RACING SCENE – (TNGP Pit Notes-Part I) – By Tim Kennedy
LOS ANGELES – The 77th running of the Thanksgiving Night Grand Prix for midgets at Jim Naylor's Ventura Raceway will go down as perhaps the best TNGP ever run. This writer has seen in person the last 55 of the 77 TNGP races starting with the 1962 event won by Billy Cantrell in a Jack London Offy.
I watched TNGP races at the last seven of nine speedways that have hosted a TNGP. The final race ever run at Ascot Park in November, 1990 had the largest “Turkey Night” field (106 midgets) at the half-mile clay track that opened in 1957. It was a memorable and nostalgic TNGP for many reasons.
Ventura's scenic ocean-front banked, fifth-mile clay raceway had 54 midgets present this year for Wednesday night practice (up from 53 last Thanksgiving); 50 of them returned to race Thursday. The USAC/VRA 360 cu. in. sprint car field of 49 was an increase of six cars from the 43 sprinters that raced in Ventura's 2016 TNGP. So the total car count increased from 96 to 103 entries.
Making the 2017 TNGP special was the impressive number of high-caliber national and regional racing talent from various disciplines, plus the exciting, on-track competition in both midgets and sprint cars. Repeated track preparation each night kept the track surface racy both nights. Organized driver autograph sessions at tables behind the main grandstand both evenings were well attended by fans and drivers. That kept fans happily occupied during track prep periods.
Thursday's 30-lap sprint car feature made the 98-lap midget main event a barn-burner. The first three finishers came off the final turn in a tight group. The winner was in doubt until he reached the finish line and waving checkered flag. The Christopher Bell, Kyle Larson and Shane Golobic 1-2-3 finish will be remembered by all who saw it in person and by those who watched it on the pay per view telecast.
TNGP DRIVERS / ORIGIN: The 2017 field on Thursday came from 12 states and three foreign countries. The 50 midget drivers came from ten states: 31-Calif., five-Ind., three-Okla;, two each-Ill. & Kan., and one each from Alab., Ariz., Colo., Nev. and Wash., plus two from foreign nations—1 each-Canada and New Zealand. The 360 sprint car field of 49 came from seven states: 35-Calif., five-Ariz., three-Ind., and one each from Ga., Kan., N. Y., and Okla.; plus one each from Argentina and New Zealand.
SPRINT CARS-CHASSIS / ENGINES: There were 14 different chassis constructors as follows: Maxim-18, Spike-eight, CS9-four, Triple X-three, ART, Eagle, GF, ITI Viper, Steve Kent KPC, and Schnee-two each; Jon Boy, Racecrafter, Stinger and TCR-one each. ... There were 25 engine builders listed in the 49 car field. Chevy had 12, Shark-seven, BRC and RC Performance-three each, Borello, Gowens and Performance Plus-two each. Eighteen engine builders, such as Bailey Brothers, Kistler, Ott, Picks, and Wesmar each built one engine.
MIDGETS-CHASSIS / ENGINES: The 50 midgets on Thanksgiving represented 12 different chassis constructors and 13 engine builders. Spike was tops with 26 cars, followed by Bullet by Spike (Keith Kunz) six, TCR-five, Boss-four, Beast-two, and one each from Bullet, Breka (New Zealand), Edmunds Autoresearch, Dave Ellis, King (New Zealand), Stewart, and Stealth.
Esslinger Engineering built 15 engines, and Speedway Toyota supplied ten. Stanton SR-11 powered six cars. Next in order were: Fontana-five, Chevy and Mopar-three each, Ed Pink Toyota-two. And one each from AMS Chevy, Arias, Honda, Sala, Stanton Toyota and Toyota. That variety shows midget teams have diverse ideas about how to go fast and win races.
The existing USAC Midget one-lap Ventura track record--11.675--was set by Nor Cal driver Johnny Cofer in his own No. 57 midget on 11/18/95. It still stands. Fastest qualifier Kyle Larson “only” turned 11.888 at the 2017 TNGP. Cofer's daughter Maria, 18, drove his No. 57 at the 2016 and 2017 TNGP and made the 98-lap feature as a rookie last year. She missed a feature transfer by five positions this year with her 11th place in the LCQ race.
Fastest 2017 TNGP sprint qualifier Tyler Courtney's 12.289, as the third qualifier Wednesday in a 49-car field, failed to topple existing 360 sprint car track records. The VRA record, 12.085 by Kenny Perkins on 6/3/17, and the USAC 360 mark, 12.226 by Geoff Ensign on 11/23/16, still stand.
Four midget drivers present Wednesday and absent Thanksgiving were: No. 33 Mason Daniel, a rookie, No. 56x Mark Chisholm, No. 3F Geoff Ensign and No. 20az of Arizonan Shon Deskins. The Deskins' No. 20 Spike sprint car did not return Thursday after flipping during a heat race Wednesday. Shon crawled out quickly, but he later visited a hospital for evaluation. He reportedly returned to watch racing Thursday.
The 2017 TNGP field included four female midget drivers—Maria Cofer, Courtney Crone, Randi Pankratz, and Holly Shelton. There were no female drivers in the sprint car division. . .. Four prior TNGP Midget feature winners raced this year. They were: two-time winners Dave Darland and Kyle Larson, plus solo winners Tanner Thorson and Christopher Bell. Darland, known as “the people's champion”, did not win a 2017 main event in any of the three USAC National Series. It was the first time in 24 years he has not done so.
RACE ROOKIE AWARD: There were 23 TNGP first-time midget drivers (without concern for experience level) in the 2017 field. All of them were eligible to receive the Don Basile Rookie of the Race award named for the 1999 NSCHoF inductee. The late racing promoter's son Bob presented the winner with a plaque and $500 cash during post-main event award ceremonies. Seven TNGP rookies made the 98-lap feature and vied for the Basile rookie award. The highest finishing rookie has received the Basile rookie award each year since Kasey Kahne won the inaugural presentation in 1998.
In order of the main event finish, the drivers were:
P. 5 – Zeb Wise, 15-years old, from Angola, Ind. - (started from P. 15 in one of five Clauson-Marshall midgets). It was only his second USAC National midget race. His first was five nights earlier in Bakersfield. He is the youngest ever Basile Rookie award winner.
P. 7 – Justin Grant, 26, USAC National Sprint 2017 championship runner-up and a 2017 winner in all three USAC National Series. (started fifth in a Clauson-Marshall Racing car as a teammate of Wise).
P. 11 – Tanner Carrick, 15, from Lincoln, Calif. drove a Keith Kunz Bullet. (started 27th).
P. 15 – Logan Seavey, 20, POWRi Series 2017 driving champion & rookie of the year with two feature wins. (started 7th).
P. 21 – Chase Briscoe, 22, 2017 NASCAR Craftsman Truck rookie of the year and November 17 Homestead NCTS 200-mile race winner/2016 ARCA stock car champion. (started 24th and a battery problem caused his stall and DNF while in P. 10 on lap 82).
P. 22 – Tyler Courtney, 23, five time USAC National Sprint 2017 feature winner and the only other driver to win 2017main events in all three USAC National Series.
P. 24 – Brayton Lynch, 18, a second year POWRi midget series driver. (started sixth as sixth fastest qualifier in Rusty Kunz No. 1K).
The weather for the Ventura second consecutive TNGP was outstanding. Wednesday had 84 degrees at 3 00 pm, 70 at 4:30 and it was still 68 degrees when preliminary night racing concluded at 9:45 pm. On Thanksgiving Ventura had 78 degrees in early afternoon and 59 degrees after the final race ended at 10:25 pm.
Disastrous wildfires in So Cal during December had the Ventura County Fairgrounds used as a major evaculation center for families who fled flames or lost homes. The barns and corral area (around which TNGP teams pitted two weeks earlier) were used to board evacuated horses and large animals.
So Cal midget and sprint car drivers J. J. Ercse and Jordan Hermansader accepted congratulations in the Ventura pits. They both work at TRD, Inc. in Costa Mesa and build Toyota NASCAR engines used by the Joe Gibbs Racing-affiliated Furniture Row Toyota No. 78 and 77. Their handiwork powered Martin Truex, Jr. to the Sunday, November 19 Homestead-Miami, Fla. 400-mile triumph and his first NASCAR Cup Championship.
I spoke to “Big” Al Scoggin, crew chief/shop foreman for Keith Kunz Motor-sports, in the TNGP pits at Ventura. He said Bell's winning No. 21 Bullet by Spike was the only new midget in the seven car fleet for Turkey Night. The No. 71 was five races old and 71K was new at mid-season. The Nos 67K, 67 and No. 1 of Larson have raced all season. No. 1 was Rico Abreu's No. 97 ride. Rico was not present at Ventura. He crashed hard in a midget race at Eldora Speedway months ago and was home recuperating in hopes of being ready to race in the Tulsa Chili Bowl (January 9-13, 2018).
Larson' s 2016 Ventura TNGP feature winning No. 71 midget crashed earlier this season with another team driver at the wheel and it was replaced. Bell's January Tulsa Chili Bowl Saturday feature winning car (minus the Speedway Toyota engine) is now located as a personal trophy in his Mooreville, N.C. condo, on the second floor according to KKM team members.
KKM identifies each Bullet by Spike chassis in its fleet by affixing a label to the left side of each roll-cage. They read DM for Dirt Midget and the chassis ID number--(DM--). The oldest cars at the 2017 TNGP were: DM 20 (No. 67K Black & Decker on the hood), DM 23 (71K Spike Chassis), DM 27 ( No. 1 KKM), DM 29 (67 KKM), DM 31 (97 IWX), DM 32 (71 Abreu Vineyards), and the new DM 34 (21 Toyota). Bullet/Spike principals are Art Cooper and John Godfrey.
The KKM midget fleet came west in two 18-wheeler trailers that each carried four midgets and all the necessary support equipment. They arrived early in the week and parked next to the pit entrance gate as usual in seven adjacent pit stalls behind the 18-wheelers. KKM pits always had a crowd of onlookers watching the team work. Drivers also were accessible for questioners. KKR haulers left for home base in Columbus, Ind. right after Thursday's event.
Former USAC Midget driver Chuck Gurney, Jr. started working for KKR in January, 2014 at the Tulsa Chili Bowl so he is nearing three years as a full-time employee. He says KKR in September 2017 had wins in 25 of 50 races entered. As a midget driver, Chuck, Jr. led Irwindale's 2008 TNGP 98-lap (second year it was 98-laps) early but dropped out with a mechanical problem. He got married shortly thereafter and traveled from So Cal to Mexico.
Chuck, Jr. flies west to LAX, rents a car and drives to the race site to work on the KKR midgets each Turkey Night. He also has a nice visit with his father in the pits. Chuck, Sr., 68, is retired and still lives in the same house in Livermore, east of Oakland. Chuck, Jr., 33, and his wife Heather have two children, second grader Ella, 7, and pre-school son, 5. NSCHoF 2004 inductee Chuck, Sr. has four grandchildren, two boys and two girls. His daughter Ashley also has a son and daughter and lives in Indiana.
KKM team members were talking about driver Kyle Larson and his partner Katelyn Sweet, sister of WoO sprint car driver Brad Sweet. They are expecting the arrival of their second child in late May, 2018. Their son Owen is about three and will have a sibling around the NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Charlotte 600-mile race. It's too early to tell the gender yet. That news should make it unlikely that Kyle would try to do the double (Indianapolis 500 and stock car Charlotte 600). Imminent childbirth would make the tough to do double a triple and that's too much to handle at the same time.