There is often a debate regarding the relationship between NASCAR and dirt racing. Some would argue that the involvement of NASCAR, whether it be by drivers, teams, or the sanctioning body itself, benefits racing on clay due to the amount of exposure that comes with the more high-profile form of the sport lending its star power. Conversely, there are some in dirt racing who resent the involvement of NASCAR in their favorite type of motorsports because they see it as a somewhat arrogant intrusion of the haves dropping in to take purse money from the have-nots while dabbling in what amounts to a hobby.
One place where that debate does not seem to rage as vehemently is at the Lucas Oil Chili Bowl Nationals held annually each January in the River Spirit Expo Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Numerous NASCAR drivers descend on that location each year to participate in the Midget Sprint Car event that routinely draws 200+ competitors from all over the United States and the world to the makeshift dirt track situated inside that massive complex. As a matter of fact, the last five Chili Bowl Nationals have been won by NASCAR stars with Christopher Bell taking three consecutive “Driller” trophies from 2017-2019 and Kyle Larson celebrating in victory lane each of the past two years.
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In the 2021 version of the event, there were stars aplenty from the ranks of the NASCAR world. Not only did Larson and Bell once again participate but defending NASCAR Cup Series champion Chase Elliott was among the combatants. Ryan Newman, NASCAR Xfinity front runner Justin Allgaier, J.J. Yeley, Chase Briscoe, Garrett Smithley, Brett Moffitt, former fan favorite and multiple-time Cup Series winner Kasey Kahne, and Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. were also among those who strapped in for competition.
Some of those drivers mentioned above got their starts in Midget Sprint Cars or some similar form of racing while others have decided to take on the challenge after reaching the top ranks of the sport.
Due to the timing of the Chili Bowl, it has become one of the most anticipated events on the yearly racing calendar. Not only does it feature a great racing atmosphere with tremendous competition, but it falls during the time of year when fans of all forms of motorsports have reached the height of separation anxiety from the sport they love. And for some, this race provides one of the few opportunities that fans of big-time pavement racing have to be exposed to competition on dirt. That, in turn, raises the awareness and peaks the interest of those who may not have visited or watched action from a dirt track very often.
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Over the past several years, we have begun to see much more of a crossing of paths between NASCAR and dirt. For several years, the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series has stirred the dust at Eldora Speedway in Ohio and will, for the first time, pay a visit to Iowa’s Knoxville Raceway in 2021. NASCAR drivers have also played a part in dirt racing through the ownership of tracks and teams. Tony Stewart, Clint Bowyer, Stenhouse, Larson, and Kahne are among those who have invested money in that form of the sport.
And of course, NASCAR will take the biggest of steps toward the dirt side of racing this season when the Cup Series contests its first race in decades on a clay surface at the newly covered Bristol Motor Speedway.
The strengthening of ties between NASCAR and dirt has been an ongoing process for several years now. The marriage of the Chili Bowl and NASCAR has gone a long way toward the strengthening of those ties.
Richard Allen is a member of the National Motorsports Press Association
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