There aren’t many things Dan Binks hasn’t experienced during his legendary career in motorsports. Prior to last week, though, the Chili Bowl Nationals was among them.
Binks retired after nearly four decades in motorsports, which stretched from success in the 1980s with driver Tommy Kendall in IMSA’s GTU category before the duo wreaked havoc in Trans Am for the majority of the following decade with Roush Racing, and also winning a NASCAR Truck Series title with Greg Biffle. Then Binks began a journey with Corvette Racing in 2002 that spanned another 18 years, picking up six victories at the 24 Hours of Le Mans along the way.
In “retirement” the Michigan resident has kept busy with numerous projects, including one that has taken him on a unique journey back to the grassroots level.
“I bought all the old engine parts from Katech,” Binks told RACER. “So any old Corvette, they have to buy their parts from me. That’s my sort of M.O. I do cars and engines at my house now on my own schedule. I travel and just have a good time. Kevin Doran has a Sprint Car team [Doran Enterprises] and a Silver Crown team. He asked me about building a Sprint Car engine, and one thing led to another and I built the Sprint Car engine that Kody (Swanson) won the Sprint Car championship with for ’21. Then I said, ‘Hey, I’m building the Midget engine.’ And he said, ‘I’m buying a car.’ And that’s how it went. I built my Midget engine in 105 days. I took an LS engine; I don’t want to get too technical because it basically is a GTLM Corvette engine that I cut the side off.
“Then Kody drove it one time and had a contract with somebody else to drive the Midget, so it never got run. The first race was at Anderson (Speedway in) Indiana. I don’t know what the date was. We missed the first practice session because the car wasn’t ready. Made it to the second practice, set the fastest lap ever in Anderson on lap four in a Midget. Then he qualified on the pole. They inverted the top 10 and he finished second. It rained with 10 to go and we finished second, so plenty fast enough. But it’s a little bit of a weird deal with Kody, right? The guy’s so badass, it doesn’t matter… I mean, I could tell you the engine’s the best ever, but it’s not… OK, I mean, it’s plenty good. It runs good and everything, but Kody makes everything look like it’s unbelievable.”
If anything, it was a moment that helped bring things full circle for Binks, who first fell in love with Sprint Cars and Midget racing at 14 years old when his dad drove him in a Volkswagen bus up to Ascot Park from San Diego.
“I always said, ‘Someday, I’m gonna have a Midget. That’s going to be what happens.’ There was some guy that writes for USAC or whatever and he said, ‘You know, winning the Chili Bowl is really hard.’ And I looked at him and said, ‘Yeah, I know that. And so is winning Le Mans six times.’
“If it wasn’t hard it wouldn’t be worth it, right? I love the challenge. Right now in my garage, there’s six engines that are in all different states of repair from a $150,000 GTLM engine to a Sprint Car engine. I got all of them. I got a turbocharged six-cylinder. I mean, there’s s*** everywhere. But the coolest racing ever — still, they haven’t ruined it yet — is Sprint Cars and Midgets. I love it. There’s basically no rules. The car has to weigh this much and the tire has to be in this place. I came from GTLM where you can’t even drill a hole in the car because it’s not on the FIA paperwork, you know? That’s not racing to me anymore.
“There’s no limits here. Whatever you can dream up, you can do. I don’t have millions of dollars. I spent all of my own money. I tell people that I spent my pontoon boat money on my Midget engine.”
The opportunity for Binks to compete at his first Chili Bowl Nationals came courtesy of USAC Hall of Fame crew chief Bob East and Klatt Enterprises, with 2008 winner Damion Gardner piloting the No. 71G “Beast” entry for the one and only motor built by Binks.
In all, there were 394 entries with a final car count of 381 at this year’s event. Many of those were powered by Esslinger, Toyota and Stanton. The hope going into the event for Binks was a decent preliminary night run backed by a performance that could push into the C or even B Feature on Saturday, noting that making the A “would be like winning the lottery.”
When their preliminary night arrived on Thursday of the week-long spectacle, the contest took on a life of its own and presented obstacle after obstacle for Binks and Co. It started with contact in the heat, which bent both the front and back of the car and broke the rear end. After a repair, they returned to the D-Feature and overcame a flat tire to finish second, then rose from 12th to fourth in the C. Perhaps the most impressive run of the night came in the B-Feature when Gardner charged from 16th to third in 15 laps to make the A.
The main event of the night proved to be too much to overcome, though, as the group battled back from another early crash to knock on the door of a top-10 finish before a final blow was dealt hitting the Turn 3 wall just eight laps from the finish.
Ultimately, the damage was significant enough to end hopes of running on Saturday. Even still, it was clear their presence was felt after one of the event’s more captivating performances.
Going into it, Binks noted a Midget rolling around the Tulsa Expo Center didn’t need 400 horsepower like some teams came with; it only needed to have an ability to drive both the top and bottom lanes, with a low rpm range (starting at 3,000 as opposed to 4,500) to throttle off corners and push ahead of three-wide battles.
“You’ve got to have the gas pedal hooked to the tire,” Binks said. “No matter where the driver puts it, it has to run.”
While in some respects the situation had an “Us against the world” feel to it, at the end of the day it was just an experiment. For Gardner, working with Binks was an eye-opener.
“Dan, he’s a smart guy,” Gardner said. “The motors that he’s made are amazing. They really are. He’s taken some motors and made some really nice pieces. He’s got a 410 motor and he has this four-cylinder here, and they’re really amazing. His credentials are huge, but I think it would be a sweet blend of what he brings. Like, he brings a great motor, a great piece, and probably makes people look at it and think about a different format or different platform to use. And it definitely looked pretty good, so people will probably think about that.”
As Binks came out of the hauler, a cold beer in hand and a bittersweet smile across his face, he looked over at the carcass of a chassis that fought until the end.
“We fired off the other day and we were pretty good,” Binks told RACER. “We went and tested outdoors and it was OK. We came here today and it didn’t run very clean when we got going in the first outing. We worked really hard on it and got it running better. Then, he bumped into somebody, bent the front of it, bent the back of it and broke the rear end. I mean, it was just one thing after another; two flat tires. But all in all, the whole team, Bob and Terry (Klatts) and Damion, just taking a chance on my engine and learning as much as we did, I’m pretty excited. I’m bummed out that we crashed. I bummed out. We were probably going to go to the B, it looked like, maybe the C on Saturday, which would’ve been unbelievable.
“If you told somebody that you were gonna build an engine and take it to the Chili Bowl and make it to the C or the B, they’d call you a liar, right? I mean, this is the second time this engine’s raced. And, arguably, (Thursday) it was the fastest car at any given time, because we came from the back every time. So, I’m excited. I’m hooked. This is the best racing I’ve been involved in, in a long, long time. I think more people should watch it somehow or come here.”