FOX saves the best for last with Wednesday's virtual Chili Bowl Nationals

FOX saves the best for last with Wednesday's virtual Chili Bowl Nationals
Reid Spencer

Who will claim the virtual Golden Driller in Wednesday’s Lucas Oil Chili Bowl Nationals? 

FOX Sports saved the most iconic midget race for its Wednesday Night iRacing Grand Finale—the hump day diversion that has rescued many a motorsports fan during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

While the program has used a doubleheader platform in previous weeks, FOX Sports analysts Jeff Gordon and Clint Bowyer asserted that the Mecca of Midgets deserved the stage all to itself.

“This was a week-to-week, day-to-day process,” said Frank Wilson, FOX Sports VP of Event/Studio Production. “The Sunday (NASCAR) shows were pretty much following the NASCAR schedule, so it was pretty much just putting rules in place. The Wednesday shows, we had a blank canvas. ‘What could we do?’ IROC (International Race of Champions) came up and the iRacing guys got (IROC owner) Jay Signore to sign off on that. But then it was, ‘What would be cool? What cars would be cool on what track?’

“Some of it had to do with iRacing’s development. Like the Lime Rock race was at Lime Rock (Park) because Lime Rock looked cool on the sim. Our first dirt race was Charlotte, then Knoxville because those tracks look great. When we put the Wednesday stuff together, we wanted to do two races every week. A couple of weeks ago, we were going to do the IROC Michigan or the IROC Daytona race and the second part was going to be the Chili Bowl.

“But Clint and Jeff stood up and said, ‘If we’re going to do the Chili Bowl, we’ve got to do the Chili Bowl right. We can’t just make it the second half of a one-hour program. We need to dedicate the whole hour to the Chili Bowl.”

Lately, in the real event staged in January, more than 350 racers have battled over six days to advance to the 24-car, 55-lap championship showdown. Gordon and Bowyer convinced FOX brass the event could not be condensed into a 30-minute package. And that includes the qualifiers and the infamous Alphabet Soup which will result in the top 14 drivers transferring to the feature—with the top-six drivers inverted.

“We were looking at it as Chili Bowl the track and running cars at the Chili Bowl,” Wilson said. “Clint and Jeff’s point was,’ You can’t look at it as a track. If you’re going to do the Chili Bowl, do the Chili Bowl.’ It needed to be elevated. So we went to Eldora and moved the Chili Bowl to this week.”

The show kicks off on FS1 at 7 p.m. with three heats of 11 midgets followed by a D, C and B Main with the 55-lap feature starting at approximately 7:40 p.m. 

Chili Bowl co-founder and promoter Emmett Hahn has been impressed with the lengths both FOX and iRacing have taken to keep the event’s integrity intact.

"When they came out and scanned the track a few years ago, the Chili Bowl was one of the most requested tracks, and now to see this deal go from live on Saturday night for real to live in iRacing on FS1, it's bigger than I could have ever imagined," Hahn said.

"One of the biggest challenges I saw going into this was making it relatable to the fans, and that's something I feel like they've really done well with.”

iRacing enlisted the services of three-time Chili Bowl Nationals winner Christopher Bell for his advice and expertise. Bell turned to Twitter to invite the star-studded cast.

“The race Wednesday night should be a lot of fun; it’s being put on by iRacing and they are selecting the field, but I was in charge of helping to spread the word and get people involved,” Bell said. 

“I think people will be surprised to see some Indy car drivers involved, like Tony Kanaan and Will Power.”

Absent will be current Chili Bowl Nationals winner Kyle Larson, who thwarted Bell’s attempt at tying Kevin Swindell’s record of four-consecutive Golden Drillers in January. Swindell, who along with Bell hold seven A-Feature starts at the Chili Bowl, will be joined by 13 drivers who have raced to the A-Main along with representatives from NASCAR, IndyCar, World of Outlaws, USAC, POWRi, NHRA and RallyCross. 

Clearly, Bell hasn’t sat idle since the NASCAR Cup season went on hiatus. He’s raced as much as he ever has—albeit virtually. Despite his freshman frustration behind the wheel of the No. 95 Leavine Family Racing Toyota, the 25-year-old has flexed his iRacing muscle. 

On Sunday afternoon, Bell finished second to William Byron in the eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series race at virtual Dover International Speedway. Sunday night, Bell wheeled the No. 21x to Victory Lane in the World of Outlaws NOS Energy Drink Sprint Cars iRacing Invitational at virtual Volusia Speedway Park. He returned to the half-mile virtual dirt track on Tuesday night to win his third WoO iRacing trophy. 

Now, he’ll set his sights on virtual Tulsa Expo Raceway—a track the Norman, Oklahoman knows well. Time and again, Bell claims there’s not an event that means more to him than the Chili Bowl Nationals.

“I actually almost get more nervous for online racing than real racing, so the pressure is on,” Bell said. “If anyone ever has the opportunity to come experience the Chili Bowl Nationals in real life they definitely should. it’s unique, being an indoor motorsports event, and the atmosphere is exciting and addicting.”

As for returning to actual on-track competition at Darlington Raceway on May 17, Bell can’t wait for the green flag to fall.
“I’m ready,” Bell exclaimed. “It’s been a long time coming, and I’m thankful NASCAR has put great thought and precautions so we can return to the track."

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