By T.J. Buffenbarger
(January 12, 2022) — We are at the halfway point of the 36th Chili Bowl Nationals with three programs in the books with three to go later this week. Here are my takeaways from the Wednesday night preliminary event at the Tulsa Expo Raceway.
• Keith Kunz Racing always comes to the Chili Bow Nationals loaded with cars and talent. Even with 15 entries in this year’s event, there has not been a drop off in their performance up front as a Kunz entry has won every feature event so far this week.
While Kunz has a lot of help fielding all those entries, it is amazing that as long as he has been racing, he still has the drive to put together than kind of effort for races like the Chili Bowl.
With Kunz’s fleet growing every season one must wonder how many cars they can successfully field before some sort of drop off in performance takes place? The number is getting close to where you could run an entire Kunz feature event at the Chili Bowl bordering on needing a B-Main.
I can only hope when I get to Keith’s age that I will have half as much determination a drive as he has for winning.
• Equally as remarkable is Rico Abreu’s five straight preliminary feature victories on Wednesday night at the Chili Bowl. To go through five straight preliminary nights and not have a random car ruin a heat race or qualifier with 70-80 entries taking part, some of which have very limited experience in a midget car, is remarkable.
It is fun to watch Abreu perform in the building that helped launch his career into a different stratosphere of popularity. It is evident how much Abreu feeds off the energy in the building and how the crowd does the same watching him compete. Abreu is one of the most popular drivers at every track I cover him at, but his popularity at the Chili Bowl is next level.
With Abreu seeming to be on top of his game and Ricky Warner coming on to crew chief his sprint car effort for the 2022 season, this could be an exciting year for all of us to watch Abreu perform.
• One of the major stories leading into the Chili Bowl was the lowering of the age so competitors under the age of 16 could complete. Through three nights of competition the under 16-year-old crowd has been competitive but hasn’t drawn any exceptional attention to themselves.
There was some speculation that standout young drivers like Brent Crews, Ryan Timms, and others might be sniffing around a position to lock into Saturday’s feature through the preliminary features.
So far though the veteran drivers have prevailed, but it is not out of the realm of possibility that one of those drivers could make the finale through one of the two B-Mains on Saturday.
• The black flag made another appearance on Wednesday after one of the C-Mains when Sammy Swindell made contact with Caleb Saiz racing for the final transfer position. Saiz spun after a solid tap of Swindell’s front bumper to his push bumper.
This year at the Chili Bowl the black flags have been relatively consistent showing if race officials feel someone is blatantly taken out of a transfer type position, they will act upon it.
Hopefully these decisions remain the exception rather than the norm because I’m sure with putting together an event for over 400 entries the last thing race officials want to do is start judging all the on-track contact.
Since last year I feel Chili Bowl officials have done a good job doing this just enough to control some of the blatant contact we have seen in years past.