RACING SCENE - (Why race midgets on Thanksgiving) - By Tim Kennedy
LOS ANGELES - What is the attraction of an annual auto race on Thanksgiving evening that causes people to leave the comfort of their homes on a national holiday? Thousands of people forego festive holiday meals and gatherings of family and friends to attend an outdoor midget auto race no matter what the temperature is at the race site.
People either dine early in the afternoon or skip traditional turkey and all the trimmings dinner or postpone it one day. Some people joke that their turkey dinner at the speedway is a hot dog with mustard and relish and a topping of track dust. The reason? A midget auto racing classic event that began during Great Depression year 1934 to celebrate the season conclusion of the then new sport of midget auto racing.
With cold weather and snow blanketing much of the country each year by late November, outdoor racing is not possible that late in the year. Southern California racing is possible because of the Mediterranean climate in the southern part of the Golden State. Rarely has the Thanksgiving race been delayed by adverse weather.
The first “Turkey Night” race took place at the quarter-mile clay oval Gilmore Stadium in Hollywood.. The former Gilmore Oil owned property is now the site of CBS-Television City and the Farmer's Market at 3rd St. and Fairfax Avenue.
The Thanksgiving Midget Grand Prix is the longest running event in short track auto racing. The Turkey Night race has taken place in Southern California at nine speedways, five of them now closed for various reasons. Dirt and even two paved tracks have hosted from one to 30 of the TNGP events.
Midget racing and the affectionately named “Turkey Night” race helped launch the “big car” careers of many Indianapolis 500 drivers in the 1930s and decades following World War II. All auto racing ceased during the war years to conserve materials for the war effort.
Midgets are open-wheel racing cars that typically use four-cylinder 166 cubic inch engines producing 375-horsepower. They typically weigh 1,035 pounds with driver and have a metal cage over the cockpit for driver protection. Wheelbase is 66-76 inches and cars use Hoosier Racing tires. Fuel tank capacity is 18-gallons of methanol fuel encased in a flame-resistant fuel bladder in the tail tank.
“Turkey Night” winning drivers include a “who's who” of auto racing. Indy 500 winners who also won a Thanksgiving evening midget GP were: Johnnie Parsons, Bill Vukovich, A. J. Foyt, and Parnelli Jones. Some years in the 1940s through 1960s more than half the Indy 500 starting field had raced midgets earlier in their careers and credited midgets with developing their racing skills.
Famous drivers who finished in the TNGP top five but never won a “Turkey Night” GP include two-time Indy 500 winner Rodger Ward, 1969 Indy 500 winner Mario Andretti, three-time Indy 500 winner Johnny Rutherford, NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon, and NASCAR Cup race winner Kasey Kahne. TNGP race winners include Indy 500 stars Tony Bettenhausen and his son Gary.
Three-time NASCAR Cup Champion Tony Stewart won the 2000 TNGP on the half-mile paved Irwindale Speedway to accomplish one of his many coveted bucket list victories. That shows how important the race is even to the current era. Drivers from all types of racing are able to compete on “Turkey Night” because it is the final major race of the year and all other point races have concluded. The race awards championship points in national and western midget series sanctioned by USAC.
Four current NASCAR drivers in national series flew from Homestead-Miami, Fla. races the weekend before the 2017 TNGP to race in the 77th TNGP. NASCAR Truck 2017 Miami winner Chase Briscoe, truck champion Christopher Bell, Stewart Friesen, and four-time Monster Cup 2017 race winner Kyle Larson all raced in the 2017 TNGP. Larson and Bell are two-time Turkey Night Midget GP winners.
TNGP record holder for victories is Arizonan Ron Shuman, who won the midget classic eight times from 1979 to 1993. He won four in a row at the Ascot Park half-mile clay track in Gardena. Three-time TNGP winner Billy Boat, the 1998 Indianapolis 500 pole winner for car owner A. J..Foyt, won three Turkey Night” features in a row from 1995-97 at three different speedways—Bakersfield, Perris and Ventura. His son Chad, now races the family No. 84 midget annually in the event.
The TNGP celebrates its history each year. Two pages in the printed program list the top five finishers in every prior TNGP. The event honors past TNGP winners as “TNGP Grand Marshal”. Last year Billy Boat and his long-time midget car owner John Lawson were co-TNGP Grand Marshals. This year 1978 Turkey Night winner Rick Goudy was TNGP Grand Marshal and received a classic TNGP jacket.
This year at Ventura Raceway about 5,000 persons attended the 77th running of the “Turkey Night” race in warm weather. The scenic fifth-mile banked clay oval is located across the street from the Pacific Ocean with surfers in wet-suits riding the waves. It is called “the best little dirt track in America” for a reason.
Track promoter Jim Naylor personally regraded the track three times during the TNGP. During the longest track prep period, many fans got autographs from ALL drivers seated at two long rows of tables behind the main grandstand. Drivers talked to fans and signed hero cars or printed race programs. One fan even had Kyle Larson sign a back bumper from his NASCAR No, 42 TARGET Chevy.
More than 100 drivers raced this year in two types of racing cars—midgets and sprint cars. Competitors came from four nations (United States, Canada, New Zealand and Argentina) for a chance to win a main event in either of the two racing divisions. They raced for a $60,000 purse in the midget division and $17,000 in the sprint car division. Numerous drivers raced in both types of cars.
ARP, Inc., of Ventura, posted a Lloyd's of London insured $50,000 “ARP Challenge” cash bonus for any driver who won both the 30-lap sprint car and 98-lap midget features. Seven drivers competed in both races. In the 2016 Ventura TNGP, Carson Macedo finished third and fourth in the two features. So it is possible to win both TNGP races. This year Tyler Courtney won Thursday's sprint main and finished 22nd in the midget feature.
Part of the allure of the TNGP annually is the traditional trophy presentations. There is a large “Aggie” Trophy featuring a bronzed Stetson hat actually wore by legendary racing promoter and Indy car owner J. C. Agajanian. “Aggie” revived the “Turkey Night” race in 1955 at Gardena Stadium after four years without a Thanksgiving midget race. He promoted the race from 1955 until his death in1984; his sons Cary and Jay have presented the TNGP each year since then in conjunction with a track promoter.
Names of all TNGP winners are engraved on plaques at the base of the Aggie perpetual trophy, just as the Indy 500 winners each year are on the famous Borg-Warner Trophy at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Another tradition of five years is having the TNGP winner kiss the brim of the Stetson hat just as Indy winners kiss the yard of bricks at the finish line.
There is a Don Basile Rookie of the Race Trophy for the highest finishing first year driver in the TNGP. That perpetual trophy at the base also contains plaques with the names of all prior “Turkey Night” rookie award winners. TNGP rookie winners also receive $500 cash, just as the Indy 500 rookie of the year receives recognition and a cash bonus each year.
Other unique trophies make the TNGP special. There is a trophy of a metal 1930s midget replica race car (under glass) for the TNGP fastest qualifier. No. 39 was on the tail this year to honor late racing champion Bryan Clauson. This year winner Kyle Larson proudly posed with it in a photo on his Facebook page.
Ventura Raceway promoter Naylor spent several months building the one of a kind TNGP midget feature winner trophy—a colorful metal No. 98 Agajanian midget. It had an“Aggie” figure wearing a Stetson sitting in the cockpit and victory lane billboards in the background. Winner Christopher Bell took it home.
Naylor also built “Battle of the Beach” and “King of the Beach” scenic beach trophies highlighted by sand, rocks palm tree, surfboard and a tiki figure on the wooden bases. The TNGP sprint car main winner received the former trophy. The VRA/USAC 360 four-race series top driver in points received the “King” trophy.
The 2017 “Turkey Night” at Ventura became an instant classic and perhaps the best in history. Fifty midgets were present and 29 started the 98-lap feature. Keith Kunz Motor-sports teammates K. Larson and C. Bell circled the track under 12-seconds during qualifying. They started in the first two rows and waged a torrid duel throughout the race. Both drivers executed slide-jobs in the turns and traded the lead twice on some laps at both ends of the track. They even bumped wheels at times but maintained speed.
Three midgets fired off the final turn with the checkered flag waving and the top three drivers—Bell, Larson, and Shane Golobic-- in a tight pack. Bell won his second TNGP by a one length over Larson with Golobic a length behind Larson. .
Afterwards Bell and Larson both said, “That was fun.” Spectators were thrilled by the racing action and agreed it was fun for them to watch. That is why they would forego a traditional Thanksgiving turkey dinner. That also in a nutshell is why famous drivers, car owners, mechanics, and even casual fans make the “Turkey Night” Midget GP a must see event, even on Thanksgiving evening.