As soon as the airport door opened, Brandon Akau knew he had traveled a long way to race with some friends.
Akau and three others traveled from Hawaii to compete in this week’s Chili Bowl at the River Spirit Expo Center. He is joined by Kala Keliinoi, Rocky Silva and Larry Petersen.
“The last few months we’ve been getting like winter clothing and stuff, trying to be prepared,” Akau said. “And sure as we opened that door, yup, we needed all that equipment.”
Even though the temperature has risen since, the temperature was below 30 degrees when the group landed in Tulsa on Saturday night.
“I can walk around in a T-shirt, so I’m OK now,” Petersen said. “But the first day we got here, oh, my gosh, I mean, teeth chattering. We were like, ‘Do you have any more blankets?’ It was cold.”
Petersen was the mastermind behind the trip to Tulsa. Every year, he hosts a Chili Bowl watch party at his Hawaii home that features barbecue and the friends who made the trip with him this week. They raced together at the local track on their home island of Oahu until it closed in 2006. Since the track’s closing, traveling became a requirement no matter where they wanted to race, which included the expenses of shipping their cars and equipment.
As they watched last year’s Chili Bowl, one of them joked they should race in it. But Petersen took it seriously. He made some phone calls to see about borrowing a car they wouldn’t have to ship. The friend wasn’t so sure after the first talk about letting Petersen use his car, but after a few weeks, the friend called Petersen back.
“He said, ‘You really want to do this?’ ” Petersen recalled. “I said, ‘It’s on the bucket list, man. I’m getting old.’ So we set the thing up.”
At first, Petersen was going to be the only one to race, with his friends serving as part of his pit crew. Then they decided if they’re also making the long trek to Tulsa, they might as well race, too — even Akau, who is usually the crew chief and rarely races.
“We found ways that we could rent a car, then we just started to go one by one, ‘I wanna try, I wanna try. Let’s go,’ ” Akau said.
Monday night was the first time the group didn’t watch Chili Bowl races on a TV across the Pacific Ocean. All of them but Keliinoi raced Tuesday after a practice run Monday.
Petersen finished in fifth place in the D Feature 1 race. Silva and Akau competed against each other in the D Feature 2 race, with Silva placing third and Akau fifth.
“We’re in no way, shape or form in any league of Kyle Larson, Christopher Bell, nothing like that,” Petersen said. “We’re here to enjoy ourselves and just ... this is an amazing feat what they do here. We’re just here to have fun.”
After Petersen maneuvered around racing fans and cars through the Expo Center, he and Akau immediately grinned and threw up the shaka — the “hang loose” sign — with their hands as soon as they saw each other. The day before, Petersen got Chili Bowl legend Sammy Swindell to pose for a picture using the shaka gesture.
Petersen, a man from paradise, is having the time of his life in Tulsa.
“Just to come here,” Petersen said. “… This is one of the races I’ve wanted to come and watch, but this is icing on the cake that we get to go around in circles.
“In all honesty, we don’t expect anything. We just came here, and if we come in dead last, I don’t care. As long as we’ll be able to roll up the car in a trailer, the car owners are happy, everybody has a good time, that’s the main thing for us.”