How did midget racing become a full contact sport? To anyone watching over the years, the shift has been obvious, and more and more drivers are openly expressing concerns as well.
It was always understood that “rubbin’ is racing” and “trading paint” were terms that applied to stock cars, not open-wheel racing. But today, seeing drivers either deliberately punt another driver to gain a position or to launch careless “slide and pray” banzai attempts at slide jobs has become common.
It may have begun years ago at the Chili Bowl – ironically, the biggest and most prestigious midget event of the year. It is also the event that helped revitalize midget racing, as car counts for midget events were dismal for years, so its impact and influence on the sport is huge.
While fans know the Chili Bowl as some of the most exciting racing of the season (in all of motorsports), in the pits, the saying, “If you aren’t beatin’ and bangin’ you aren’t Chili Bowl racing” has been around for years.
Part of the appeal of the Chili Bowl is that the track is a small bullring, and over time there became a perception among many racers that due to the track size it’s safe to make contact in order to gain a position. I’d like to think that the term “Chili Bowl racing” would bring to mind three-wide action, with cars passing on the bottom, in the middle, and on the top.
However, over the years many racers grew to believe that “Chili Bowl racing” was a hyper-aggressive form of full contact sport; whatever it takes to make the pass.
After the majority of wrecks at the Chili Bowl, cars are rolled back over with either minor damage, or oftentimes completely unscathed, and are pushed back off without even a single bent radius rod. There have been relatively few serious injuries over the 35-year history of the event.
Combine that with well over 300 entries and only 24 spots in the Saturday night A-Main, and drivers feel justified in making aggressive moves they would never dream of attempting at more dangerous speedplants like the Belleville (Kan.) High Banks or Ohio’s Eldora Speedway.
To be clear, I don’t blame anyone connected with the Chili Bowl. If Emmett Hahn had begun attempting to issue judgement calls after accidents, the event would have been ruined. When you put multiple race cars in a confined space and run them as fast as you can, there will be accidents.
How could anyone attempt to discern what the intent of each driver was who was involved in each incident – making instant judgement calls regarding whether or not contact between two cars was intentional or accidental and issuing penalties – without quickly creating massive controversy and destroying the entire event?
The Chili Bowl has certainly not been the only midget event to see controversial contact over the years. It’s simply the only event to have a phrase like “Chili Bowl racing” attached to it in that context. These days, racers are “Chili Bowl racing” at every midget event.
It has always been understood that contact between two sprint cars, Silver Crown cars, midgets, micros or minis doesn’t result in “donuts on the door,” but instead results in flipping your ass off, or someone else’s. All of racing is dangerous, but everyone with an IQ higher than that of a pencil eraser has always understood that sprint cars and midgets present a greater risk of injury.
Midget racing’s highlight reels are spectacular compared to those from the stock car divisions.
If you’ve been around the sport for any significant length of time, you’ve seen racers seriously injured and likely even lost friends. So, launching the “I don’t care who I take out” slide job to gain a position is always a dumbass move. And, that applies regardless of the significance of the event.
We may look the other way sometimes when drivers are vying for the checkers on the white flap lap of a premiere finale, but we shouldn’t. No race win is worth the risk of hurting or killing another competitor or, frankly, even tearing up another team’s equipment.
As stated in previous columns, in racing we used to have what I refer to as “The Hewitt Factor.” If you pulled an intentional or careless slide job on Jack Hewitt – or any number of other legendary drivers of the day – he’d walk to your pit after that race, and you’d have a shiner for a while to remind you why you should make your on-track moves more carefully and safely next time. It was a valuable deterrent, which taught young drivers not to develop dangerous habits, as one way or another there would be a price to pay.
These days, Hewitt would be arrested for assault and, instead of learning a valuable, lifelong lesson, the other driver would simply become more emboldened in his stupidity and lack of respect for his fellow competitors.
I only raced sprint cars for a few years. But, throughout those years, I was much more concerned about how I would deal with unintentionally causing an accident that resulted in another driver being seriously injured or killed than I did about being injured myself.
At the end of the day, a trip to victory lane is a trophy and a few dollars. You didn’t just bring about world peace or end hunger in our time. Taking out another driver to win a race is not worth it, and not a sign of driving talent. In fact, it’s the opposite.
If you can’t make a clean pass, don’t make the attempt.