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Midget Racing Revolution

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Published in Racing
Monday, 08 April 2019 10:08

For many years, the annual migration to Tulsa, Okla., for the Lucas Oil Chili Bowl Nationals has triggered a near-mass delusion.

Seeing a record number of midgets under one roof and a huge crowd on hand suggested this unique racing discipline was enjoying a level of popularity only exceeded by those heady days in the immediate aftermath of World War II.

Then reality would set in. Car counts across the country would suffer by the time the frost had departed for good and this would be quickly followed by reports of the near demise of some of the oldest, and proudest, midget racing clubs in the land.

From a historical perspective, the rise and fall of midget racing has been a constant storyline for seven decades running, with the trend, unfortunately, generally pointing south.

This past January, once again, folks flocked to the Oil Capital for some indoor fun and left exhausted after six days of action, and a thrilling duel between Christopher Bell and Kyle Larson in the finale.

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However, by the time the final wheel had turned, there was something truly different in the air. It seems as if a wider audience suddenly viewed midget racing not as a mere wintertime diversion, but rather as a professional enterprise worthy of serious attention.

The presence of proven veterans, bolstered by the influx of fresh talent, appears to have ignited the fans’ attention, and perhaps most importantly has attractive sponsors intrigued. Yet, a closer look indicates the midget revival, while real, is slightly nuanced.

It’s not surprising that two of the sport’s more successful owners, Keith Kunz and Tim Clauson, are thrilled with this state of affairs.

When reflecting on the current scene, Kunz observed, “I think on the participants’ side, and the fans’ side, it’s just hot right now. It seems like there is more interest in car ownership. That has really picked up. I think a lot of that is because of Larson and Bell, given that they come back when they can to race midgets. That has put a lot of attention on midget racing. It has gotten a lot of media attention, NASCAR media attention, and that has brought a lot of fans to the seats.”

However, as Kunz is quick to point out, the talent pool as a whole and the expected crop of exciting young racers are also noteworthy.

“This is partly due to the increase in car owner participation,” he said. “There are more cars out there, good cars, so there are more seats available. There are also a lot of car owners who want to win, and they are hiring drivers who can do that. Right now, at any race in USAC, the list of possible winners is about 15 drivers deep, whereas just a few years ago it was maybe just six deep.”

Clauson, for one, has always credited Kunz for forcing everyone to elevate their game and feels this is happening in every sector of midget racing.

As evidence of the momentum at hand, Clauson points to “the growth of teams, and the sponsorships we see coming into the sport at the corporate level and also within the series.”

He also believes some of the higher profile events have been key to this renaissance.

“The Chili Bowl continues to grow and grow,” he noted. “And it really is the Super Bowl of the sport. It’s not only becoming the pinnacle of midget racing, but all of short-track racing. There is just so much attention on it. Then last year, we had the BC39 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. I don’t think we even know yet how big that was for midget racing. For that time, everybody was paying attention. Time kind of stopped. It was so great not just because of the racing, but for how hard everybody worked to make it a success.”

With these developments, Clauson also feels drivers are approaching the sport with a different mindset.

“Three or four years ago, people went midget racing just to get somewhere else,” he said. “And I’m not saying that isn’t still an allure of it.  Yet, when you have fewer races, when you win, there is exponentially more attention on you.”

What also excites Clauson is how growth in the sport along with added sponsor dollars allow him to truly give young racers a real chance. He’s not just talking about working with a family with a healthy checkbook.

“As the teams expand, we are able to give talented kids who did it the old way an opportunity,” Clauson said. “Take Cole Bodine. We told him when he came, that if he worked with us, there was a chance it would open some doors for him, and it did. He just got hired away from us, with our blessing, because that is what we wanted for Cole.”

The post Midget Racing Revolution appeared first on SPEED SPORT.

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