Bernal takes 15th in prestigious midget car race

Ryan Bernal

Ryan Bernal got goosebumps as he drove his car down the ramp and onto the track during the driver introductions before the start of last Saturday night’s Chili Bowl A-Feature Race in Tulsa, Okla.
The country’s No. 1 midget racing event attracts top professional drivers from several different series, all in the hopes of winning the coveted Chili Bowl title. This was the first time in four tries that Bernal had made the main event race, and he couldn’t help but get emotional.
“In driver intros the place goes dark, but everyone in the crowd has their phones out and lights are flashing everywhere,” said Bernal, a 2012 San Benito High graduate. “You feel li ke you’re at some type of concert.”
Fittingly, Bernal put on a rock star-type performance, finishing in 15th place out of a 24-car field. But that 15th-place showing meant Bernal was the 15th best out of over 300 drivers who started the week hoping to make the A-Feature Race final.
“It’s pretty amazing to be in the top 24 out of 330 drivers,” Bernal said. “So it’s a pretty big deal for me.”
The Chili Bowl is a huge event for even the top pros. Racing legend Roger Penske served as the event’s grand marshal, Tony Stewart didn’t race but helped prepare the race track, and other notable names in attendance included NASCAR stars Kurt Busch and Danica Patrick.
“The Chili Bowl is everything I thought it would be,” Busch said in a USA Today article. “It’s unique. What I like about it is you have the up-and-comers plus the legends of open wheel. It’s a great dirt-track atmosphere. The only thing different from what I expected is the track itself—bigger than I expected. I expected it to be smaller and tighter. I can see where the Midgets are a perfect fit for this track.”
Bernal had a strong car and setup thanks to J.J. Yeley, who finished 17th in NASCAR’s Nationwide Series last season. Yeley called Bernal two to three months ago and asked him about his plans for the Chili Bowl.
“He gave me a call out of the blue, and I told him I didn’t really have anything lined up at the time,” Bernal said. “I knew he would put a good car under me, and he really mentored me throughout the week. I definitely had a good crew, a great car and some awesome sponsors like Toyota. It all added up to making my job a lot easier.”
In three previous tries, Bernal had never made the A-Feature Race final. Earlier in the week in the preliminary race, Bernal finished fourth to qualify for the B Feature-1 final, where he finished third to gain the last qualifying spot for the A-Final.
“When I saw the white flag (signifying one lap to go) in the B race, I just knew I had to hit my marks and I was going to be in the main final,” Bernal said. “Just knowing I was close to racing in the A final was pretty unreal.”
In the main event final, Bernal completed the 55-lap race in 15th, two spots ahead of Yeley. Ricky Stenhouse Jr., the 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Rookie of the Year, didn’t event qualify for the main event final.
“The A main race is the hardest race in the country to make,” Bernal said. “The competition that’s in the field shows you’re racing against the best drivers anywhere. Come Saturday night, it really sets in when you see all the drivers who are in the race. You’re racing with and beating the best.”
During the driver warm-ups before the start of the A-Feature Race final, Bernal was in his car when Stewart approached him.
“He just said congratulations for making the A final and offered me good luck,” said Bernal, who plans on running in the King of the West Series (winged sprint cars) and the USAC West Coast 360s (non wing) this year.
Bernal recently completed EMT school and will start Fire Academy training in July. He’s got a full race schedule this season and thanks his current employer, Joe Bowman of the First Trust Alarm Company, for giving him a flexible schedule that allows him to travel the country to compete in races.
Whatever happens in his racing career, Bernal can bask in the glory of the 2015 Chili Bowl, where he proved his mettle as a race-car driver.
“I think everything fell into place this year,” he said. “Doing well in the Chili Bowl involves a lot of luck and talent going into it. The last couple of years I had some bad luck, and this time it all worked out.”
When Bernal finished Saturday night’s race, reality set in—he had just completed a drive of a lifetime, beating some top pros along the way. Mentally and physically, Bernal put it all together in what could prove to be a harbinger of his racing career.

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