It’s a first for a New Zealand motorsport team. The Synergy Racing New Zealand team, from Auckland, took two midget speedway race cars with New Zealand-built engines, New Zealand-built Aggressor chassis, a New Zealand crew and two New Zealand drivers to race against the world’s best midget racers. And then both cars, driven by Michael Pickens and Brad Mosen, finished the Chili Bowl main feature race in very credible positions.
Never before have Kiwi-built engines and midget race cars been shipped from New Zealand to race at the Chili Bowl, says the team’s co-driver and designer of the unique Synergy V8 engine which powers the team’s cars, Simon Longdill, who adds: "Many regard the Tulsa, Oklahoma midget event as the Indy 500 of speedway racing, so it’s a pretty big affair!"
"The next major achievement came when Michael and Brad ran so strongly in their fiercely-competitive qualifying races that they both went straight into the starting line-up for the Chili Bowl. Some of the biggest, best US teams didn’t even make the Chili Bowl, let alone get two cars into it, so we were rapt!"
On the night itself, 16 January, Pickens finished eleventh and Mosen 20th to be 2010’s top-placed Chili Bowl rookie.
"We basically wanted to see how well we can do against the world’s best midget race teams in such a competitive environment," explains Longdill.
"One of the interesting things about the Chili Bowl is that it’s up to the organisers whether you can run or not. There are no published rules and regulations as such, so it’s pretty much the only midget race when you can build almost anything that’s still basically a midget speedway car and race against the best drivers from around America and the world.
The team flew out of Auckland to Los Angeles on 3 January before clearing the cars through US Customs and driving east for 2,300 km to Tulsa, Oklahoma and a week’s worth of midget racing from 11 to 16 January.
"It was a great achievement to do what we did," says Longdill. "But, you know, it’s still a shame knowing that we really did have a chance to win it. Up until the night, it was only something we had dreamed of, but when Michael got up to second place within a few laps of the start of the main 50-lap race... well...what might have been is all you can think... but obviously we’re absolutely delighted with the success we have had as a team. To qualify both cars in the main event – you know, of the original 260 entrants, only 25 make it into Saturday’s Chili Bowl feature race and we had both our CRC-backed midgets in the main race. That was awesome!"
In the week-long celebration of midget car racing run inside the Tulsa State Fairgrounds building – outside it’s minus 12 degrees Celsius – first up is the Monday night practice for all 260 entrants. Pickens was among the quickest on the nearly quarter-mile (0.4 km) clay oval circuit, which drew plenty of attention for the Kiwi team with their innovative Synergy V8 engines.
Drivers then go into a draw for one of four nights of qualifying races. On Tuesday, Pickens went through his initial qualifying races very strongly and he started in sixth for the night’s main 25-lapper. Charging to the front, Pickens swapped the lead backward and forward with young American star Zach Daum, until Daum took the lead on the very last corner to snatch the win. However Pickens’ second place still earned him and the Synergy Racing team a direct slot into the Chili Bowl starting line-up.
Mosen’s performance in Thursday’s qualifying was equally impressive as he won his first heat from World of Outlaws speedway star and NASCAR regular Kasey Kahne. Mosen was second to Kahne in the second qualifier and then went on to secure third place in the night’s 25-lapper main race and, like Pickens, earn a direct place in Saturday’s feature race.
"Brad drove a magnificent final qualifying race to earn his automatic starting place in the Chili Bowl, the only rookie this year to do so. The field was very tough with, I think, five past Chili Bowl winners and guys of Kasey Kahne’s ability, so the result is a real credit to Brad.
"It’s amazing how tough the racing is here," continues Longdill. "When we were rolling the cars out to the feature race, we noticed how many of the big name teams and drivers had their cars sitting in the pits or even back in the trailers – they’d failed to make the main event. There were lots of top-class, big budget, five car teams with only one or even no cars in the final and here we were; a team from down-under on a very modest budget with both our cars in the final... that was an amazing feeling.
"Both Michael and Brad showed they really are world-class drivers, and but for that little bit of luck, the actual Chili Bowl result could have been very different – mind you, no doubt about 22 other teams think that too!"
Speedway fans will recognise the names of the other major teams who matched the Synergy Racing team’s achievement of getting two cars into the final – Kasey Kahne Racing, Keith Kunz Motorsports, Swindell Motorsports and Corey Tucker Racing.
Longdill says the cars ran flawlessly in the Chili Bowl and showed the speed that they have in them.
"At one stage, both our cars were running together only inches apart in fourth and fifth, and looking good to go forward – quite an exhilarating sight! If it weren’t for a handful of racing incidents, things could have been different – that’s racing..."
Longdill says one of the best comments they had, which demonstrated the interest shown in Synergy Racing’s Chili Bowl campaign, came from a long-time competitor. "He said, ‘you guys don’t even know how big this is. Guys run here ten years to make the ‘A main’ [Chili Bowl feature race] and you guys turn up here in your Budget truck, with wood planks for ramps, and put two cars straight in there. It’s like an elementary school football team making it to the finals of the Super Bowl’! No one believed a little Kiwi team that’s travelled 7,600 miles with home-grown drivers, cars and engines qualified and finished both cars in the main event, so that sort of feedback has been pretty amazing."
The 24th annual Chili Bowl midget championship race was won by 20-year-old Kevin Swindell, the youngest-ever winner in the event’s 24 year history who also raced at Western Springs Speedway in New Zealand earlier in January alongside Pickens and Mosen. His father, Sammy, a five-time Chili Bowl champion, finished third, with Cole Whitt second.