By GLENN HIBDON
GTR Sports Writer
This is a love story. It’s a passionate tale between a city and an event, fans and a sport, a man and his vision.
Eighty-year-old Emmett Hahn has become a rich man thanks to an indoor motorsports extravaganza known as the Chili Bowl Midget Nationals. For the last 35 years, the second week in January has transformed Tulsa into the racing capital of America. Just like Elvis Presley and The Beatles, Hahn was in the right place at the right time with the right idea.
Now, as they say, the rest is history.
“USA Today listed the top 10 most prestigious races in the world and the Chili Bowl was No. 4 and the only dirt track race,’’ said Hahn, co-promoter of the event held at the River Spirit Expo Center. “Billy Boat’s car owner said it’s easier to win the Indy 500 than the Chili Bowl.
“We have a good track and the race is held in the second week in January when nobody else is racing. We’re 25 miles away from being the central spot in population in the country. We get people from other countries coming here because they know we won’t be rained or snowed out. They can come from a long way off and there is no other facility like this in the USA.’’
No brag. Just fact. Racers from up to 35 states and five countries compete annually for the $10,000 top prize. Almost 350 cars show up to compete on the quarter-mile dirt surface constructed on the building’s lower level, the size of three Astrodome playing fields. More than 52 miles of cable hold up the roof.
Hahn said some racers and fans show up for the Lucas Oil Tulsa Shootout in the last week of December, the world’s largest micro midget race, and remain in town the following week waiting for the Chili Bowl. People in the racing business seem to notice such things.
“Three or four years ago NASCAR brought seven officials to watch what we do. How many have Tony Stewart helped with the main race track?’’ Hahn asked. “When Tony came on the scene he had a midget car and he loved this race. When Tony’s name came up it boosted the race and this year Hendrix Motorsports had Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott and Christopher Bell here.’’
With NASCAR drivers showing up more frequently, popularity among average fans continues to increase. After the first Tulsa Shootout took place, the green flag fell for the Chili Bowl. It was slow rolling at first after Hahn and original co-promoter Lanny Edwards polished the plan.
“He promoted World of Outlaws shows and knew the Kinsers and Wolfgangs. I told Lanny I think we can run midgets,’’ Hahn said. “At first we ran sprint cars and midgets. There was very little cross over and a rivalry developed. Bob Berryhill, owner of Chili Bowl, was a big midget fan and he liked what we were doing. He called us and gave us $6,000 in sponsorship, but we butted heads with the Super Bowl.
“I would go to businesses and give away tickets to customers who came to see what’s going on. We finally got people from outside states like Wisconsin and California who wanted to come see these cars go two to three wide. Word of mouth was instrumental in making this thing grow and now this racing is like the 3/8-mile track at the old fairgrounds.’’
With a record 16,000 fans for one event, the Chili Bowl was always a sellout – until COVID-19 came long. The 2021 race was limited to 2,400 fans and would not have taken place without the help of some race-loving friends. Lucas Oil remains the title sponsor.
“With the virus limiting us to 25 percent capacity, it would have cost us millions to put the show on,’’ said Hahn. “Mark Andrus, Tulsa Expo Square CEO, and Ray Hoyt of the Tulsa Regional Chamber gave us money to put in on. We won’t be losing money.’’
And Tulsa businesses will continue to benefit as well. Hahn said it was reported that the Chili Bowl brought in $33 million to the local economy in 2020. Conservative estimates indicate Hahn’s show has brought in 180,000 fans and $132 million in the last 12 years with 70,000 cars over 35 years.
“I’m not on welfare,’ Hahn quipped.
Fans are also rich in racing history, excitement and entertainment. It’s a win, win, win situation for fans, drivers and the city.
“These are real race fans. They know what’s going on. They know good racing when they see it,’’ Hahn said. “Stewart said it’s a lot of fun and the race is almost like a reunion. Lanny and I had the philosophy that we’re not smart enough to make this work, just smart enough not to mess it up.
“When we first started getting big, for the first time they ran out of rental cars and the only other time that happened was when the PGA Tour came to Southern Hills. When that happens you know you’re pretty good.’’
Of all the memories over 35 years, Hahn said one that stands out is a race in the 1990s featuring P.J. and Page Jones, sons of Parnelli Jones.
“The two kids started up front,’’ Hahn recalled. “P.J. hit his kill switch on the third lap and had to go to the back. He came up through the field and caught his brother in 20 laps. The way P.J. made that drive was unbelievable.
“I ain’t going to quit this until they throw dirt in my face. The only regret I have is that didn’t start this earlier.’’
A motorsports romance was born in 1987 and there have been hugs and kisses between Hahn, midget racing and the city ever since.