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Christopher Bell Wins USAC Turkey Night Midget GP

Christopher Bell Wins USAC Turkey Night Midget GP


Rising superstar Christopher Bell, from Norman, OK, won the 74th running of the prestigious USAC Honda National and Western Midget Series Turkey Night Grand Prix Thanksgiving evening at Perris Auto Speedway. Don Kazarian's Oval Entertainment LLC promoted the event in conjunction with Agajanian Promotions for the third consecutive year at the Riverside County clay half-mile. Parnelli Jones, the 1963 Indianapolis 500 winner and Turkey Night GP winner in 1964 and 1966 at Ascot Park, served as grand marshal. His sons P. J. and Page, both TNGP veterans, also attended to honor their 81-year old father.

Bell, the 19-year old 2013 USAC National Midget champion who will turn 20 on December 16, made his second start in the midget racing classic. The race dates back 80 years to the inaugural running in 1934 at Gilmore Stadium in Los Angeles. It is second only to the Indianapolis 500 in longevity for auto racing classic events. Bell started second in a 30-car field and became the 50th different TNGP winner. He earned $6,000 from the $44,000 purse. He also won the independent National Midget Driver of the Year driver championship that counted 148 midget races throughout the country for numerous sanctioning bodies. Bell won 16 of his 31 midget features and scored 317 points more than runner-up Zach Daum. He also beat Daum for the NMDOTY crown last year.

Bell scored his seventh USAC National Midget Series feature victory in the 18 events conducted during 2014. The versatile driver in 106 events this season has 26 feature wins, 56 top fives and 70 top tens in midgets, winged and non-wing 410 and 360 sprint cars, USAC Silver Crown and stock cars. Bell won a stock car feature October 18 at Durham, No. Car. for Kyle Busch Motorsports. He also won the ASCS winged 360 sprint car Little Rock, Ark Short Track Nationals onOctober 24. The full-time driver races 12 months a year and has raced this year in 15 states plus New Zealand and Australia. His next race on December 6 will be the annual Snowball Derby late model event at the Pensacola, Fla. Five Flags Speedway, an asphalt half-mile.

At the TNGP Bell drove one of four Keith Kunz Curb-Agajanian Motorsports/Toyota TRD/Curb Records Kunz-built Bullet chassis. All four Kunz midgets used Speedway Toyota engines and had Toyota TRD sponsorship as usual. The TNGP winner drove the same car to feature finishes of second, first and third in the USAC mains in Arizona at Canyon Speedway November 20-22.

CHAMPIONSHIP: Bell entered the TNGP ranked second in USAC National Midget 2014 point standings, only 26 points in back of his Kunz teammate Rico Abreu, from Rutherford, Calif., with 60 points available. Abreu, a four-time USAC midget main winner this year, finished fifth in the Kunz No. 97. He had to finish eighth or better to become the champion if Bell won the feature. The 22-year old won his first USAC national series championship by ten points (1,045 to 1,035) over Bell. Tracy Hines entered the TNGP in third position, 36 points behind Abreu. He finished eighth and earned third in final points with 999.

Bell has been compared to current NASCAR stock car sensation Kyle Larson, from Elk Grove, Calif., for winning in many types of race cars. Bell's 2014 season resembled Larson's 2012 campaign. Larson became NASCAR 2013 Nationwide rookie of the year and also won the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup rookie of the year title. Larson's Target stock car owner Chip Ganassi was present at the TNGP to watch his driver return to his racing roots on dirt. Larson also will race January 2, 3, 6, 9 and 10 in a winged 410 sprint car that he co-owns in five “Winter Heat Showdown” races at the dirt Cocopah Speedway near Yuma, Arizona. His dirt track racing vacation from NASCAR will continue at the classic Tulsa, Okla. Chili Bowl five nights of indoor clay track midget racing from January 13-17.

98 LAPS: The TNGP feature was reduced from 100 to 98 laps in 2007 in honor of the late J.C. Agajanian, who revived the TNGP in 1955 after a four year absence. With a straight-up start by qualifying times, pole starter Tanner Thorson, 18, shot into the lead immediately and paced the field with drivers using high and low grooves. Bell dropped to third on lap 1. NASCAR Nationwide Series drivers Chad Boat and Brad Sweet traded second and third during early laps. Bell was fourth from laps 3-6, third from lap 7-14, fourth for three laps, third at lap 18, and second on lap 19. Cars were all over the track and passing was plentiful.

Bell's No. 71 Bullet/Toyota used the high groove as he chased teammate Thorson's No. 67 Kunz Bullet/Toyota that was fast at the inside groove. Bell led lap 22 by a foot, but Thorson, from Minden, Nev., surged back into the lead on lap 23 and continued to pace the field through lap 28. Bell led lap 29 over Thorson as the leaders on lap 27 began lapping cars almost ever lap. At he halfway mark, Bell held a 35-yard advantage over Thorson. P. 3-10 runners were: Darren Hagen. Sweet, Daum, USAC-CRA sprint car 2013-14 champion Damon Gardner, Abreu, 13th starter Larson, 2012 Indy 500 driver and two-time TNGP winner Bryan Clauson, and Kevin Thomas, Jr., from Alabama.

At lap 60, 17 of the 26 cars still racing were on the lead lap. Sweet, the 2013 TNGP runner-up, dropped out from fourth position with 33 laps remaining. The final 21 laps were green to the checkered flag, but sixth place D. Gardner flipped in turn three after Bell received the checkered flag. His No. 4 Beast/Kistler Chevy stopped on its side with Gardner unhurt. He said, “Abreu changed his line and came down as I tried to pass him for fifth place and we made contact.” Gardner, with 97 laps, fell from sixth to 11th in the official finish. Eight drivers completed all 98 laps with 21 cars were still on the track at the conclusion.

Bell held half a straight lead over runner-up Hagen's new No. 56 Shane Hmiel Triple X/Esslinger sponsored by Great Clips. He also had five lapped cars between the two lead cars. Larson's No. 71K Cartwheel-Target/McDonalds Bullet/Toyota was a closing third place during the final eight laps. He shot from fifth to third position by passing both his championship-chasing teammate Abreu and Daum on lap 92. Larson then trailed P. 2 Hagen, from nearby Riverside, by about 80-yards and ran out of laps to advance further.

Fourth through tenth finishers were: Daum, Abreu, Thorson, Clauson and Hines on the lead lap. Teammates Johnathan Henry, a college senior in San Luis Obispo, and 2013 TNGP winner Dave Darland in a pair of Chad Nichols-owned Spike/Esslinger cars followed. They were lapped simultaneously on lap 94 and placed ninth and tenth respectively. The identical orange and white No. 17 cars raced together almost the entire race after starting in row eight (Darland) and row 11 (Henry). “We traded positions about five times.” Henry said. “I used a slide job to get past him about three or four laps from the finish.”

FLIPS: The feature had three flips. Ricky Shelton (P. 23) flipped his Stealth/Ed Pink Ford several times in turn three and landed overturned. He escaped injury after his second TNGP flip in two years. The second red flag came on lap 76 after Damion Gardner's car (in P.7) got turned near the third turn wall. Boat's 12th place Spike/Esslinger rode over a Gardner tire and flipped wildly three and a half times and landed overturned near the wall. He escaped injury.

The “open red flag” for Boat's flip allowed teams to work on cars and add fuel. They could not change tires by USAC rules. Larson, whose parents were in the pits, was stuck in P. 8 behind Gardner when the lap 76 crash occurred. Later he said, “I had an oil leak. I had a blast tonight. I had the right rear torsion stop knocked off. On the red flag it was put back on and then the car was good. It took me 75 laps to learn how to drive it (dirt) again. It felt good out there.” The third and final flip was by sixth-running Gardner at the checkered flag and he also was uninjured.

ROOKIE OF RACE: Victory lane ceremonies were crowded with six drivers and numerous cars stopped at the finish line. High school senior Isaac Chapple, 18, was named Don Basile Rookie of the Race and received a plaque and $500 cash from Bob Basile, son of the late promoter. “That $500 cash is in my pocket and will make the drive back to Indiana better.” He thanked his one crewman Keith for making the trip west with him for races in Arizona and Perris. He started his own 2009 Spike/Esslinger 28th and finished a lap down in 13th with his backup engine. He also won the “Hard Charger Award” for gaining the most positions. He beat rookie Jarid Blondel, also 18, by four positions. All four TNGP rookies started in the two back rows after finishing in the qualifying race in P. 7-10.

Ronnie Gardner clinched his second consecutive USAC Honda Western Midget championship after the November 20-22 races in Peoria, AZ. The Corona resident drove Mitchell Johnson's No. 68 Stewart/Esslinger. He thanked his team, car owner and sponsor Frank Baldozier, a retired midget driver. The top three finishers ascended the podium for trophy presentations, group photos and interviews. Continuing a TNGP three-year old tradition, similar to Indy 500 winners kissing the finish line bricks, Bell kissed the bronzed J. C. Agajanian Stetson hat atop the perpetual trophy. The impressive Aggie Trophy has 73 plaques with the names of all prior TNGP winners afixed to the sides of the trophy.

New USAC National Midget champion Abreu said, “I started off the year good, got injured and hung in there. I had fun racing this year. Thanks to Keith and the team. It's such a long race I fell back early and raced for the championship. The track changed throughout the race. Hats off to the track crew. Thanks to the Agajanians and Kazarians. I love coming to this race. I will be heading to New Zealand to race now.” The 4'6” driver carries Abreu Vineyards, his family business in St. Helena, on his race cars. He had a friend imprint 20 photos of grand marshal Parnelli Jones and his various race cars on the top and sides of the helmet he wore at the TNGP. After the feature Abreu gave the helmet to Parnelli.

WINNER SPEAKS: Bell said over the pit microphone, “Thanks to the track crew for giving us a great track that didn't tear up tires. My left rear was blistered pretty good, but my right rear was good, so I just had to take care of it.” He added that he raced at PAS last year for the first time at the sprint car Oval Nationals and in the TNGP and found the track difficult to learn. He dropped out of P. 6 last year on lap 85 and placed 21st. It's tough to get around here for one lap, much less 98 laps. That's a long race for midgets,” he added.

The happy winner continued, “This place was not really my favorite in my first couple of trips here. Tonight the track came to me and was definitely to my liking once it got up pretty high and slick underneath it. I really got into a rhythm. It's great to add this race to our list and get my name on there with all the great guys who have won it before me. We had a shot at the championship tonight but Rico got the job done. It's a great accomplishment for our team and caps off an amazing year.”

Runner-up Hagen said, “Hopefully we put on a good show. Thanks to my lord and savior Jesus Christ.” He also thanked fans, sponsors and paralyzed car owner Shane Hmiel, who was present in the pits in his motorized wheelchair. “USAC penalized us a few rows for coming out late for staging. We were working on the car. I should have started fourth, but oh well. Congrats to Christopher Bell and his whole group. They (Kunz team) finished first and third (plus P. 5-6) and took the championship as well. We'll be back next year,” Hagen promised.

Larson made his third TNGP on-track appearance in the last four years. He won Rookie of the Race in 2011 at the half-mile asphalt Irwindale Speedway. Larson won the 2012 PAS TNGP but did not compete the following year and only watched his Kunz teammates from the 2013 TNGP pits. While racing sixth this year he got into the back of a lapped car and fell back. The now mustachioed Larson stated, “After I got into a lapped car and went to the work area (on the lap 76 red flag) it just was so much better. We were really good. I would have loved a caution once I got to third, but I was so happy to get a podium finish. I thought I was gonna stall out about sixth.” He added, “I get to race a midget at the Tulsa Chili Bowl next and have to beat the Swindells there. I'm sure Chip (Ganassi) was worried with me running up high at the wall.”

The 74th TNGP entry list contained 43 midgets, but three cars scratched after practicing Wednesday from 5:00-9:00 pm. The Chris Ennis No 86 car broke its engine and the No. 5 Tres Van Dyne car driven by Danny Ebberts had serious ignition problems. A third car owned and driven by Jack Hawley did not file an entry and just practiced in the No. 56 Beast that he just bought from Team 56 Racing.

Following 5:00 to 5:55 pm warmup and hot laps, 33 of 34 midgets present qualified from 6:04-6:31 pm. Twelfth qualifier Thorson set fast time of 17.359 to edge his teammate Bell (13th qualifier) at 17.378. The one-lap track record of 16.889 (106.578 mph) was set last Thanksgiving by 15-year old rookie Parker Price-Miller. It was not approached by drivers this year during Wednesday night practice or Thursday. Heat and late afternoon wind made the track slicker than it was last year for the TNGP.

LEFFLER TROPHY: The fastest qualifier for the second consecutive year received the unique Jason Leffler Trophy in honor of the driver from Long Beach who lost his life in a sprint car flip at Bridgeport, New Jersey during June 2013. Leffler led the 2012 TNGP at PAS during early laps in the No. 56 Hmiel 2009 Beast/Esslinger. The Leffler Trophy had No. 83 on both sides of the replica 1930s-era midget tail in honor of TNGP grand marshal Parnelli Jones, who won in Marv Edwards' No. 83 midget. The a 19” long, 7” high polished aluminum Bantam midget replica is mounted on a two-level base under plexiglass.

Leffler's friend Danny Pearson suggested the Leffler Trophy. Marvin Reichert crafted the prized trophy and racing artist Steve Feinberg lettered and numbered it. Winner Thorson proudly showed it to teammates and others. The Leffler Trophy was on display in the pits and every driver wanted to win it. Price-Miller, the 2013 TNGP fastest qualifier, received the first Leffler award. That replica 1930s midget had No. 9 on one side of the tail and No. 71 on the other to signify the two numbers on Leffler's TNGP winning midgets at Irwindale in 1999 and 2005.

USAC official Jason McCord announced a changed TNGP format during the 4:30 pm drivers meeting because of a reduced car count from 48 cars last year. The usual format sent the fastest 14 qualifiers directly to the feature. Two 12-lap qualifying races for qualifiers 15 and slower sent the top eight finishers in each qualifier to the feature. The new format sent the fastest 20 qualifiers to the feature. Qualifiers 21 and slower went to one qualifying race. The top ten finishers in that 13-car race advanced to the 98-lap main event in starting positions 21-30. No provisional berths were used. Both races started straight-up by qualifying times.

QUALIFYING RACE: Nick Chivello started fourth and led the first four laps. Third starter Johnathon Henry led the final eight laps for a 40-yard victory over Chivello. P 3-10 finishers in order were: Cody Swanson, Scott Pierovich, Ricky Shelton, Randi Pankratz, Jarid Blondel, Isaac Chapple, 19-year old female driver Andee Beierle, from Bismarck, No..Dakota, and Kyle Edwards. Eleven of 13 starters finished. A red flag waved on lap 4 after Doug Hunting's Honda engine threw a rod entering turn one causing an engine fire. He stopped in turn two and exited without injury.

An unusually warm day reached a high temperature in the upper 80s and it was 86 degrees at 3:00 pm. It was still in the lower 60s when the feature concluded at 9:39 pm. The summer-like weather coupled with the advertised appearance of Kyle Larson in the entry list to race on dirt again helped attract about 3,000 persons this year to the grandstands and pits. Turkey dinners were sold to spectators from a main concourse concession stand as usual for $12.00.

The TNGP was shown live on the internet on USAC LIVE and on The Cushion.Com. About 500 persons nationally watched on the latter source. Recent TNGP drivers Alex Bowman (2012) and Andrew Felker (2013) tweeted that they were watching the 2014 TNGP telecast. Eight of the top ten drivers USAC 2014 National Midget points and nine of the top ten Western Midget drivers competed in the TNGP this year. There were three past TNGP winners in the 2014 edition. They were: two-time winners Clauson and Darland and 2012 winner Larson.

The 2014 National Midget Driver of the year final points published by Wisconsin's Bryan Gapinski on November 30 showed Bell with 1,631, points, Daum with 1,314, and third place Clauson with 1,313. The top three in NMDOTY car owner points were: Kunz/Curb-Agajanian No. 71 with 1,553, Dan Daum No. 5d with 1,312 and Kunz/Curb-Agajanian No. 97 at 1,291. The Design 500 Racewear Rookie of the Year top three were: Spencer Bayston-302, Jarid Blondel, 18, from Orange, Calif.-135, and Gage Walker-105. In the manufacturers category, main event wins determined the final rankings. Chassis builders top three are: winner Spike with 45, Beast-25, and Bullet-23. Engine builders top three are: Esslinger-52, Toyota-26 and Fontana-16.

OFFICIAL FINISH: (P 1-30): Bell, Hagen, Larson, Daum, Abreu, Thorson, Clauson, Hines, Henry, Darland, D. Gardner, Trey Marcham, I. Chapple, Alex Schutte, Jake Swanson, Cody Swanson, Jarid Blondel, Shannon McQueen, Nick Chivello, Randi Pankratz, Andee Beierle, Kevin Thomas, Jr., Chad Boat, Tyler Thomas, Brad Sweet, Ronnie Gardner, Kyle Edwards, Mike Spencer, Ricky Shelton, Scott Pierovich. Lap leaders: Thorson L 1-21 and 23-28; Bell L 22 and 29-98.