By T.J. Buffenbarger
The 2024 Chili Bowl Nationals is now in the history books. After five tremendous nights of racing along with a efficient Saturday program, here are my takeaways from the week.
• It’s amazing to watch drivers when they are locked in and performing to the very best of their ability. I’ve managed to see it several times covering the sport. The kind of confidence and ability Logan Seavey has driven with on par with some of the best drivers I’ve seen in the sport.
Seeing what Seavey is doing is a reminder of how important the mental part of our sport is. Seavey has spoken all week about how he is able to drive patiently and make good choices knowing the race cars he is strapping into are that good. While the car quality part of this magical run, Seavey is also on top of his game.
With all the championships and race wins over the past year and a half it’s important for us to sit back and appreciate what Seavey is accomplishing. Runs like this don’t go on forever, and while I don’t think Seavey’s is going to end anytime soon being able to soak in the moments what he is accomplishing now is something all race fans should be doing because we will look back in 10 years and talk about how special it was.
• Daison Pursley might be sitting on the top step of the podium if the rubber had come a few laps later in the main event. Pursley’s charge from 20th to 4th was something my podcast counterpart Derrick Bean predicted and was fun to watch when it was being spotlighted on the broadcast.
It would be hard to imagine in 2022 when Pursley got a sanding ovation for just walking into the Tulsa Expo after injuries suffered in November 2021 at Arizona Speedway in a USAC midget race where it was questioned if Pursley would ever walk again. To see Pursley come back from those injuries and run 15th at Tulsa last year and then put on the charge he did this year is a storyline I don’t think is highlighted enough.
Combine Pursley’s fourth place at the Chili Bowl with all four of his top-10 finishes at the Tulsa Shootout including a second place in the winged A-Class, and I believe that Pursley is going to be one to watch early in the outdoor season in 2024.
• After five days of what I felt was the best preliminary night racing I had seen in recent years at the Chili Bowl Nationals I was expecting to see similar racing to what we witnessed throughout the week during Saturday’s finale. Even with the number of races and cars circulating the rack for the finale, I had some lofty expectations for what the Saturday finale could bring based on the action earlier in the week.
Saturday’s event lived up to that hype right until the 55-lap finale. It was an unfortunate time for the Tulsa Expo Raceway track surface to lay an egg. Even when I attended the Chili Bowl Nationals in 2001 the second night of racing saw a very bottom dominate, dryer track surface that made Emett Hahn feel compelled to personally come to the media room and state how unhappy he was and to tell us we would not see that happen on Saturday, which it did not.
I think the Chili Bowl Nationals team hit on something this week as all five nights leading Saturday were as good as I’ve seen there in at least a decade. Typically, I expect one or two of those preliminaries to have the surface be off just based on the sheer quantity of races. This year when it didn’t happen, I incorrectly assumed we would witness something close to that kind of action in the finale. Even the alphabet mains early in the evening were racing, which looking back should have been a sign that things might wear out towards the end of the night.
The preliminary night issues seem to be handled based on what we saw this year. Now the focus needs to become not laying an egg with the surface on Saturday for the finale. Even if the track is narrow from having too much moisture in it, that condition at least gives more of a chance of making a mistake and leading to some sort of action compared to the track laying rubber across the bottom.
After pondering the situation, a bit how good some of the mains were early on Saturday may have been a sign of what was to come on Saturday. It’s like having good racing early in the night outside only to have the track go single file later in the night. There were concerns yesterday about getting enough water into the racetrack for Saturday’s program because of the quick turnaround, and ultimately the Chili Bowl finale might be a victim of its own success with so many cars attempting to race on Saturday.
One of my favorite sayings is, “They can’t all be classics” and we did get five stellar days of racing. That does make the sting of a rubber down finale much easier from my vantage point.