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Magazine | Done That

Down in the Dirt

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Posted 04.09.12

“You lose racers in crashes,” he said. “What happened today, this morning, is different.”

I’m talking to Tim Kent, and he’s towering over me as we stand by the fat, back tires of his midget car, painted red, white, and blue. Earlier he’d smiled and yes-ma’amed me when I asked if it really was possible for him to fit behind the wheel.

“Not killed at the race track, but somewhere else—it’s not the same.” Tim was looking at me straight on then, even though his eyes had started to water. “It’s a different deal.”

Third-generation Oklahoma dirt track racer Donnie Ray Crawford’s grandfather had come after him with a gun that morning as they were heading out for the races, news reports had said. He’d been slain less than six hours before I’d met Tim at his trailer behind the stands at the 26th annual Chili Bowl, which race organizers proudly tout as midget car racing’s answer to football’s Super Bowl.

Morale at the Chili Bowl Championships that night would be way down, by Tim’s reckoning. Normally, the sound of the cheers of the Chili Bowl fans competes neck-and-neck with the ear-splitting, pissed-off-mosquito sound of the dozens of four-cylinder motors, crammed into the pointy noses of the cars. But with red-rimmed eyes, the Chili Bowl devotees persevered, wearing earplugs on cords around their necks and work boots on their feet.

They love a miniature car on the track, but my Ford Focus was dwarfed by the 4X4s and motor homes in the parking lot outside. I saw plates ranging from Maryland to Arizona between where I parked and the front door, 17 different states all in a line. Inside, the line for the bathroom was, for a change, on the men’s side.

“This is vacation for a lot of people,” Kent said, smiling like you do at a newbie at a family reunion. Racing teams were perched in lawn chairs with their elbows on their knees, their shoes in the dust that fell from the tires of their car, spooning Crock-Pot chili out of Styrofoam bowls. “Instead of going to Disney World, they come to the Chili Bowl,” he said. “We’re just a different breed.” Behind us, two women with long, white-blonde hair sunk back into a couch somehow maneuvered high on top of a trailer. Their eyes were trained on the  dozens of cars spinning and sliding around the dirt track, simulcast on a huge screen.

I once wrote a post on my blog about how much I didn’t know about this mega-event, the Chili Bowl—couldn’t you get high from the fumes from all that racing indoors, and didn’t we all agree at some point to stop using the word midget? A former classmate of mine— Sara was the class president, in fact—left a comment. She’d married into the world of midget car racing. Her husband was a star of the football team where we went to school, the all-state lineman who wore the jersey with the name KENT across the shoulders. But now, for them, racing was the big thing.

Tim’s evenings and weekends are spent in the shop or on the road with the Oil Capital Racing Series, a circuit of tracks within 250 miles of the Kent residence in south Bristow. By day he works in heat and air, pulling ten-hour shifts four days each week. It takes a lot of money to make a car go, Tim said, so he and his cousin, who also races, split the proceeds of a fireworks stand each summer. It’s enough to fuel most of their race season.

Sara was in the stands three years ago when the tire of another car invaded the cage of Tim’s car. The crash broke his collarbone, his sternum, and his arm. “The other stuff is shocks, radius rods and stuff, getting inside the car with you and poking you or stabbing you,” Tim said. “And then, there’s always fire.” But everyone takes risks, Sara said, no matter what you do for a living. But now she makes sure they’re together when he goes to the track.

“There’s nothing like playing in the dirt, going 100 miles an hour,” Tim said. “This is something everybody wants to do. Tony Stewart grew up in this. This is where we all come from. Most of your true dirt car guys would rather run dirt than the NASCAR deal.”