While most of the motorsports world goes dormant for the winter, Midget racing keeps its wheels turning with some of the biggest indoor events in dirt track racing.
From the Southern Illinois Center in Du Quoin, IL, where the 2024 Xtreme Outlaw Midget Series presented by Toyota season opener takes place in March, to the SageNet Center in Tulsa, OK, for the 38th running of the Chili Bowl Nationals, indoor Midget racing is home to some of the most unique events of the entire year.
“You still have kind of the same vibe with being indoors and all the people watching, but from the track standpoint, I think [Southern Illinois Center] a little bit different,” said 2023 Xtreme Outlaw Series champion Jade Avedisian. “Du Quoin is super small. Last year, it didn’t get too wide, so it kind of made it tricky throughout the Heat Races to get by people. Come Feature time, it started widening out and it was actually a really good race.
“It’s a lot smaller than Chili Bowl, in my opinion, it races a lot tighter. At Chili Bowl, you’re right against the fence or riding on the berm. At [Du Quoin], there’s only two or three cars [wide] from the berm. It made the racing really tight, which I thought was really good.”
Before 300-plus teams make the annual expedition to Oklahoma for the Chili Bowl in January, POWRi Racing presents the first indoor racing event in the lineup with the sixth running of the Junior Knepper 55 this Saturday, Dec. 16, on the indoor 1/6-mile oval in Du Quoin – live on DIRTVision.
Since 2015, the winter season special has honored Walter “Junior” Knepper, the famed Illinois car owner of Midgets and Non-Wing Sprint Cars, whose career spanned several decades and accumulated over 50 Feature wins with USAC. A $5,000 grand prize is on the line for the winner of the 55-lap main event.
The Junior Knepper 55 is set to feature several drivers also projected to compete in the 2024 Xtreme Outlaw Series opener in March; one of which is inaugural Series champion, Zach Daum.
Daum, 32, of Pocahontas, IL, made his first appearance in the event last year and will pilot the Spike Chassis No. 91 for Harris Racing for the second-straight year. Come March, he’ll begin his quest for a second Xtreme Outlaw Series championship in Du Quoin behind the wheel of the Trifecta Motorsports No. 7U.
Driving a brand-new King Chassis No. 5d for his own team, Daum drove to a fifth-place finish in the 2023 Xtreme season opener in Du Quoin but fell victim to engine issues the following night. Though he did make some progress forward from eighth on the starting grid to finish fifth, Daum still recognizes the challenges the tricky, semi-narrow oval presents.
“You can get stuck in a bad Heat… there’s just so many factors that play into your night there, and it’s all multiplied so much there,” Daum said. “You’re probably paying a lot more attention at Du Quoin because it’s a lot easier to stall the motor out. It’s such a tall gear you run there, you jab the brake and you can stall the motor there a lot quicker than other places.”
Keith Kunz Motorsports pilot Taylor Reimer also endured the challenges of the Southern Illinois Center for her first time in 2023 with finishes of 17th and ninth in the two-day event last March.
“Du Quoin is quite a bit smaller than Chili Bowl,” Reimer, of Tulsa, OK, said. “Usually by the end of the night at Chili Bowl, the track widens out quite a bit and you’re able to run top to bottom, slide jobs. Whereas Du Quoin, it’s usually a one-lane type of track. It makes it tougher to pass people, and you kinda just have to be there waiting for someone to mess up, or just slide them and hope it sticks.”
Over 450 miles southwest of Du Quoin lies the SageNet Center in Tulsa, OK – a 446,400 square-foot building home to a temporary 1/4-mile oval and the biggest Midget race in the world. Over 300 drivers make the trip annually to the Chili Bowl Nationals, fighting for only 24 spots in the main event and one of open wheel racing’s most coveted prizes – the golden driller trophy.
“It’s the one thing I want more than anything in motorsports is a driller,” Daum said. “Hopefully, one of these days, we’ll put ourselves in position to get one. I’d probably retire on the spot if that happened.”
Since his event debut in 2006, Daum has qualified for the main event eight times and finished inside the top-five twice with a best finish of third in 2016. He’s traded rides a few times since then, but the mentality remains the same – always be looking for ways to get better in Tulsa, even during the regular national Midget season.
“How to be better at Chili Bowl, how to get a driller, how to put yourself in a position on Saturday night to get a driller, what you can do to your car to make it better throughout the year to go there,” Daum said. “It’s just a lot of things that go into Chili Bowl for me.”
This past January, Avedisian made her Chili Bowl debut at 16 years old and finished 18th in the main event – tying the record for the highest-finishing female in event history and collecting Rookie of the Year honors.
This time around, she’s coming into the event as one of the three national Midget Series champions. 2024 will also mark her first Chili Bowl appearance as part of the Keith Kunz Motorsports (KKM) stable – the most decorated team in event history with eight main event wins between co-owners Keith Kunz and Pete Willoughby.
Given the credentials of both her and her team, Avedisian knows the pressure she’s facing in this year’s event.
“I try not to put too much [overthinking] into it,” Avedisian said. “I know I had a lot of pressure on me this year especially – that was a huge part of my career. I was told to get a championship, and we did. We put a lot of hard work into it, and now that box is checked off.”
As one of Avedisian’s teammates at KKM, Reimer has also felt the heat of the spotlight in Tulsa. She came up a few spots short of a transfer into the main event in 2023 but has since added a second full season on the Xtreme Outlaw Series to her resume, priming her for a better result as a hometown star in 2024.
“I think the pressure comes from just knowing that I have a really good team behind me and when I get out there, it’s really all up to me,” Reimer said. “They give me everything that they possibly can to succeed. At that point, it all comes down to my driving abilities.”
Tune into DIRTVision to watch both winter Midget specials – the Junior Knepper 55 (Dec. 16) and the 2024 Xtreme Outlaw Midget Series season opener (March 15-16) – in Du Quoin, IL.