKM Giveback Classic at Millbridge Speedway to give one lucky driver the chance to compete in the Chili Bowl in one of his midget cars. It was the opportunity of a lifetime for the 140 drivers that were on the entry list.

“Jeremy and Ashley Burnett (who run Millbridge) came up with the idea of the race,” said Kunz. “There are kids and families out there that just don’t have the money to keep advancing up the ladder and buy a ride, so we came up with this idea at about 1 a.m. one morning. Toyota was all-in and we put on a great race.”

The format was standard for an outlaw kart race with qualifying and heat races to determine who advances to the main event. Jesse Colwell won the event and raced in the Chili Bowl for the first time in one of Kunz’s machines.

“Winning the KKM Giveback Classic would’ve been a great opportunity for any racer in the nation,” Colwell said. “Word spread quickly about the race, and soon it was the topic everywhere on social media, at the racetrack, etcetera. The ride on the line was what made the race so talked-about and unique. It was the only thing racers talked about.”

To prepare for the Chili Bowl, Colwell used iRacing, a popular sim platform among racers and even fans.

“I spent time on the iRacing Chili Bowl, which I feel doesn’t hurt. iRacing is a great learning tool, and I think turning laps on that might have prepared me more than ever for the Chili Bowl.”

Christopher Bell, who drives for Toyota team Joe Gibbs Racing in the NASCAR Xfinity Series, won the Chili Bowl in 2017 and 2018, joining Kevin Swindell and Rico Abreu as the only drivers to win two consecutive Chili Bowls. This year, he became a three-time winner with a pass on Larson in the closing laps of the A-main.

To Bell, the Chili Bowl is more than a race — it’s a unique event that he looks forward to every year.

“Each race grows with history, and this race has a ton of history,” he said. “The caliber of drivers and the caliber of the winners is incredible. The Chili Bowl just has such a following of die-hards. We don’t have that in very many other events. At the Chili Bowl, those die-hards, they love it and they love it just as much as I do. Having those people here adds to the atmosphere.”

Bell and Kyle Larson, who grew up dirt racing, both place winning the Chili Bowl as bigger than winning NASCAR’s Daytona 500. Larson, although he doesn’t pilot a Toyota in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, drives for a TRD-powered team, KKM, for the Chili Bowl.

Said Bell about the Chili Bowl compared to the Daytona 500: “For me, personally, because of my background in motorsports and growing up in Oklahoma, the Chili Bowl — that’s what motorsports stands for to me. That was my marquis event whenever I was growing up. It was everything. I didn’t even know as a young kid at four or five years old; I didn’t know about the Daytona 500 or the Indy 500. I knew the Chili Bowl, and that was the top of my pedestal.”

Regarding Larson, although he drives for another manufacturer in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, his midget car is powered by Toyota for the Chili Bowl.

“We’re respectful to circumstances and situations,” said Wilson. “Kyle came up through the ranks with Keith (Kunz) driving Toyota midgets but circumstances didn’t work out later on that he could continue his Toyota relationship. Kyle’s love for dirt racing is huge. His intention is to continue throughout his entire career. We are happy to make accommodations for him if he wants to run a Toyota-powered midget.”

The Chili Bowl is not simply filled with male drivers. In fact, Toyota had three females in the field, including Holley Hollan, who was the youngest driver on the entry list. Hollan knows that despite being the youngest driver at the Chili Bowl, that she serves as role model for female drivers.

“I feel that Toyota has put me in a perfect position to be a positive role model to young and upcoming females in our sport,” Hollan said. “Being a figure on and off the track for youth to look up to has always been a goal of mine. Inspiring others to pursue their dreams while I’m living mine.”

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Hollan drove for KKM and was the highest-finishing female in the 2019 Chili Bowl after advancing to the D-Main. She even had the chance to race against her dad, which was a bucket-list item for the young driver.

“He has truly been my biggest role model from the start. I raced head-to-head with him at Southern Illinois in late 2018. That night, he won the race as well as the POWRi National Championship. It doesn’t get much better than that. I believe that if you want to be the best, you have to race with the best. I’ll always enjoy the laps I get to turn with my dad.”

For Toyota, the goal moving forward with the Chili Bowl is to continue advancing cars to the A-main and winning the event, which is essentially a one-off race, a season of its own.

“It’s a one-race season, and ultimately our goal is to be able to continue partnering with the best teams and advancing as many TRD entries into the A-main and putting our drivers in positions to win that race,” said Wilson.