The 30th annual Lucas Oil Chili Bowl Nationals roars to life in Tulsa, Oklahoma early next week with a record 335 entrants looking to find their way into Saturday’s prestigious A-Main. Of those 335, only 24 will make it through the qualifying races and Alphabet Soup features to start the 55-lap grind.
51’s Third Turn has the only complete, organized history of the first 29 runnings of the Chili Bowl Nationals, which you can view here. With the entire history of the event at our disposal, we’re able to compare some of the all-time greats and imagine what it would be like if we could create a starting field just of the Chili Bowl’s past heroes.
So, here it is: Your dream 24-car all-star starting field. These rankings were created by placing extra emphasis on what a driver has done specifically in the Chili Bowl. For instance, all 19 winners of this race are included. But the specific placement of each driver (and the selection of the five best non-winners) also relies upon what that driver’s overall career looked like and the impact they had on racing as a whole. You can click on each driver’s name to view their specific Chili Bowl historical stats.
24. Jason Leffler
Leffler never won the Chili Bowl in 11 starts in the event but he came awfully close in 1998, the height of his Midget racing career. Leffler started first that day and had an epic duel down to the checkered before losing out to Sammy Swindell. He also finished fifth in the event in 2004.
Leffler’s Midget career was prolific, winning the USAC National Midget title three years in a row (1997-1999) and adding the USAC Silver Crown title in 1998. He also grabbed the prestigious Turkey Night Grand Prix twice. Leffler made one start in the Indianapolis 500 and captured one NASCAR Camping World Truck Series victory and two NASCAR XFINITY Series wins before tragically passing away after a Sprint Car crash in 2013.
23. John Heydenreich
Heydenreich has a rather strange streak going on. Since winning the 1990 running of this race, Heydenreich has made exactly zero more A-Main appearances in this race despite attempting at least a dozen more times.
But just because he’s been snakebit in Tulsa doesn’t mean Heydenreich’s career can be discuounted. He won the 1987 Hut Hundred (Terre Haute, Indiana), which was probably the most prestigious Dirt Midget race in the country until the Chili Bowl began to surpass it at the turn of the century. He also has a handful of wins in the USAC National Midget ranks to go with plenty of experience and solid runs in the USAC Silver Crown cars.
22. Jerry Coons, Jr.
Coons is another driver who has yet to break through to Chili Bowl victory lane, but it’s certainly not for a lack of trying. His 16 starts in this event are the second most all-time, with two top-five finishes and six top-1os.
The Arizona native is one of just five drivers to win the “USAC Triple Crown” in his career, taking national championships in the Silver Crown, Sprint Car, and Midget ranks. He won a qualifying race last year to start on the pole in the A-Main, ultimately fading back to 13th late.
21. Danny Lasoski
Another driver whose career is plenty full without a Chili Bowl Nationals trophy (though he’d certainly like to come change that someday), Lasoski has 14 appearances in the Chili Bowl A-Main and finished runner-up in three of them (97, 01, and 05). A total of eight top-10 finishes in the A-Main ranks tied for third all-time.
Lasoski is best known for his efforts in the bigger Sprint Car classes however. He has won 89 World of Outlaws features all-time and was the 2001 champion. He also has brought home four Knoxville Nationals and is the all-time feature victory leader at the famed Knoxville Raceway (IA). In his career, he has over 400 A-Main wins.
20. Scott Hatton
The 1988 champion of the Chili Bowl, Hatton hasn’t made an A-Main since 2004 and hasn’t competed in the race since 2011. The Roscoe, Illinois native has scaled down his racing in recent years but has plenty of USAC National Sprint car victories to his credit as well as quite a few triumphs in the POWRi Midget ranks.
19. Donnie Beechler
Beechler was one of the dominant forces of the Chili Bowl during the mid-90s, scoring three straight top-four finishes including the 1995 victory in Tulsa. Beechler is known to most open-racing fans for his stint in the IndyCar Series at the turn of the century, scoring two podium finishes and sitting in sixth place in the 2000 IRL points. Since leaving IndyCar, Beechler has mostly stayed off the map with his last Chili Bowl appearance coming in 2004.
McSpadden, a member of the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame, won the 1991 running of the Chili Bowl and followed it up with a second place finish the following year. The “Tempe Tornado” had a long and prosperous career on the West Coast. He racked up nearly 200 A-Main wins during his 26-year career, highlighted by three Western World Sprint Car championships (78, 93, 95) as well as the Belleville Nationals Midget title in 1992.
17. Billy Boat
The 1997 champion of the Chili Bowl, Boat was a force to be reckoned with in the Sprint Car ranks before moving onto the IndyCar arena. He dominated the USAC West Coast scene during the 1995 season, grabbing 11 straight wins as well as the Turkey Night Grand Prix midget show. After his Chili Bowl victory, Boat made his first Indy 500 in ’97 and captured his first IRL race in Texas in 1998. He now is aiding his son, Chad’s, effort in the Midget and NASCAR ranks.
16. Jay Drake
The 2001 winner of this race (to go with a pair of runner-up finishes), Drake remains active in the Midget scene but mostly from a team management perspective these days. His driving career though was filled with plenty of accomplishments and titles – 1990 & 1991 USAC TQ Midget champion, 1996 USAC Western States Midget champion, 2000 Indiana Sprintweek champion, and 2004 USAC National Sprint champion. He’s also a multi-time runner-up in the USAC Midget Series and the USAC National Sprints (before his 04 breakthrough).
15. Damion Gardner
The California kid won the 2008 Chili Bowl, his first start since 2003 after failing to qualify for the A-Main four consecutive years. The four-time USAC/CRA Sprint Car Series champion, Gardner has been a heavyweight on the Left Coast for the past dozen years. His wins list includes some of the most famous dirt tracks in the region: Perris, Manzanita, Skagit, Bakersfield, Tucson, and Calistoga. He enters this year’s Chili Bowl with a lot of momentum after eight CRA victories in the ’15 title season.
14. J.J. Yeley
Another famed driver who has yet to record a Chili Bowl trophy, though that is a lone blemish on an otherwise spotless career. Yeley’s certainly come close though – a 2nd in 2007 and a 3rd in 2004 highlight his competitiveness in this event. He entered national attention in 1998, finishing 9th in the Indy 500 in one of his first starts in the full-bodied Indy Cars.
He strengthened his résumé with 2001 & 2003 National Sprint, 2002 & 2003 Silver Crown, and 2003 National Midget Series titles. His ’03 effort marked just the second time a driver accomplished the USAC “Triple Crown” in the same season. With nearly 500 NASCAR national series starts since then, it’s easy to see why Yeley is ranked so high despite not winning a Chili Bowl yet.
13. Tim McCreadie
One of the most versatile drivers to ever lift the Golden Driller, McCreadie went from Big Block Modifieds to Midgets to record the 2006 Chili Bowl title. That same year he captured the World of Outlaws Late Model Series title, a circuit he’s won on 29 times. He’s tacked on a few victories in the Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series, NeSmith Late Model Series, DIRTcar 358s, Super DIRTcar Big-Blocks, and ULMS Late Models. Tack on a few NASCAR national series starts, his experience in the TQ Midget Indoor specials, and an ARCA runner-up at Michigan, and it’s hard to argue with McCreadie being highly ranked.
12. Rico Abreu
The defending (and ultra-popular) defending winner of the Chili Bowl, it’s hard to believe Abreu has only been racing at the Midget and Sprint ranks for less than five years. He broke out in a big way in the 2012 season, winning the USAC National Midget ROTY Award with victories in the Belleville Nationals, Johnny Key Classic, and Eldora 4-Crown Nationals. He racked up his inaugural World of Outlaws win in 2014 to go with the USAC National Midget championship. And then of course, there was 2015 with the Chili Bowl win, an IRA Outlaw Sprint win, two more World of Outlaws win, a NASCAR K & N Pro Series East victory and his first appearances in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series. Expect more big things from Abreu in 2016.
11. Bryan Clauson
Six starts into his Chili Bowl career, Clauson has yet to finish out of the top-10 including his 2014 triumph. Just 26, Clauson’s career has already spanned what would take many decades to accomplish. He was the youngest driver to win a USAC National Sprint race back in 2005 and in 2006 became one of just two dozen drivers to win a USAC National Sprint/Midget doubleheader race. He’s won in ARCA, competed in some NASCAR XFINITY Series races and claimed the 2010 USAC National Midget title. Just one of many, many talented and well-rounded racers on this list.
10. Dan Boorse
Dan Boorse’s career is solely highlighted by the Chili Bowl triumphs, but it’s hard to argue against a driver who won two Chili Bowls – 1999 and 2003 – deserving a spot in the top-10. His heyday came in the mid-1980s, running for the USAC National Midget title with a few strong points finishes and a pair of victories in the famed Angell Park Fireman Nationals. But some severe injuries to racing father Don left Boorse on the sidelines for a number of years in the early 90s and his Chili Bowl success came as an outlier on a career he put on the backburner for the family business.
Speed51 readers may easily think this is the Andy Hillenburg of ARCA championship and Rockingham ownership fame, but this Andy Hillenburg has been a terror in the Oklahoma Midget and Sprint ranks for many years. Three Chili Bowl podiums for the native Sooner put Hillenburg into the Midget conversation in the mid-90s with his 1994 victory highlighting this stretch. His 30 career World of Outlaws wins rank as 15th all-time though a promising career was cut short by a wicked wreck at Eldora and a lack of funding. He has not strapped into the wheel of a race car to the best of our recollection since a failed attempt to qualify for the 02 Chili Bowl.
8. Dave Darland
Our highest ranked driver who has not won a Chili Bowl, Darland is certainly in the conversation to shed that label in 2016. He’s racked up five top-fives and eight top-10s in 15 Chili Bowl A-Mains. He gets an extra boost up these rankings because he’s another one of the driver to complete the USAC Triple Crown of National Championships in a competitive career that’s pushing on two dozen years. He owns the all-time wins mark in the USAC National Sprint Championship ranks, an incredibly impressive feat for a division that’s been running for 60+ years. He also holds the record for winning a USAC National Championship race in at least one division for 23 straight years. He’s also won two Belleville Midget championships.
7. Tracy Hines
The 2005 Chili Bowl champ just pulled off what Jeff Gordon came so close to doing – winning a national championship and then deciding to call it a career. His Midget title this past year put him in that USAC Triple Crown company – A Silver Crown champion in 2000, a National Sprint Car champion in 2002, and a National Midget champion in 2015. The Chili Bowl victory came during a strong run of success in the event where he recorded 6 straight top-tens.
The 2000 and 2004 Chili Bowl titlist, Kruseman has earned his spot in this list with a track record that includes four additional Chili Bowl podiums. The former SCRA & USAC/CRA Sprint champion has wins in 10 different major touring sprint or midget series races and bolstered his credentials with a major driving school that has groomed some of today’s best talent and starts in NASCAR Trucks and the Indy Racing League.
5. Rich Vogler
One of the greatest Midget drivers of all time, Vogler holds the honor of being the inaugural victor in the Chili Bowl. He also finished fourth and fifth in his only other two appearances in the event. It was just one of many major events Vogler claimed the checkereds in – eight Hut Hundreds, four Eldora 4-Crown Midget titles, a Night Before the 500 in Indy and the WWAR Florida Winter Nationals crown in 1983. He won 134 total USAC National Touring Series races, claiming two USAC National Sprint titles and five USAC National Midget titles.
Tragically, Vogler lost his life in a Midget race at Salem Speedway in 1990, the day before he was scheduled to make his NASCAR Winston Cup Series start. Because he was leading and the race halted due to the wreck, Vogler was credited with winning the race that ultimately cost him his life. His death marred Midget racing for many years, robbing it of its iconic great much the same way Richie Evans and Dale Earnhardt’s deaths clouded their respective NASCAR circuits.
4. Dave Blaney
Blaney won the Chili Bowl in his first appearance (1993) and tacked on three straight top-four appearances during his brief stint in Tulsa. Tulsa, of course, was not the only place he tore up the track in another stunning multi-discipline racing career. In just his second full season of racing, Blaney captured the 1984 USAC Silver Crown title. He moved on from there to rack up 70 World of Outlaws victories (eighth all time) and the 1995 WoO title. And while brother Dale has owned the All Star Circuit of Champions, Dave managed to pick up 46 ASCoC wins in his own right. Plenty of NASCAR experience (nearly 600 national series starts) dominated the latter part of his career – including his first career XFINITY Series win in 2006 – but Blaney continues to race competitively in sparing Sprint appearances.
Hard to believe the only driver to ever win two straight Chili Bowls – and managed to win it four years running – ranks third on the all-time great list. Not to mention his six total podiums and a worst finish of sixth in seven A-Main start. But such is life when you’re racing in the most competitive field in Dirt Midget history. He’s also tacked on wins in the World of Outlaws and ARCA Racing Series plus made starts in NASCAR’s Sprint Cup and XFINITY Series. The greatest thing going for Swindell though is this year’s Chili Bowl will mark his return after overcoming a severe injury in a hellacious crash at Knoxville in August.
2. Tony Stewart
Tony Stewart’s career is unrivaled in racing history. He makes this list because he’s won the Chili Bowl twice – 2002 and 2007. He ranks higher than four-time champ Kevin Swindell because it’s impossible to argue that Stewart’s overall body of work is so well-rounded. He was the original driver to win the USAC Triple Crown with a Sprint, Silver Crown, and Midget title in 1995. He went on to win the 1997 Indy Racing League title and then decided it was time to move on to NASCAR, where he has 48 wins, 300 top-10s and three championships.
He owns and promotes Eldora Speedway, dirt racing’s Mecca. runs a four-car, title-winning NASCAR championship winning team, owns and promotes the All Star Circuit of Champions and is also a World of Outlaws-winning championship owner. We could expound another ten paragraphs about Stewart’s accolades but we could probably do the same for Mr. #1, who is…
Hard to dispute putting the Chili Bowl’s all-time event winner at the start of the pack. Swindell has won the Chili Bowl five times in his illustrious career – 1989, 1992, 1996, 1998, and 2009. “Slammin Sammy” has plenty more firepower in the overall career realm to vault him to the top of the list – 294 World of Outlaws career wins (second all time), three World of Outlaws titles, and a number of prestigious NASCAR starts under his belt, including a Daytona 500 appearance.
But Swindell’s Chili Bowl credentials go beyond his five wins. He leads every major statistical category – 13 total podium finishes, 17 top-10s, and 22 A-Main appearances. Last year, at the ripe age of 59, Swindell contended for the win before settling for fifth. He’s entered for the 2016 edition as he looks to prove his competitive edge remains as fierce as ever.
-By Tim Quievryn, 51’s Third Turn – Twitter: @thethirdturn