The 34th Annual Chili Bowl Nationals at the River Spirit Expo Center in Tulsa runs Jan. 13-18 with more than 350 entrants in an event that packs about a $30 million wallop to the local economy.

Competitors vie for more than $250,000 in payouts by racing in midgets, vehicles about half the size of traditional cars. The Jan. 18 final decides who goes home with the $10,000 first prize.

“It’s unlike any sporting event you’ve ever been to,” says Bryan Hulbert, Chili Bowl’s announcer and publicist. “You get intensity beyond measure with drivers from 40 different states and five countries. Only 24 drivers make it to the final championships. It’s a melting pot of talent as you’ve got people from NASCAR, Formula One, Indy cars – just about any major sanctioning body you can name. There’s even a Rolex 24-Hour driver, a rookie from Australia.”

The event’s co-founder, Emmett Hahn, also known as The Boss, says that to understand midget car racing, compare the Chili Bowl to rodeo.

“NASCAR is barrel racing and your Chili Bowl is your bareback bull riding,” he says.

The event is a family affair in many ways; for instance, Hahn’s grandson Matt Ward is the event director.

“Drivers have been racing here more than 30 years and now it’s a generational thing in some families,” Hulbert says. “Sammy Swindell won five times and now his son has won four times. There are others that have made it a family tradition.”

For those without tickets, the Jan. 12 Fan Fest Sunday is free to the public with interviews, autographs and the Blake Turner Band in concert. Also free is the trade show, running Monday through Saturday and featuring more than 100 vendors with racing products, apparel, collectibles and “everything from housing gutters to scooters for the handicapped,” Hulbert says.

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