For years, Chase Johnson strolled down the midway at Tulsa Expo Raceway wondering what it would be like to pilot a midget from one of the powerhouse teams in the Chili Bowl Nationals.
He doesn’t have to wonder anymore.
Aligning with Chad Boat’s CB Industries, the 26-year-old Penngrove, Californian performed right out of the gate with a podium finish in Monday night’s prelim tying a career-best result.
“When I came here for my first Chili Bowl, I had no other previous midget experience,” Johnson said. “I’ve been fortunate to drive for some great teams along the way, but to be with Chad and his team is pretty incredible. Coming here for so many years, you know the teams that run up front and have the best stuff. They normally run great here no matter who is in the car.
“So to drive for Chad is a dream come true. After coming to Tulsa and participating in the Chili Bowl Nationals, there are certain teams you idolize. People who have done great things in this building. Teams that have done great things in this building. And Chad’s team is definitely one of them. To be able to have that opportunity—because it’s not like I’m some kid attending my first Chili Bowl—I do understand what I have in this ride and I’m so grateful for that.”
The fourth-generation racer’s gratitude is genuine. While some drivers take qualifying for Saturday’s 55-lap feature for granted, Johnson knows the struggle is real. In his seven previous Chili Bowl Nationals, he’s only advanced to Saturday’s A-Main twice.
In 2018, Johnson finished third in the Thursday night prelim behind Christopher Bell and Shane Golobic to automatically advance. Last year, he finished seventh in the Tuesday night prelim, came from 12th to sixth in the first B-Main to transfer to the feature. However, mechanical issues led to a 20th-place result.
With a record number of entries this year—and five nights of qualifying for 394 entrants—Johnson will have to come from the B-Main on Saturday. But his comfort level has never been higher at the one-fifth mile track.
“Coming into this week, a lot of people asked if I was nervous or if I had any kind of doubts,” Johnson said. “I felt more comfortable and relaxed than any Chili Bowl I had ever come to before—and I feel the same way about Saturday. We’re not locked in, but I’m not worried about that one bit. I have full confidence in Chad and his team and I have full confidence in myself that we’ll be able to get in.
“At the end of the day, you have the luck of racing and the luck of the Chili Bowl but I have full confidence in my guys, my team and myself that we’ll be all good and ready to go for the 55 laps.”
For the first time since 1987, the Chili Bowl promoters lowered the 16-year-old age requirement to compete. Johnson has a decade of experience over many of the youngsters coming into the building this week. In addition to midgets, he races in a variety of disciplines—mainly USAC sprints—which Johnson feels offers him an edge.
“I really enjoy the position where I’m at right now,” Johnson said. “I really love driving race cars. I don't have a preference what type of race cars. I’m so competitive, I just want to be up front and challenging for wins in all the different types of cars that I drive. That’s something I pride myself on—that I’m able and have the ability to drive a winged-sprint car one weekend, be up front and challenging for the win. Then the next night, I can drive down the road and hop into a midget, run up front and compete with those guys. I can fly to Ohio and run a Silver Crown car.
“I pride myself on being versatile. It’s not a matter of just being able to drive the cars, but to be competitive and able to contend for wins.”
Coming from a family where both his mother and father’s clan had a passion for racing, Johnson enjoys a great appreciation for the sport.
In 2019, Johnson graduated from Sonoma State University with a business management degree. He oversees a vintage car collection in the Bay Area which enables Johnson to race in his spare time. While most drivers rely solely on racing, Johnson believes having a degree gives him a better understanding of the bigger picture of motorsports.
‘I treat my racing very much like a business, I understand the full business behind racing and the sport that we do,” Johnson said. “That helps a lot. At the end of the day, you’re not necessarily learning everything exactly the way they taught you in school but there’s a lot of tricks and it’s more the mentality of it.”
Johnson’s background is very similar to Boat. The former driver-turned-owner, who comes from a racing family as well, has a degree in finance from UNC-Charlotte. CB Industries has quickly become a force in the racing ranks—and that’s not lost on Johnson.
“I’ve been given great opportunities before but a rider is only as good as his horse,” Johnson said. “I try to take full advantage of the opportunities I’m given. I don’t come from a family that has a lot of money. I don’t have a major sponsor to bring to the table. Everything I’ve gotten I’ve worked really hard to earn.
“That’s why I’m so grateful to Chad because I understand the amount of work it takes to get there. I’ve put a lot of work into my racing career to try and get opportunities like this and to show people that given the right opportunity, I can do just as well as these other guys, if not better.”
On Saturday night, Johnson will have the opportunity to do just that.
“You walk up and down the pit area and you see a team like Keith’s (Kunz) or a team like Chad’s or Clauson-Marshall—the bigger name teams and all the history they have, they do so well, run up front, always contenders.
“As a young driver, you come here—just barely have the opportunity to come here—with a team wanting to show what you’ve got and thinking, ‘Man, I want to race for those guys. I want to have a shot to win and run up front. So to finally have that opportunity, is pretty freakin’ cool.”