2014-15 NZ and Chili Bowl Tour Blog
All the fun and adventures of the 2014 / 15 New Zealand & Chili Bowl tour will appear here as regularly as we have time to post them.
Keep checking back for updates.
Updated January 22nd up to and including the final day of the Tour at the Chili Bowl.
Day 1 Friday Dec 26th 2014
If you’ve not flown with Air New Zealand before then you wouldn’t have seen the pre take off Hobbit inspired video now described as the “most epic safety demonstration ever made”. In fact it is said that it’s probably the only one anyone ever watches on any plane anywhere in the world. To see it just click here.
Now Auckland International Airport is a big place but perhaps not that big. After ringing the Car Rental joint to tell them we have arrived and needed to be picked up, I was told to go out of Customs and turn right at McDonalds and wait there. Sure enough that simple no frills instruction was spot on as the pink Go Rentals shuttle turned up right on time.
Speaking of Go Rentals the dude who did the paperwork with me mentioned that he had picked out a nice late model Toyota Previa (Tarago in Oz language) for me from the Hertz fleet. I’d hate to see an “old model” because the one we got had 167,000 kms on the clock and at least 10 dents and scratches were subsequently noted on the paperwork. But it drives nice ….
We found the Rydges Hotel with no problems. It’s right adjacent to the 328 metre tall Skycity Tower which houses the Auckland Casino. After checking in there was precious little time to drop the suitcases into the rooms and then head back to reception where our 5 seater cab was waiting to take us to the famous Western Springs Speedway for night 1 of the International midget series sanctioned by POWRi.
Why a cab you ask? Well tonight we were in the Bay 21 corporate area which sits right on Turn 2 providing a fabulous view for all the heavies in there. And in NZ speedway there is a lot of support from businesses. And why wouldn’t you when 26,500 spectators turn up to watch the Boxing Day racing just as they did tonight.
Western Springs has hosted speedway since time immemorial it seems. 85 years ago in 1929 spectators sniffed their first Castrol R fumes when motorcycles woke up the animals in the adjacent zoo as they raced around a track that had originally been laid for cycling. Since then cars and bikes have always turned left on a track that today magnificently suits the midgets. Sprintcars? Well maybe they are a touch too big for the Springs.
The stadium is situated inside a natural amphitheatre which in summer becomes a speedway and in winter it is used for Rugby Union matches. Occasionally music concerts are held there and in the future they will become more frequent as the speedway will be moving to Mt Smart Stadium at the end of the 2016 season. The Auckland City Council only allows 12 race meetings a year which is not enough for a city which sends 27,000 fans to just one event. The relocation to Mt Smart will restore the race dates to 25 and it appears that despite the sadness in losing the historical Western Springs venue, the move to Mt Smart is endorsed by everyone.
So what happened tonight? Test match teams racing was the centerpiece with three drivers each from NZ, USA and Australia representing their country in two 10 lap races. Plus the usual events where individually everything was on the line. The track was very soft from too much water its seems and began breaking up badly right in front of us on Turn 2. Continual re-grading caused only valuable pre curfew time to be lost but with no corresponding improvement to track conditions.
As a result 16 cars got upside down throughout the night. Three sprintcars, two very large TQ accidents and 12 midgets would you believe. Our own Nathan Smee was a victim when he cartwheeled into the fence at the end of the front straight and but for the height of the catch fence would have finished up in someone’s lap as an unwanted late Christmas present. Nathan got out of the car under his own steam but was very groggy and holding an arm like it was surely broken.
Meanwhile we continued testing the food and drink supplied in Bay 21 and found it much to our liking, thus validating the decision not to drive tonight. The prawns from Taupo were particularly excellent.
Little Rico Abreu from California, who is actually a midget (as in a dwarf human being) won the midget feature tonight much to the delight of the crowd. Enzed’ers Brad Mosen and Shayne Allach ran second and third. Rico put on a great post-race show as well when he stopped his car on the front straight, undid his belts and climbed the fence to acknowledge the fans. A remarkable sight it was to see a body probably only a metre tall, hanging off the top of a six metre high fence with one arm and waving to the crowd with the other. It was pretty special.
Day 2 Saturday Dec 27th
Given the rush to get to the track yesterday we had no time to buy the necessities of life. Such as an esky and stuff to put in it. We did not need our usual ultra large version as we have for US tours, but still needed something. So while buying a couple of cheap blankets in K-Mart to put down on the terraces at the Springs tonight we looked for a cheap foam esky but without success.
We decided that a friendly word in the ear of a local who looked like he has had a need for many a cold beer over the years, would be of assistance. The question was “Hi mate do you know where around here we could buy a cheap foam esky?” The answer was “If you mean a disposable polystyrene Chilly bin then try The Warehouse.” A chilly bin would you believe!! Too bad we can’t take the one we got to Tulsa. It would feel right at home for the Chili Bowl.
Lunch at Doolan’s pub in Newmarket was next. Believe it or not but this great venue (one of four in Auckland) is situated on Khyber Pass Road. It sells Irish food and drink though, not Afghani, which is a cuisine I’d prefer not to sample.
By this time it was 3.00pm and we had already made the decision that given the size of the crowd last night we would be there when the gates opened at 4.00pm. No corporate indulgence tonight. It was out on the terraces with the fans. An earlier deal had been done with the lovely Melissa who operated the Bay 21 lounge that in lieu of foregoing the VIP car parking passes allocated to us on night 1, she would give us passes for each of the three remaining nights.
Well that turned out to be a great decision. At 4.05pm we drove down the steep Old Mill Road into the track to find that the grassed VIP parking area overlooked the track high on turn 4. And being amongst the first there, our position was prized because if we didn’t want to, we could have sat in the car and watched the whole night. Just like going to a country speedway with a few hundred in attendance, unlike the crowd that was going to come in again tonight.
We did however put down the two bright red colour rugs we had bought in K-Mart to save seats on the terraces for later. The wind was blowing quite hard though and we needed some weights on either ends of the rugs to keep them in place. No problem. Just put three warm stubbies of Speights Gold Medal ale in each of two plastic bags and bingo, the rugs stayed in place.
Tailgating was the order of the rest of the afternoon and the Chilly Bin supplied the drinks while we chatted with the locals, some of whom refused to believe that next on our tour agenda was in fact the Chili Bowl. The weather last night and today was fabulous. Warm during the day, colder at night but still pleasant. Remarkably the dreaded R word was not in sight. Rain is always anticipated in Auckland and hence scheduled rain dates are always factored in to this Speedweek of racing.
The soft track conditions of last night were countered for tonight by considerably reducing the amount of water soaked into the racing surface during today. The result was a slick track dustbowl for much of the night but at least it allowed for the whole track to be used, not just the bottom. Cars were right up against the fence however the traction just wasn’t there for highline passing.
The Yanks did it again with the 2014 Chili Bowl Champ Bryan Clauson taking the World 30 lap Derby win in a non-stop 30 lapper from Darren Hagan and Rico Abreu. Not as big a crowd tonight but of a size which Aussie promoters would give their left you know what for.
Day 3 Sunday Dec 28th
The Auckland weather has quite simply been remarkable. When preparing the extensive day by day itinerary for our tour members, multi rain dates were factored in hence it was next to impossible to plan for each day, in case the next night was a speedway night when on paper it shouldn’t have been. Make sense??
Consequently today became a “do what you want day”. For some that meant wandering around the city centre, for others it meant recovering in bed after last night’s visit to the Sky City casino which is literally 150metres away from our Hotel and for one it meant a quick flight to Wellington to visit his heavily pregnant sister.
Of course he was on a 6.30am flight so the tour leader kindly got out of bed at 5.00am and drove him to the airport. But it wasn’t done just for Luke’s sake. Seeing cities wake up and come alive as dawn breaks is a fantastic experience and a favourite past time of mine. Mind you in earlier days I was on my way home instead of having to wake up first to see it.
We agreed to meet at 4.00pm and it was decided to drive to Rosebank Speedway, the home of solos and sidecars in Auckland. We knew nothing was on, but at least you can say you’ve been there. True speedway fans will understand.
From there we drove further south along the Great North road (yes I know that sounds dumb) where we noticed a sign for “Blastacars Drift Karts”. If it’s got wheels, then why not? Found it easily and we were so glad we did. It was indoors and the track itself was highly polished concrete. And to make it even more slippery talcum powder is frequently sprinkled onto the surface. After negotiating a bulk discount we paid $30 apiece for 15 minutes. And it was exhilarating. Average lap time was around 26 seconds so 30 laps or so for 30 bucks is a good deal.
Carefully painted on the racing line is a 5 inch strip exactly where you need to position the kart to get it to perfectly drift at speed around each corner. It ‘aint easy let me tell you, but with eight karts racing at a time, collisions and spins are frequent. Getting a perfect lap in becomes a highlight to tell the grandkids about. Would I do it again? You betcha. This YouTube video will tell you all about it. A feed and a drink was needed after that so we headed towards the airport to the Toby Jug Inn where steaks, ribs and burgers were washed down by the local brew, served by a local bro.
Then picked up Luke who had returned from Wellington at 8.30pm and returned to the hotel ready for a big couple of days coming up. Tomorrow it’s off to Mt Maunganui in Tauranga and the magnificent Bay Park Speedway for the South Pacific sprintcar championship along with a round of the Burger King super saloon series.
Tuesday its visiting Rotorua during the day and then back to Huntly Speedway for Round 3 of the international midget series.
Wednesday is New Year’s Eve so the next update might be a while …..
Day 4 Monday Dec 29th
Unlike the USA tours where we are always on the road between far flung tracks, the Enzed portion of this trek is totally centred around Auckland with 10 consecutive nights in the same hotel. However today produced the first long spell behind the wheel when the target was Mt Maunganui, 220 kms southeast of Auckland.
Rain hasn’t interfered with anything yet so this tentatively scheduled, but unexpected race was welcome. An early start saw us receive supposedly useful instructions from the overeager Concierge at the Hotel anxious for a tip. The fact that he was Scottish and supplying New Zealand place names to see and visit was not at all helpful in any way whatsoever. Our first stop was at the airport car rental depot to have a new tyre fitted, given that the left front was destroyed by an exposed (but unseen) drain cover at Western Springs speedway on Saturday afternoon.
From there we headed south down a particularly nice Motorway for 50 kms or so until the exit to Tauranga emerged. The speed limit in NZ is a maximum of 100kms/hour with a zero tolerance. Get caught doing 101 and you’ll be booked, warn the many roadside signs along the way. Other road signs are of course place names, so Russell was appointed General Manager of Pronunciation. He resigned after an hour or so as he like us became befuddled with such designations as Onehunga, Otahuhu, Papatoetoe, Manukua, Manurewa, Mangatawhiri, Ngatea, Paeora, Karangahake and Aongatete as examples. One particularly scenic part of the drive was through the Karangahake Gorge. Twisting and turning for 25 kms or so as it found the easy way through the hills, it took us past magnificent ferns and trees which would provide needed shelter assuming anyone could ever find their way into the dense undergrowth.
Lunch on Rangataua Bay at Bobby’s in the Fresh Fish Market was a disappointment. It took 50 minutes to get the food and when we did, although freshly cooked, the battered fish could have been rolled up and used as a squash ball, it was that rubbery. But the ‘chups’ were good.
Steve described Mt Maunganui the best when he said it reminded him of Byron Bay. We slowly drove around the beachfront carefully avoiding the thousands of holiday makers enjoying the excellent weather before we headed into Tauranga itself for a couple of pints of Guinness at the Crown & Badger on the beachfront. And then it was off to Bay Park Speedway where we met up with friends Prue and Robert along with Tony Christiansen who is a famed motivational speaker on the world circuit. Tony lost both his legs in a railroad shunting yard accident at the age of seven. A great guy who has raced at Bay Park in midgets, sprintcars and super saloons all his life. Not competing tonight however, he spent a couple of hours with us tailgating in the carpark, amusing all with stories of his life as though he was on stage speaking at a conference.
The verdict on Bay Park? It’s a magnificently appointed Stadium with bucket seating for 19,700 that hosts speedway in summer and Super Rugby in the winter. Unfortunately it was dry and dusty tonight and the fans went home covered in red dust from 16 winged sprintcars, 18 wingless sprints (quaintly called six-shooters over here), 50 or so super saloons and a squillion mini stocks for kids aged between 12 and 16. It was the super saloons which impressed the most. Fabulous sounding V8’s in the guise of an Australian Super Sedan they produced a great show with the pole shuffle and feature being the highlights.
The ride home at midnight was as black as the inside of one of New Zealand’s 4.2 million cows that produce 15 billion litres of milk annually. We saw plenty of them on the way down, but for three hours on a two lane road back to Auckland there was no time to look for anymore. A quick stop at the McDonald’s drive through in Katikati was of interest when we were served by two Indians wearing turbans. Not something you see every day. 1.30am saw us back at Rydges and most went to bed straight away.
Day 5 Tuesday Dec 30th
For the first time in recent history the Springs promoters had decided to take the international series outside of Auckland, with the addition of a fifth race at Huntly speedway, 100 kms south. And news has filtered through today that for next year a sixth date is being added, but no mention yet of where that will be. Bay Park would have to be the best bet one would think.
A leisurely day was enjoyed by all with each to their own devices until 2.00pm when we gathered in the foyer ready to hit the expressway to add yet another new track to our ever growing list. For whatever reason I held the thought that not only was New Zealand the land of the long white cloud, but was also the land of long single lane roads which take ages to get anywhere. But not in Auckland. The six lane southern motorway starts just out of the CBD and whisks you into the countryside within minutes.
On the way through to Huntly a sign for Pukekohe took our attention and hence being race fans we needed to visit the track which was formerly home to the New Zealand Grand Prix where drivers of the ilk of Jackie Stewart, Graham Hill, Jim Clark and Stirling Moss used to head for when looking for a way to win some money during the European winter. The GP used to be part of the famous Tasman series and latterly the Australian V8 Supercars held a round there from 2001 to 2007. Although it is still regularly used by the locals for racing, big time events have sadly passed it by.
We found an employee who had just finished mowing the internal horse racing track which appears to get the most use these days. In seeking permission to drive a lap of the bitumen, we explained who we were and why we were there. He had no trouble understanding the bit that we were from Australia and were on our way to Huntly speedway, but appeared bewildered by the word midget. We looked at each other for a while until I realised what I should have said. I rephrased my statement and said we were on our way to Huntly to watch the “mudget” racing. All was good after that and off we went to the pit gate for a lap.
An hour later we were cruising into Huntly where roadside signs proudly advertised the arrival of visiting American midget drivers to tackle the best NZ could offer up. Rico probably would have preferred his actual name to be up there. A really neat and picturesque racetrack is the simplest way to describe it. The locals were out in force and many more like us had travelled from Auckland to create a very healthy crowd. The back straight viewing area is a large natural hill once again giving an amphitheatre effect similar to Western Springs. After a few frothies in the carpark we took up the back row of a small wooden grandstand between turns 3&4 which also had a view into the pits.
No sprintcars were programmed but the Springs Promoters who were running the show had brought the TQ’s and Formula 2 midgets with them to support the main attraction. They also provided us with our first look at the infamous NZ stockcars, but more about them on Friday when we go to Waikaraka Speedway to watch Superstox team’s racing. Tonight was all about the midgets again and they lived up to their promise once again with exceptional racing. The track went dry and dusty early which caused no end of speculation by the commentators who seem over obsessed in asking anyone who walks past their opinion of the track and what it will do.
What it did was provide a slick, ‘slide job city’ type surface for those with the skills to exploit it. And in the main that was Bryan Clauson who won his second consecutive feature in a race which had its fair share of carnage. Rico was the highlight reel when he destroyed his car in a wall of death type ride at the end of the back straight after tangling with Nathan Smee.
Our Hotel is right next to Sky City and its landmark tower which can be seen from miles away. Sky City is also home to the Auckland Casino and like similar Australian establishments, it is packed with elderly Asians. The youngsters on the tour have renamed it “the old folks’ home” so those who are so inclined had a nightcap in there.
Day 6 Wednesday Dec 31st
Rotorua was our objective today. Under a beautiful blue sky we took off at 8.00am in exactly the same direction as yesterday. One might think that the itinerary could have been organised better to avoid backtracking, but there is good reason for that. When in NZ one must expect that rain will disrupt whatever you have planned at any time. However during our first week the weather has been very cooperative and everyday has been almost perfect. If it hadn’t been, the speedways have rain dates and they make it impossible to plan ahead with any certainty.
As we drove past the turnoff to Huntly speedway they were still proudly advertising the fact that American midget drivers will be racing tonight. No date, just ‘tonight’. Opposite the turnoff was what looked like the perfect roadside café for breakfast. And it was. Great service, delicious hot coffee plus bacon and eggs. Although Luke worried the hell out of the rest of us when his huge plate of baked beans on toast turned up. We still had a long way to go to Rotorua sharing a Tarago with him ….
Onwards we went through a variety of totally unpronouceable place names before reaching Hamilton (I hope I spelt that correctly) before reaching Rotorua. Petrol here is $1.95 / litre so a fill up costs more than you can lose in the Old Folk’s home. Our next stop was at a venue where we could view the thermal springs and geysers, but at $79 we ruled that out. A polite enquiry of the guy in the ticket box received the helpful suggestion we could go and see the same thing for nothing by driving two kms up the street. I wonder how long he’ll keep his job for?
Now I don’t know if you’ve ever smelt the mud pools that abound in Rotorua but they are rather sensitive to the nose. Either that or Luke’s baked beans had worked their way through. We found a spot where those wearing shorts could sit around a bath and put their legs in the hot therapeutic waters which emerge 24/7 from the ground. It was very pleasant indeed and clearly it worked some magic for me for what was to follow.
Now I guess that we didn’t have to drive 230 kms just to race karts, but of course we did. Googling ‘go-karts Rotorua’ brings up the Off Road Karting complex which besides karting also offers 4 wheel drive trekking driving your own Suzuki. We elected to do 10 minutes on the club run kart track. Dressed up in all the gear, suits, helmets, gloves and balaclavas we waited for the earlier group to finish before snuggling down into surprisingly fast karts.
Depending on the activity, 10 mins can be a long time, but racing furiously around a track where (for us anyway) it takes 1 min 19 secs means that eight laps is about all you get in. The chequered flag comes out before you know it. Fast time went to he who freshened his legs up in the thermal pool before qualifying!!
It was New Year’s Eve so we wanted to be back in Auckland at a reasonable time to visit the Old Folks home to see the New Year in. It hadn’t occurred to us that probably every other Aucklander and visitor to the city wanted to as well. Hence when we got back into the CBD around 8.00pm we found that some streets were blocked off and access to Rydges Hotel was quite tricky. But we made it in time and spent NYE inside Sky City and watched the (very meagre) fireworks display off the Sky Tower.
Oh and by the way with no speedway scheduled for tonight, it very thoughtfully rained and quite hard as well.
Day 7 Thursday Jan 1st
Dawn comes late in New Zealand so at around 11.30am the first rays of light came streaming in past the eyelids. Tonight was yet another date with a race track and the day was clear and hot.
On every tour we always have a speedway museum (or two or three) is on the itinerary. However this being our first to Auckland, no such establishment was known to me. Hence I was thrilled to receive a Facebook note from Mel Mulqueen who is a Kiwi, but now resides in Sydney. Mel suggested I give Gordon McIsaac a call to see if we can view his museum in Ponsonby. On arrival we were a bit skeptical as #14 Parawai Crescent was just a surburban house and a small one at that.
I guess what started to make us think differently was after pressing the front door bell, the approaching roar of a race car flooded the porch. The increasing noise came gradually closer until all of a sudden it raced past us and the racket disappeared just as a sprintcar would once it has passed you. Impressive start!! The door opened and a small elderly man with curly hair stood before us inviting the group in to his house. But was it? Just like in the movie ‘The Castle’, this wasn’t a house, it was a home that had been totally transformed into a shrine for his beloved sport of speedway racing.
Every room, bar his own bedroom which we didn’t see, was filled with speedway history from Western Springs and America, with even every nook and cranny in the kitchen filled with trophies, pictures and artifacts. He is an accomplished artist and has dozens of paintings of incredibly famous drivers from NZ and the USA who have visited his home. On many occasions Gordon gives them the original and they sign a copy which then hangs proudly on a bedroom or loungeroom wall, or in the hallway. In return they often give him a driver’s suit or a trophy recently won and thus his collection has grown over the past 40 years.
After 30 mins or so in the house he invited us out the backdoor where Gordon feeds his two cats. I’m sure if they knew they were eating and drinking from bowls ringed by a Hoosier tyre they would feel honoured. The exit through the back door takes you straight into the entrance to a large shed which of course there are hundreds and hundreds more personally collected items. One of which is his pride and joy vintage midget that proudly sits alongside his ex-Ivan Mauger solo speedway bike. Everything has a place and is neatly catalogued with words explaining what it is and where or how he got it.
Sadly it was time to leave as all parties in the house needed to get to the Springs for night 3 of the midgets. Gordon has a friend who picks him up to go to each race. I doubt he has missed a meeting at the Springs since he saw his first one at age 7. He was meant to go to see a cowboy movie at the local picture theatre, but his mates decided to go to the speedway instead. Gordon has been hooked ever since and that was 68 years ago.
What Gordon and our group saw tonight was phenomenal. Such is the competition here, the feature winner usually comes from the first three rows. Any further back and it’s just too hard, so to see someone come from the B Main and win from position 17 is something that will live long in the memory. Bryan Clauson did that tonight after he was taken out of his second heat by none other than a rare Dave Darland error. Drop a heat race here and its bad news for further progression. Unless you’re from Indiana and your name is Clauson.
In order to get some close-up video footage for the tour movie, I wandered into the pits (which are always open to everybody all night) while the sprintcar feature was on. The camera captured plenty of “race faces” as drivers pulled on balaclavas and helmets and settled themselves inside the super snug seat of their car. All are made to measure including Rico’s, which to be honest without remotely suggesting poor taste, looks exactly like a baby seat. The accelerator and brake pedals are extended to where they meet his feet and away he goes with balls tons bigger than the average. He is a real fan favourite that’s for sure.
But back to Clauso. Perhaps he expected to do it, but I doubt that anyone else in the joint did. He began picking off cars at a rate of one every two laps. Just enough to win a 40 lapper. He was making ground, but the leaders who hadn’t yet encountered lapped traffic, were pulling away. Unlike at Huntly tyre wear was not an issue tonight, so BC increased his pace and was catching the lead bunch, but a yellow would sure help. That came when Brad Mosen got upside down on lap 34. The field bunched and the United Truck Parts #39 was sixth. By lap 36 he was in front and raced away to take his third big money feature race in a row. Seeing him in the pits afterwards sitting on a tyre and sucking hard on his water bottle, I don’t reckon even he could believe it.
Day 8 Friday Jan 2nd
What to do today? The lure of Auckland Harbour was too much so we took the 15 minute ferry ride across to Devonport which is clearly a town that exists just for tourists. The Dawn Princess cruise ship was tied up at the Terminal in town so as we walked up and down the streets there were many American accents to be heard as the passengers stretched their legs on land for a change. Lunch was a very poor choice in the “Devonport Café” so if you’re treating this Blog as a travel guide, there’s our tip. Because the cafe certainly didn’t get one from us.
Yet another new speedway for us all was to be inspected tonight in Auckland. Waikaraka speedway runs on nights when Western Springs doesn’t. It provides for different classes of cars to the Springs and mainly they are the famous NZ stockcars. Now these things have to be seen to be believed. Or watched on YouTube I guess.
Just as the Winter Olympics ski jump in Innsbruck, Austria has a cemetery at the very bottom, Waikaraka Speedway has a gigantic cemetery right outside turns 1 & 2. Unnerving to say the least. The first Team’s race between Auckland and Huntly was quite unique with five cars from each team racing. But there must be a better word to describe it. Maybe World Championship wrestling on wheels? The actual track appears to be superfluous to a driver as his task is to chase and wreck his designated opposition car and if it needs to be on the infield in and around officials, then so be it. Each car weighs 1½ tons and is covered in bar work to make them virtually indestructible.
There were 47 of them in the pits and every one of them started in each of two heat races later on. The carnage was such that only 24 were able to start the feature at the end of the night. Another class racing was the NZ Modifieds which were pretty good. They have a sprintcar chassis, but the bodywork is not dissimilar to the Victorian Super Rods. A 350ci Chev provides the power.
Now here’s a piece of trivia for you. The super saloon feature was won by Steve Williams. So what you say, but a keen golfer will know the name as being Tiger Woods’ caddy for 12 years from 1999 to 2011.
And it still hasn’t rained on race night …..
Day 9 Saturday Jan 3rd
Last year the 50 lap midget finale race drew 16,000 spectators. Hence the statement by the track commentators on Boxing Night that there were 26,500 fans in the house was certainly incorrect. So apologies for the Day 1 blog entry that suggested that figure. Even 16,000 is still a big number so we decided that tonight we would be amongst the first in line at the VIP parking lot gate to ensure we get what we now reckon is the best seat in the house.
The drive from Rydges Hotel to the speedway is genuinely only ten minutes, if that. However stocking up on more ice, bourbon and beer supplies delays that each night. The “Chilly Bin” has been a great investment and we will be sorry to say goodbye to it. Unlike the USA where every hotel has a complimentary ice machine, we have so far spent more than $50 on ice from service stations which makes it difficult to balance the $1 beer esky books. In NZ though it’s been a $2 beer esky, but the house (read Global Speedway Tours) still can’t make ends meet. Doesn’t matter though, the idea is great fun. The execution even better!
We arrived at the “drain puncturing tyre” VIP gate” around 3.00pm and got in line behind just a few cars. The public carparks were a different story. Cars were queued in their hundreds waiting to get in there. It was gonna be a big crowd. 3.30pm saw the gates open and we drove down the steep hill from Old Mill Road into the speedway to see the spot we had earmarked on Thursday night beckoning us with open arms. It was vacant so the Tarago was backed in up to the little wooden fence that serves as a perfect seat and we were set for the night. It wasn’t long though before we were enveloped by other cars which we had beaten by only a few minutes.
One such car had a Kiwi gentleman who we had befriended earlier in the tour. We renewed acquaintances again but this time discovered he has perfected the art of distilling his own alcohol and makes any type of spirit he likes. For his taste it is mainly gin, but bourbon and scotch are up there for him as well. By 4.45pm there were easily 6,000 people in the track and by 6.15pm for the first race there was definitely a bigger crowd than Boxing Night. But no matter how many fans paid $31 to get in, none of ‘em could block our sensational view overlooking turn 4.
Too much happened on the track to describe it all, except to convey that Bryan Clauson won his fourth feature out of the five conducted since Dec 26th, when he led from go to whoa to win the lion’s share of $46,000 from a gallant Michael Pickens. Both are in great form to go into the Chili Bowl together as team mates in the Rusty Kunz midget team together with Chris Windom. Surely one of them can win it???
Our overall impression of Western Springs is very positive. The 1500 lux lighting is like having a speedway at the SCG or MCG which have exactly the same level of commercial TV lighting. The standard of cars and drivers is high, very high. 45 – 50 midgets every night with just a second or so per lap between first and last. That makes racing very competitive and dangerous as risks must be taken to get past just one car, let alone 16 which Clauson did on Thursday night. Many have failed, with disastrous consequences as we have seen most nights.
The food prices however are astronomical. New Zealand has a 15% GST tax rate, but even that should not inflate the price of a bacon and egg roll for example to $7.50.
That’s it for us here now in NZ. On Monday we fly to Los Angeles for three nights in Anaheim, then drive to Las Vegas for four nights at the New York, New York Hotel before hitting Tulsa, Oklahoma on Monday Jan 12th for five nights at the Chili Bowl.
PS Western Springs speedway adopts an interesting approach when it comes to what colour flag or light is displayed for a car which gets upside down, no matter the severity of the accident. It’s always a yellow until the crash crew reach the scene, who then assess whether a red is required. If not the cars keep circulating thus avoiding the need to restart them with push cars. Saves heaps of time believe me.
Will update next from the USA.
Day 10 Sunday Jan 4th
The weather in Auckland was very annoying and did not cooperate one little bit with the tour planning. Not one race was rained out which played havoc with the itinerary, meaning today we had nothing to do. So, much to Steve’s disgust, we decided to go for a drive to look at sheep and cows. And you don’t have to go far to do that in this country.
But first we figured we better get the Tarago washed. It had dust galore on it from Western Springs, Bay Park and Huntly to the point where when we bought it back to the Hotel late yesterday, the valet parking guys in the Hotel thought we had stolen a new one.
While at the car wash we saw MOTAT across the road. Just in case you didn’t know it stands for Museum of Transport and Technology and it was a pleasant two hours spent in there looking at the history of T&T in NZ. Included in the package was a ride in a St Kilda tram, one of four on loan from the Melbourne City Council. It took us several kilometres past the Zoo to the NZ Aviation Museum which, whilst nowhere near the size of the Dayton Air Force Museum in Ohio, is still a wonderful tribute to those Kiwis who fought in WW2 in Bomber Command out of the south of England. Some great original planes and stories dedicated to the memory of so many brave flyers.
Helensville was our eventual destination, but we just aimlessly drove according to wherever the GPS wanted to take us. We never did get to Helensville because Steve decided he had seen enough and wanted to get back to the Hotel for a roast lamb dinner. But he didn’t get that luxury as we dined in style at the #1 BBQ Chinese Restaurant at 1 Commerce Street in the CBD. I’ve put the address in to give them a plug should you ever be needing a Chinese feed in Auckland. It was magnificent.
The last important thing to do tonight was finish off the $2 beer esky contents before we bequeath the Chilly Bin to the Valet parking guys. Whilst doing so, we watched various chapters from previous Global Speedway Tours movies of Month of Money and Florida tours.
Next stop …. Los Angeles.
Day 11 Monday Jan 5th
The 13 hour flight from Auckland to Los Angeles turned today into a 39 + hour epic. After checking out of the superb Rydges Hotel around midday, we still had four hours to kill before giving the rental back. Needless to say Steve had done some research and it was either hitting golf balls, visiting a winery, sampling beer at a microbrewery, or go-karting. The latter won the vote although they were electric karts powered by four on-board car batteries. They were quick, but it was like racing a hybrid Camry given the absence of any engine noise. Bob Blackman took the honours today with the fast time on lap 21 of 22.
After another four hours at the airport we eventually started the journey to the USA. Time zones create the anomaly of departing Auckland at 8.30pm on Jan 5th and landing in Los Angeles the same day at 11.15am. Weary, but excited to be one step closer to the Chili Bowl, we then spent the next two hours exiting the airport. Firstly because the plane was early and there was no gate available for us. Secondly there are dozens of international flights arriving into the Tom Bradley Terminal mid-morning and it was a nightmare getting through immigration even though there are now electronic passport and finger print scanning machines to assess eligibility to enter the USA. And thirdly because all these tourists subsequently banked up at Customs where we needed to smuggle through the Vegemite.
A further 45 minutes was spent in the Super Shuttle to Anaheim even though we had an exclusive direct service for our group. But we made it and here we are at the Menage Hotel. Some of the lads made the 10 minute walk to Downtown Disney to have dinner in the Rainforest Café while others decided sleep was best for them.
Day 12 Tuesday Jan 6th
I never thought this could ever happen. The object is to assemble speedway fans on a tour that (in this case) goes to the best midget racing in the world. New Zealand first (did I say how good it was?) and then to mecca in Tulsa for the Chili Bowl. What else could you want?
I now know the answer and that is how many roller coasters can I ride at Disneyland, California Adventure Park and Knott’s Berry Farm while we are in Anaheim? Not to mention the coaster that wraps itself around the whole of the outside of the New York New York Hotel in Vegas. I guess that’s an understandable interim reaction from guys who right now don’t need to think ahead to 316 midgets gathered in one place under one roof in one giant former Oil Rig construction building. I guess they along with the others flying in from Australia just for the Chili Bowl will enjoy that when it happens.
So today was all about the 160 acres of former citrus trees which Walt Disney bought in 1954 to build a “tourist attraction”. Well it’s grown a bit since Mickey was a boy and in 2014 the two theme parks between them pulled in 17.5 million guests. At US$96 a ticket for just one park, you get the calculator out and do the income sums. Then add in that every person also spends an average of $60 on food per day, stays an average of five nights in Disney Hotels and you get a fair idea of the scale. Oh, then add in three times those figures for Disneyworld in Florida. And a bit more for Disneyland in Paris, Tokyo and Hong Kong. If you’re interested in more history of Disney and all he / it has done (or even if you’re not) click here.
After 10 hours the lads emerged tired but happy once they had fulfilled their last task to stand in line for 90 minutes to experience Cars Land. Oh and by the way, US school kids returned to their classrooms yesterday. Imagine what it’s like to be there in school holidays!! Dinner was in the Rain Forest Café in Downtown Disney which is a free area that now sits between the two Parks to provide an opportunity for Disney to collect more money from those who don’t have the capacity to afford entry to the parks.
Tonight back in the Hotel we assigned Steve to be in charge of the drinks as an assault was launched on a $15.74 bottle of bourbon. The fact that it had 1.75 litres in it was daunting. For those mothers, wives and girlfriends reading along, don’t worry the bottle emerged victorious.
One of the lesser known theme parks in Anaheim is Knott’s Berry Farm. Whereas Disney provides hi-tech parks of an undeniably high standard for which people pay top dollar to visit, there are alternatives. In 1920 Walter Knott began selling home grown boysenberries from a roadside stand to passing motorists. 14 years later he upgraded to fried chicken dinners in a tea room along with several other buildings he constructed to sell the berries and souvenirs. Mrs Knott lent her expertise and as a result business grew to the extent that hubby Walter built his first “Ghost Town” tourist attraction and started charging admission in 1968.
Remembering that just six miles away Disney was already taking all day to count his money, Walter must have decided that he could do it too. The amazing coincidence (besides his Christian name) is that Walter owned exactly 160 acres and today Knott’s Berry Farm is exactly identical in area as the Disneyland Resort. Yesterday the Disney theme parks were crowded and busy at $96 for one park, or $150 to hop between the two in one day. Last night we had bought tickets on-line for Walter Knott’s place for $35. And we had a ball. Rode every one of the attractions starting and finishing with “Ghostrider” the longest, fastest and meanest wooden roller coaster in the west. At 1.4 kms in length the coaster car travels at an average speed of 90kph on aging wood that makes it into a rough, but sensational ride. Knott’s BF is a great place but it suffers badly to the Disney syndrome and as a result we had no waiting or delays at any ride all day.
Except at “Xcelerator” on the Boardwalk. For a ride which only takes 62 seconds, it has the longest provision for queues I’ve ever seen. We did need to line up for this one but when you get off the start line with the power of a full blown dragster and reach 131kmh within 2.3 seconds and then are hurled skywards at 90° up to a height of 209 feet before coming back down at 90° again, then it’s all worth it. Others that followed were “Silver Bullet”, “Boomerang”, “Supreme Scream”, “Montezooma’s Revenge”, “Sierra Sidewinder”, “Pony Express” and “Jaguar”. There were plenty of other rides that whilst not roller coasters were also appreciated for their ingenuity.
A great day that culminated with a sumptuous dinner at (wait for it) Taco Bell’s across the road from the Hotel ….. Isn’t South Los Angeles part of Mexico?
Day 14 Thursday Jan 8th
Time to leave Anaheim and head for Las Vegas for four nights. The 261 mile road trip was an easy one along the most magnificent freeway system imaginable. Yes I know LA freeways can get choked big time in peak hour, but that is not what we have seen. They just flow and flow with cars moving as fluently as Steve each time he had to go to the bathroom on this trip. I guess that will teach him that the ($2) esky is not designed for mid-morning consumption.
The landscape on the way to Vegas from the south is imposing. Picture the terrain that Forrest Gump ran through and you’ve got the picture. The California / Nevada border has its own little settlement which features the first opportunity to have a legal bet and no doubt some desperates make their way there daily from LA. But continuing on further allows the experience of “rounding the bend on the crest of the hill” to see Las Vegas unfold in all its glory on the floor of the Mojave Desert. Ringed by 10,000 feet mountain ranges on every side, it is these mountains which create the subtropical desert climate for the city.
As most would do on arrival, it was wind the windows down and drive from one end of the Strip to the other. We went from south to north finishing up crossing Fremont Street in the original area of town. It was at this point that it was decided Las Vegas Speedway needed to be visited. And we were there within 10 minutes. The NHRA Drag strip, the 1.5 mile Superspeedway for NASCARs and not to forget the ½ mile dirt oval.
We spent most time in the accessible 2.5 mile road track area inside the Superspeedway where the Exotic Cars were in operation. 20 self-drive laps in a Lamborghini, Ferrari, McLaren, Porsche, Aston Martin, Corvette, Mercedes SLS, Nissan GTR or Audi R8 will set you back just $1,249.00. A quite reasonable price to be honest when compared with other similar operations.
It was now dusk and we watched the spectacular sight of US Air force planes returning home to their Nellis AFB that is across the road from the speedway. They were easily seen miles away by their vapour trails glistening in the late afternoon rays of sunshine and as they got closer it seemed they were putting on a show for those watching by swooping over the speedway in preparation for landing. A truly great sight. Today’s hint? Go there at dusk in January and make sure it’s a glorious winter’s day like we had.
After checking in to the New York New York Hotel the lads went for a drink while I returned the rental Town & Country vehicle. Found them an hour or so later outside the “Nine Irishmen” restaurant so it wasn’t a hard decision to make that their menu was chosen to select food from to fill hungry tummies. Steve’s was emptier than most by the way.
Various parties did various things from then on …..
Day 15 Friday Jan 9th
The group split today to check out things they individually wanted to do but met up again at night for dinner. The majority went shopping at the Premium Outlets on South Las Vegas Boulevard. Like any US Outlet Mall this one is massive, but just because it’s Vegas, it is super massive. If Disney choose to have a presence in there, then there must be a good reason. I expect that they also have a store in the North Las Vegas Boulevard Outlet Mall which I presume is equally as big. It is but a mere eight miles away from the southern one.
The “Deuce” bus service servicing the Strip appears to be the most efficient and cheapest way to get around. Assuming of course you don’t want to walk and therefore be totally pissed off by the hundreds of low lives clicking cards to give you passes to strip clubs. Free entry and two complimentary drinks included. So how do they make money? I guess they do, but we won’t be finding out how.
The Outlets served their purpose with gifts and personal items being purchased with vigour. Although not as much as on the Month of Money tour as Delta Airlines provide two suitcases free on that tour, whereas Air NZ will only take the one home for us in eight days’ time. One member of the group at last bought a new shirt as he had forgotten to pack any at all which didn’t have a sprintcar logo on the back. I was very satisfied with my schmick yellow number from Vanity Fair …..
After dinner in the MGM Grand Sports Bar we walked northwards up the Strip to Planet Hollywood where we were to see a show which was simply called “The Vegas Show”. Luke and Bob had acquired the tickets at the Outlets for what we presume was a discount price of $65. How would you ever know? But it turned to be a most enjoyable evening, being held in a boutique theatre which held 465 people. The storyline dealt with the history of Las Vegas since the inception of entertainment in Sin City. A full blown show including a cast of 16 dancers, a 14 piece orchestra and six lead singers whose jobs it were to impersonate the great entertainers from the past who had built the reputation of the town.
Backed by various big screen video presentations of the greats, the acts were excellent with superb choreography from the dancers. In between decades, the curtains closed and other separate acts (up and comers perhaps trying to make their mark in the big time) emerged to entertain while new sets were being put in place.
Worth $65? Don’t really know, but Elton John is here at Caesars Palace from January 16th at $541 / seat, so I guess the answer might be yes.
Day 16 Saturday Jan 10th
Is Vegas expensive? Yes very much so. Even if you don’t attack the tables or poker machines. If you do, then it would become a nightmare. Access to anything in a Vegas Hotel is through the gambling area. Want to get to your room? Get something to eat or buy an overpriced item to wear, then you must walk past a zillion blackjack, craps, roulette, poker tables and slot machines.
Some facts by the numbers, taken from the Avant Guide to Las Vegas.
- 1701 Current number of licenced gambling establishments in LV
- 197,144 Current number of slot machines in LV
- 5 The percentage of visitors who say they go to LV to gamble
- 87 The percentage of visitors who end up gambling during their stay
- 3.9 The hours per day the average visitor spends gambling
- $9 billion The annual Nevada state gaming tax revenue
- $559 The average person’s gambling budget per trip
- 124,270 The number of Hotel rooms in LV
I’m sure our group won’t change those numbers much, but they will have made a contribution.
This morning we made our way to the Shelby Heritage Centre which commemorates the memory of renowned sports car racer the late Carroll Shelby who also pioneered the premier performance car company in America. Winning the 1959 Le Mans 24 hour was his greatest on track achievement, but he is best remembered for the creation of the Cobra CSX 2000, the very first one of which sits in the showroom here in Las Vegas.
After being knocked back by Chevrolet to build Sportscars using their components, he approached Lee Iacocca at Ford to build two seater sports cars and the equally legendary Iacocca agreed thus commencing a 55 year partnership which is as strong today as ever. The Cobras are still being hand built for enthusiasts across the world but it is the modification of Ford Mustangs into road going missiles that the innovative Shelby is best known for. Although there was a brief period when Iacocca headed up Chrysler that such muscle cars as the Dodge Viper were also produced by Shelby.
One such Shelby Mustang Cobra road car was shown to us today. It is called the Cobra 1000, simply because it produces 1,000 horsepower at the rear wheels!!
We made our way back to “home base” via the Mandalay, the Luxor and the Excalibur all of which are interconnected meaning you don’t have to venture out into the Vegas sunshine at all. The same applies to the majority of Casinos further down the Strip. The Irish Pub in the Mandalay attracted our attention for lunch and we sat in there with the Yankee NFL fans who were watching the live game between the Packers and Baltimore. I’ve actually never done this before and seeing the rapturous applause, whooping and cheering that breaks out every time someone catches the quarterback’s pass, was embarrassing to be honest. If an AFL fan did that every time someone took a mark, they’d be worn out by quarter time …..
Evening was a personal choice. Hopefully Steve got to eat an In and Out burger at long last!!
Day 17 Sunday Jan 11th
Pleased to report that Steve made the In-N-Out burger joint which (from the NYNY hotel) is on the other side of I-15, an eight lane freeway running north south. Most people would have walked across the overpass, but not our Steve. He claimed he couldn’t find it hence crossed I-15 by traversing the lanes and dodging cars. The fact that it was 3.00am was probably in his favour.
Las Vegas is all about beating the odds. Running a speedway tour is similar, except there is no blackjack, poker machines or roulette to deal with, just rain on race day. So far we are batting a thousand and will continue to do so given that the next five nights at the Chili Bowl are all undercover. But upon waking this morning the room was unusually dark and one peep through the curtains revealed why. It was bucketing down. Annual rainfall for the city is just 110mm (4.2 inches) and all that usually comes all at once. On average January has just two days of rain and we got one of them today.
No matter, it was on with the sightseeing by simply utilising the interconnection of the Casinos. Our first objective was the Venetian which in my view is still the best in town. Of interest is that this Hotel, built in 1999, sits on the site of the Sands, one of the originals from the mobster days. The Grand Canal Shoppes lead into the Piazza San Marco (St Mark’s Square) where sipping on a coffee and munching a pastry under brilliant (but artificial) blue skies with wisps of cloud is a great way to spend an hour. The gondolas glide past with love-struck couples in them being serenaded by an operatic gondolier. Just perfect ….
Our secondary intent today was to get (by bus) to downtown Vegas. Originally known as “Glitter Gulch” it is now called the Fremont Experience. Fremont Street being the main drag of town long before the developers went south down Las Vegas Boulevard. The Hotel Nevada (now the Golden Gate) was the town’s first hotel in 1906 and the rest is history. The most prominent feature is the five block long canopy which stretches along a now closed to traffic Fremont Street. The evening light show on the hour every hour on the underside of this canopy is simply superb and highly recommended. To the point that next time in Vegas may well see us staying downtown.
In relation to money (which is always important) dinner tonight was inside Binions Casino and was a $6.99 Chinese meal. And for mine, was as good as anything else that costs four times that on the Strip. And there was no one flicking cards to get you into a strip club …..
PS For those who have never been to Vegas when it rains, you maybe interested to know that there appears to be a lack of street drains to get rid of the water. Consequently the roads become flooded for some time. But they must be down there somewhere because a vast majority of the city’s 14,000 homeless people spend their entire time in the matrix of storm and sewer tunnels which crisscross beneath the city for 300 miles.
Day 18 Monday Jan 12th
Although the McCarron airport is almost opposite the New York New York hotel, the cab cost $30 as our African driver decided he needed to take the freeway. At least Steve could see it from a driver’s perspective this morning.
Southwest Airlines had us in Tulsa a couple of hours later where we met up with the incomparable Stubb (Scott Phillips) from Findlay, Ohio who has been a staple diet of our Month of Money tours for years. Stubb always entertains us during the Kings Royal at Eldora and now for our 2015 MoM tour will be a fulltime co-host throughout the 35 days. He is also a veteran Chili Bowl attendee so his knowledge of Tulsa and eating places will be invaluable.
Also joining us in Tulsa for the Chili Bowl are Bob, Pat, Dave and Frances who flew in last night from Australia just for the week. Our 6.00pm arrival at the Hotel left us little time to get to the Expo Centre for practice which was slated for today. It started at 8.00am given that there are now 332 midgets entered and unfortunately our 7.00pm entrance allowed us to see just three sets of “races”.
So what to do now? Stub had the answer and it was off to Twin Peaks an American sports bar / restaurant in the guise of Hooters. I’ll leave you to guess the reference to twin peaks!! Tonight was also the National Championship for College football teams and every TV (easy 40 of them) was tuned to ESPN for the game. The place was packed with race fans & teams and an hour later we had a table and settled in to watch Ohio State battle it out with Oregon. Food was superb, the drinks were cheap as and best of all it was just two minutes’ drive from the Courtyard Marriott which is our home for the next six nights. For the record the Buckeyes won 42-20 much to Stubb’s delight.
We’ll be back at Twin Peaks for sure. But to begin with we need to get the first of four qualifying nights out of the way tomorrow. Each evening has 83 different midgets attempting to get through 11 heats, two D Mains, two C Mains, two B Mains and an A main in order to make Saturday night’s 55 lap final to get the Golden Driller.
I’ll keep you posted with how it all goes if I can survive tomorrow’s temperatures that are forecast to be a minimum of -12°C with a maximum of -2…..
Day 19 Tuesday Jan 13th through to Day 23 Saturday Jan 17th
I guess it can now be truthfully said that if you travel to Tulsa, Oklahoma for the five nights of the Chili Bowl, then there is not a lot of time left to do anything other than go to the Chili Bowl. Apologies to those avid readers who made contact to find out where the daily updates were, but be assured it simply wasn’t possible.
Made even worse by the fact that most of us were stupid enough to stay up after Thursday night’s racing at the Expo Centre to watch the Pay Per View (PPV) of the first night of the Scott Darley Memorial race from Sydney. Kerry Madsen took the chequered flag just as the clock ticked over 5.45am in Tulsa. Plus there are not a lot of things to do in Tulsa. One morning I googled what we could do in the afternoon and it returned a page called “the 10 best things to do in Tulsa”. Unfortunately it only had six recommendations there. No wonder they call it the Flyover City, so named because most people only see it from 35,000 feet in the air.
But it does have the Chili Bowl. One night in conversation I heard Stubb describe the Chili Bowl as unique. And he’s dead right. It’s an incredible event and yes it’s one which has some different rules to the norm, but to change those rules would render it not unique. It would lose its distinctive and excusive aura which creates the magic that is five nights of watching the world’s best compete for the famous Golden Driller trophy.
Global Speedway Tours had bought pit passes for everyone every night so wandering through the pits of the 47,470 square metre River Spirit Expo Centre was an experience never to forget. The building simply has no interior poles and is the largest clearspan construction in the world. The pits occupy just over half of the area, with the balance being a clay oval which takes 11.08 seconds for a Swindell midget to get round, 16,000 spectators crammed in on the bleachers and a Trade show for 100 exhibitors.
Incredibly 326 cars turned up to race! There were very few American states not represented along with entries from Canada and New Zealand. Sadly the Australians who have competed in past years were not there in 2015. So the Oz flag remained in the suitcase just in case Michael Pickens thought we were waving it at him. By the way the transporters (minus the prime movers) were also inside and still there was room (just) for more. It was hard to believe that there could have been a solitary midget still left anywhere else in the USA.
Swarms of people were in the pits with fold up chairs prominently positioned in front of the giant TV screens beaming the racing back to the pits for the crews and those fans who were unsuccessful in securing a ticket for the stands. There was no sound from the TV’s, but who needed it when the racetrack was just 40 metres away and the noise is as deafening there as it is in a grandstand seat.
As you may have already guessed the promoters take over an empty building in mid December and by early January 454 truckloads of clay have been brought in to create the track, the cement fencing is put in place along with the wire catch fencing (which had to repaired five times after flipping racecars tore parts of it down) and the temporary stands erected. And then there are the concession areas to be built which sell the beer, hot dogs, popcorn, beer, corndogs, fried chicken, hamburgers, french fries, beer, pizzas, t-shirts, caps, beer, hoodies, whisky, bourbon and Crown Royal – lovely drop too.
Because of the record number of entries, racing commenced each afternoon at 5.45pm with hotlaps at 4.30pm. But on Saturday when everyone competed, start time was 11.30am! More on that later. The sounds of the racecars drifting out to the parking lot was music to the ears of the fans. But maybe not to those nearby neighbours, many of whom take Caribbean holidays in mid January. The skeptics suggest that they may have some help with the cost of their holiday.
The other thing to do in the parking lot is tailgate. It appears that this is compulsory, no matter the temperature. On the Tuesday afternoon it was -7°C and it’s not easy holding a can of Bud with big thick gloves on. But with perseverance you learn to master the skill. One benefit from the low temps is that there is no need to have ice in the esky to keep the beer cold. In fact you don’t even need an esky at all. On Tuesday night when we returned to the vehicles, Luke’s Mountain Dew which he had left in the van was partially frozen. But it was his completely frozen jelly snakes that cheesed him off more. However the weather changed remarkably in 72 hours to the extent that on Friday afternoon our tailgating took place in t-shirts and shorts at +19°C. Ice was required that day and the next.
Eating in Tulsa is of interest and is always the subject of Message Board discussions between fans as they prepare for their week of racing. The usual fast food joints are everywhere, but we did find that Hooters now has some competition. Besides Twin Peaks which I mentioned earlier, it seems that Americans rarely dine at home preferring to eat out most nights. And why wouldn’t they when the prices are so low, compared to the absurdity of the Las Vegas strip and Anaheim where everything is way over the top.
When to eat while at the Chili Bowl becomes an art form to be mastered. Unless you want to eat the aforementioned track food every night you need to top up with an early dinner around 4.00pm. Twin Peaks, the all you can eat Golden Corral Buffet, Albert G’s BBQ, the Longhorn Steakhouse and Tally’s Diner all got our business at some stage.
Historic ‘Old Route 66’ runs through Tulsa and although the road hasn’t been preserved here as much as elsewhere along its 3,945 kms, there are several places where old diners still abound and thrive. One such place was Tally’s which definitely pays homage to a bygone era with its 50’s authenticity. We sat up at the counter, all in a row on stools with every customer called “hun” or “darl” by the waitresses as they continually topped up coffees, whether you wanted it or not. Food portions were immense and you could have anything you liked as long as it was fried. Not quite true, but close.
I ordered the “chicken fried steak sandwich” and a milkshake and I was a little confused when a chicken style schnitzel the size of a dinner plate came out with two dwarfed slices of bread on either side. The breading was perfect and that ‘fried goodness’ was soon digesting in my stomach. Another example was the Smart Bomb. A massive plate of hash browns with ham, bacon and sausage, onions, peppers (both green and jalapeno), tomatoes and mushrooms, topped off with a couple of eggs any style. For the price it was a hell of a meal.
If you’re feeling nostalgic or looking for a good greasy spoon kind of place, Tally’s should have you covered while in Tulsa.
And so to the racing. The Yanks are very, very good at this game. Not only regular midget (we call them speedcars) drivers race but the best of the best Sprintcar, Modified and Late Model steerers compete as well, having rented a drive or simply being asked to join a team because of their talent and name. The competition is so red hot that a television network known as MAV TV televise the Saturday night finals live to a national audience. Along with good friend Dave Argabright on the microphones.
It didn’t take long to assume that Henry Ford invented midget racing. I would say that 70% of the cars were predominantly black with the vast majority sharing the same racecar number making it pretty difficult indeed to distinguish who was who from the stands. But by the end of each night it did become easier. Now racecars need to fuel to run and in the case of these cars it is methanol. They have exhausts which deliver the burnt methanol to the atmosphere. The building is completely enclosed. Doors are kept shut to keep interlopers (and the cold air) out. So where do the fumes go? Some go inside the spectators, or hopefully out through giant extractor fans that run down each side of the building. But they are insufficient and during a race with 24 cars, the visibility reduces significantly. But that’s what makes the Chili Bowl unique remember ….
Who won what?
A very cold opening Tuesday night turned into a balltearer after Kyle Larson was involved in a skirmish in Heat 1 and didn’t finish the heat, meaning he would be consigned to the dreaded alphabet run via the first C Main. He won that that from position 13, which meant he advanced to the B Main and started from position 13 again to win it. He advanced to the A Main and won that from position 17 in a superb drive. The crowd went berserk for their new hero. At least he was their hero until Saturday night when they found another one. In his victory lane speech when asked if he could win Saturday night, Larson said “Well if it’s not me, let’s hope it’s anyone but the Swindells”. An opinion shared by 95% of the crowd.
Wednesday night almost saw Larson’s effort from the night before repeated by the most disliked man inside the Expo Centre – Sammy Swindell. In heat 3 Sammy lost his muffler and the delight shown by the starter when he waved the black flag at car #1 was something to see. Naturally Sammy felt cheated and protested, but eventually left the track to ready himself for his D Main appearance out of position nine. He won that, started 13th in the C to finish second, started 14th in the B to win that and started 18th in the A where he climbed up to 5th before his mate the starter waved the chequered flag. Rico Abreu was first across the line after 25 laps.
A warmer Thursday night saw the very popular Jerry Coons Jnr cruise to an easy win over a name that most had never heard of. Kansas based Andrew Deal is a young 360 sprintcar driver who along with his Dad puts together a midget team to run the Chili Bowl each January. His second place transferred him straight into Saturday night’s A. Kevin Swindell ran third. At the end of Thursday the total flip count was 30 with eight of them being 9/10 rippers.
The last night of qualifying races saw some big names roll out in each heat. The reigning 2014 Chili Bowl champ Bryan Clauson was amongst them and as expected he sailed to a Friday night flag to flag win. We have now seen Clauson’s last six races and he has won five of them. Fair effort.
Saturday was the big one. 326 cars would compete throughout the day from 10.45am. The top three cars from each of the first four nights were locked into the first 12 spots and the remaining 12 cars for the A Feature would be sorted out through a series of 25 races starting with the N Main, two M Mains, two L Mains and so on. Drivers had been placed in these races by virtue of their performance (or non performance) on their qualifying night. The objective of each driver is to advance through the race and get into the top 4 in order to progress to the next race where they start from the back of the field.
An intriguing format which sees the hard chargers attempt to push their way through resulting in many scary situations. In years gone by there have been examples of drivers racing their way into the A Main by doing “the alphabet soup” as it’s called, but now it is just too hard with so many good cars and drivers entering. By 5.30pm there were only the two C Mains, two B Mains and the final A left to be run. Proceedings were halted at this point while the track was once again re-worked by the ever-present track crew led by Tony Stewart of all people who volunteered his time and expertise to ensure the track was the best it’s ever been presented.
At 7.30pm the MAV TV live telecast across the USA began with the C Mains. These were cut throat races with star drivers desperate to progress but only six would go from each to the B. Dave Darland won the first one and Sam Hafertepe Jnr the other. Darland raced to 6th in his B to secure a prized starting spot on the back row of the A. “Everybody hates Sammy” ran second to Christopher Bell in his B to get a 16th starting spot in the big one. The scene was set and after extensive delays for the TV network the 24 cars rolled out for the 55 lap final. For 26 years it used to be 50 laps but after Donnie Ray Crawford was murdered in his home by his grandfather during the running of the 2012 Chili Bowl, the length was increased by laps to commemorate his car number.
It’s history now that 22 year old midget midget driver Rico Abreu now owns a Golden Driller trophy that is nearly as big as he is. Standing just 52 inches in his socks, Rico would probably not pass the height test at Disneyland to board the rides, but his courage and talent exceeds most full size persons. Specially adapted booster seats are installed in his race cars and the pedals are extended just so his feet can reach them. He took the lead from Bryan Clauson on lap 26 and held it to the end. The crows erupted with chants of “Rico, Rico, Rico” echoing around the vast building when the engines had died and he surely must have felt 10 feet tall at that very moment.
Slammin’ Sammy was in the frame once again when he decided that young Andrew Deal had passed him unfairly which caused a yellow. As the field was lining up for the green Sammy drove into the rear of every car he thought may have contributed to his demise although his skills did get him back to a 5th place finish. Second home was son Kevin who already has four Golden Drillers in the cabinet along with his father’s five. The big mover was California’s Damion Gardner who took third from position 23.
And then suddenly it was all over. The ceremonies had been held with Sammy making his mark there too when he decided he needed to tell Kyle Larson a thing or two and officials had to separate them in full view of the fans and the TV cameras. The pits were ‘chocker’ as we walked through them for the last time. The teams had broken out the beer and the party had started, but for us with an early Sunday morning flight home, it was time to say goodbye to Tulsa until next time.
PS The flip count across the five nights was a record 61 with all drivers able to walk away.
Keep an eye on this website to see if a 2016 Chili Bowl tour is released.