TULSA, Okla. — Anybody who laid eyes on Ryan Newman knew he had accomplished his No. 1 goal in his heat race Friday at the Lucas Oil Chili Bowl Nationals.
Sure, the 44-year-old from South Bend, Indiana, finished third after starting ninth and collected valuable passing points. But the sizable grin on his face was the product of the joy that comes with simply racing a midget car on a quarter-mile dirt track.
At this point in his career, that kind of fun is the priority.
“But number two, we want to win,” Newman said with the same smile.
Newman in 2022 is racing in his third Chili Bowl, an event known as the Super Bowl of midget car racing. This is the type of stage on which the 2002 NASCAR Cup Series Rookie of the Year and 2008 Daytona 500 winner plans to compete in the near future.
Newman, who raced full-time in the Cup Series from 2002-21, does not have a ride for 2022. But he does not consider himself retired. And he said Friday the Chili Bowl is the “only thing on paper” he has planned this year, but that will change.
Newman specifically named dirt late model racing, the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour and the USAC Silver Crown as competitions he intends to enter in 2022. He called them “bucket list items (he) missed along the way” through a couple decades in the Cup Series.
Chances are, he will be the same star on those stages that he was Friday in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Countless phone cameras held by spectators were aimed at Newman when climbed out of his No. 75B Clauson-Marshall Racing midget car following his heat race. Those cameras captured the driver’s embrace with two daughters, followed by his fist bumps with surrounding team members. “That’s Ryan Newman,” one fan gasped at the scene.
Even at an event littered with some of the best from NASCAR’s national series, Newman stands out as a celebrity figure. Fans are as thrilled to see him as he is delighted to attack that so-called bucket list.
The Chili Bowl specifically is special to Newman because of the partner and team name on the panels of his car.
The Indiana Donor Network’s Driven2SaveLives program, which raises awareness around organ, tissue and eye donation, launched in 2016 in the wake of IndyCar driver Justin Wilson’s on-track accident and death. Race fans began signing up as organ donors in honor of the late driver.
Later that year, another open-wheel driver, National Sprint Car Hall of Famer Bryan Clauson, was killed in an on-track accident. Like Wilson, Clauson saved five lives as an organ donor.
The Driven2SaveLives program continues on in a partnership with Clauson-Marshall Racing, a team Newman bought into as part-owner in 2017. Newman joined the Driven2SaveLives program in 2020 ahead of his Chili Bowl debut.
– Clauson Marshall Racing (@ClausonMarshall) January 14, 2022
“The program we have here is pretty amazing,” Newman said. “It’s an honor to be promoting someone like Bryan Clauson and the legend he was and is.”
Newman’s car at the 2022 Chili Bowl does not sport the letters “Ryan Newman” or even his “Rocket Man” nickname. It instead lists “Cody Brommer,” an organ donor who saved five lives following his death seven years ago at age 21 due to multiple head traumas from playing football. Brommer’s jersey number was 75, hence Newman’s entry.
Newman carried the names of other organ donor heroes on his Chili Bowl cars in 2020 and 2021, as well.
Asked why he’s back for his third Chili Bowl, Newman looked at his car: “To have what we have this weekend, with Cody Brommer’s name on the car, to represent someone who’s an organ and tissue donor, somebody who saved five lives because of his life, and the difference it makes for so many other people out there.”
The next chapter of Newman’s career will bring new challenges, the first of which arrives in Tulsa. He finished fifth in his qualifier Friday. He then finished 13th in the evening’s preliminary A Feature, a new career high for such an event after finishing 21st in 2020. That puts him in a C-Main for Saturday.
“We know it’s a tough task,” Newman allowed. “It’s not 30 midgets showing up for 20 spots. We’ve got I think 82 tonight. It’s no easy task to make it into the A, and obviously the big race (Saturday).
“But to be able to have fun is really what it’s all about.”
So that’s where Newman’s career will go from here — toward the amusement. It’s less of a return to the levels of racing on which he built his NASCAR career and more of a quest to find fulfillment driving midgets, late models and modifieds.
And yes, his family is a factor. As Newman prepared for Friday night’s feature at the Chili Bowl, his family helped him strap into his car. When he returned from the race, they again were the first to welcome him back.
These moments — with Newman surrounded by the people he loves and partnered with teams and sponsors for which he cares deeply — will undoubtedly contribute to the fun he plans to have with this portion of his career.