The Chili Bowl is a crown jewel of the dirt racing scene, and even more so in midget racing. It’s an event that is drawing over 300 drivers from all racing disciplines to show they can sling the dirt, to be award the coveted Golden Driller.
NASCAR will be well represented in the 2021 edition of the race, with nearly a dozen drivers signing up to add their name to the exclusive list of Chili Bowl winners. Defending Chili Bowl champion Kyle Larson will look to make it two in a row, while Christopher Bell wants to bookend Larson’s win with his fourth in five seasons.
Apart of the NASCAR invasion is MRN and NBC Sports reporter Dillon Welch, who is participating in his tenth straight Chili Bowl.
Welch represents a unique breed of sports reporters. No other sport sees former players turned reporters jumping back onto the field to flex their skills, especially in a coveted event like the Super Bowl, or the World Series. This is what sets racing apart from other sports, and it’s an opportunity that Welch has looked forward to for every season. The breed of racing reporters alone that participate in annual races, whether it be local short track Friday night features or bigger stages like the Chili Bowl, is still quite an exclusive group.
It’s also apart of the ongoing love for racing that began at an incredibly young age for the Ball State graduate.
“My parents tell the story that when I was little, I was always obsessed with cars,” said Welch. “My dad is a big basketball fan and would give me a toy basketball and I would throw a fit until I had my HotWheels.”
His father Vince has been a staple to the FOX NASCAR broadcasts for a number of years, alternating between Cup Series pit road reporting and Camping World Truck Series booth commentating. While his father tried to get Dillon involved in basketball as a child, he never found a love for basketball as strong as cars.
A conversation with former IndyCar driver Billy Boat at the Phoenix Raceway in 2001 paved the way for a 7-year-old Welch to begin his racing career. Vince had sought the advice of Boat for getting Dillon started in racing, and Boat sold the duo a quarter midget that his son Chad drove.
“We got that first-quarter midget, and we had no idea what we were doing,” Welch said. “My dad got it just to see if I would like it and give me something to do basically. It kind of turned into almost 20 years of racing. From the start, I’ve always loved racing, it’s always been my passion.”
Welch’s racing career took an interesting turn when he became a senior in high school in 2012. He followed the dirt midget racing scene on social media and was in awe at the spectacle of the Chili Bowl.
“I was hating my life that we weren’t there, I felt like I was missing out because everyone was there,” he explained. “Before I went to bed Thursday morning, I told my dad ‘Let’s Go’, it’s ten hours, let’s just get up in the morning and drive. To my surprise, he said ‘alright, I think we should. He pulled me out of school, got in the car, and drove to Tulsa, watched the prelim on Friday, got up Saturday, watched it, and both left and thought it was unbelievable.”
Welch was entered into his first Chili Bowl in 2013, with the late Bryan Clauson, who went on to win the Chili Bowl the following year. He stayed with Clauson for 2013 and 2014 before continuing with Scott Rounk, the stepfather of Sprint Car racer Parker Price-Miller. Beginning in 2020, he reunited with the Boat family with CB Industries, joining NASCAR Cup Series driver Christopher Bell.
“It’s one of those events of the dirt racing world as a competitor that you want to race every year because it’s such a measuring stick,” he said. “For the industry, everybody is there – all the important people, all the best drivers. It’s the place to be. The energy in the building on Saturday rivals the Daytona 500, and the Indy 500 for me. It’s that type of spectacle. When you win that race, it means something.”
In fact, the Chili Bowl is so exclusive, you can’t even visit the track when the event is not taking place as you can with Daytona or Indianapolis. The Tulsa Expo Center serves as the home for the Chili Bowl, and trucks come rolling in to begin building the track just weeks before the event.
The Chili Bowl has its roots in dirt racing, but it’s one of the unique events that isn’t accomplished in just two or three days. It’s a rather complicated procedure for those fans unfamiliar with dirt racing. The entire qualifying procedure for the race is a week-long leading up to Saturday’s Chili Bowl (known as the A-Main), and it all begins the Monday of race week.
There are over 300 cars entered for the 2021 edition of the Chili Bowl. Race organizers split the field into one of five preliminary nights (also known as “Prelims”) that begin on Monday, and end on Friday. Teams can select what night they wish to race during their entry application process. Each day features a single race that can handle upwards of 60 cars depending on the overall field size. How you race and finish on your respective preliminary night race is how you are seeded for Saturday’s A-main.
For the main qualifier on each preliminary night, the 60 or so drivers participate in smaller qualifying sprints to set up for the main qualifying race at the end of each night. Points are accumulated by how many cars a driver passed during their respective mini-qualifier race. Simply put, the more cars you pass, the easier it will become to advance closer into the Saturday A-main. Should a driver not perform too well, there are multiple “main” races that are alphabetized from A being the main race, down to letters such as D and E for those who need a “last chance” to improve their chances and gain more points. For those drivers who don’t make the preliminary feature on their respective nights, those drivers move to an E-Main on Saturday night.
Regardless of the finishing positions on preliminary nights, every driver races on Saturday. During this day, it’s all about how a driver finishes in their own Main races, passing points are no longer in play. The top two finishers from each of the preliminary nights are locked into the A-Main for Saturday.
Welch is scheduled to roll off for his night of preliminary action on Tuesday.
Done with practice day. I can’t race @cbnationals w/o help from several people, incl. Eric DeBord at PROtential, Bob Gatto @TexasRoadhouse, & Darren Hickey @HUBinsurance. Big supporters over the last couple of races here… thanks guys! pic.twitter.com/XRwBMZSqbC
— Dillon Welch (@dillon_welch) January 11, 2021
With no chance at getting on the track itself to prepare for the Chili Bowl, practicing for the event seems nearly impossible. However, archival footage and another employer of Welch is helping him get ready.
“I watch a lot of races,” Welch explained. “I have some on-board footage of mine that I’ll watch, Ill look at other drivers too. Flo Racing, who is streaming the race this year, is airing old events including preliminary night footage. If I’m not doing anything, I’ll turn that on and watch. Just like a basketball or football player studying film.”
One of the added benefits of the Chili Bowl is that the track virtually doesn’t change from year to year and neither does the car specifications. Welch will roll off the same car from 2020 that was one spot short of reaching the A-Main.
Welch will have a handful of teammates including three-time Chili Bowl winner Bell at CB Industries. That same dynamic of teammates in a form of racing such as NASCAR does carry over to the Chili Bowl preparation, with drivers critiquing each other to ensure they’re racing at their best.
“With our team, It’s a good mix of help, but just like NASCAR, you are competing against your teammates,” he said. “The nice thing is on your prelim night, you’re not generally unless you have more cars. I generally do not offer advice because everyone on my team is more accomplished than me. With Christopher, if he sees something I can do better, he’ll offer help. Everyone is there for the betterment of the team. When it comes to Saturday, it’s every man for themselves. Everyone is pretty focused to do the best they can for themself.
With Welch getting the unique opportunity to compete against drivers like Bell, Chase Elliott, and Kyle Larson, he keeps his expectations in check when looking ahead to Saturday night.
“I know that I’m not going to outdrive Christopher Bell and Kyle Larson,” Welch explained. “My goal every year is just to make the A-Main. I respect the challenge at hand and know that I am at a disadvantage since I ran only four midget races this past year. Kyle Larson is on my prelim night and he won 46 dirt races this year. The deck is stacked against me, but I’m confident in myself at that race track. I know I can do it, I just have to keep telling myself that.”
— CB Industries (@_CBIndustries) January 5, 2021
The continuation of his part-time racing career also connects back to his real job on the NASCAR circuit. Being a driver himself, he can connect and relate more to drivers, crew chiefs, and crew members.
“I like that I am sort of ‘one of them,” Welch explained. “That’s not why I continue to race, but it doesn’t hurt especially for the long term. If they recognize my name or that I’m a racer, I think it makes me relatable to them in a way. I’ve never driven a stock car, but I get the concept of talking to your crew chief, and not intruding. It’s the racer to racer mentality. It’s an added bonus.”
Sure, it’s a balancing act between a full-time reporting career and a part-time racing career, but telling a racer not to race… that’s nearly impossible.
“It’s like an addiction, to be honest,” Welch said. “You just can never part with racing. The worst past that’s also a blessing is that with the Chili Bowl, I always feel like that’s my best place. That always brings me back. I’ll get to the end of the year and say I’ll be done, I’m not going to prove anything to anyone, but then we get to the Chili Bowl and I’m reminded of my love and want to keep doing it.”
The Preliminary qualifiers are showcased this week every night, leading up to the main event on Saturday, January 16th. Fans that are interested in watching the 2021 Chili Bowl can stream it over on Flo Racing.