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RACING SCENE – (TNGP Midgets – Part 3)

RACING SCENE – (TNGP Midgets – Part 3)
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Kyle Larson, 24, became the 18th different driver to repeat as winner of the Thanksgiving Night Midget Grand Prix. The first driver to repeat was Ronny Householder in 1936-37 at Gilmore Stadium in Hollywood. Dave Darland became a two-time TNGP winner in 2013. Larson, a rising NASCAR stock car star, is much like popular Tony Stewart in that both racers like to return to their racing roots and race open-wheel cars on dirt because they love to do so.

Larson also became the sixth winner to win TNGP features at two or more speedways. Billy Boat tops this distinguished list by winning at three speedways. He did so in three consecutive years (1995-97) at Bakersfield, Perris and Ventura. Mel Kenyon won at Speedway 605-Irwindale in 1963 and Ascot in 1975. Ron Shuman won six times at Ascot from 1979-87 and twice in Bakersfield (1992-93). Stan Fox won the final Ascot race in 1990 and in 1991 at Saugus. Boat's triple was next. Darland's twin-wins came in 2007 at Irwindale Speedway and 2013 in Perris. Larson won at Perris in 2012 and added the 2016 Ventura TNGP.

Keith Kunz Racing fielded seven Bullet/Speedway Toyota midgets in the Ventura TNGP, up from five midgets in recent years. He had two reserve midgets in his two 18-wheeler transporters in the pits as backup cars. One car was for 2014 Perris TNGP winner Christopher Bell, who intended to race No. 97w in the Ventura TNGP. However, the rising NASCAR star had to test a stock car for his Kyle Busch Racing team for the early December Snowball Derby at Five Flags Speedway (Pensacola, Fla.). Bell did come west Nov. 26-27 and raced a 360 sprint car at Cocopaw Speedway (Ariz.) near Yuma.

The seven Kunz midgets at Ventura qualified on Thanksgiving in P. 2, 3, 8, 10, 12, 27 and 34 in the 53 car field. Drivers included four young veterans and three USAC National Midget Series 2016 rookies. Kunz midgets finished the 98-lap race in positions 1, 3, 4, 6, 9, 14 and 16. Three of the Kunz rookies—Carson Macedo, Ryan Robinson and Holly Shelton—ranked fifth, sixth and seventh in USAC National Midget Series points entering the TNGP. Macedo, from Lemoore, topped rookie points following Ventura. Holly, a 21-year old 600cc mini sprint racer from Sacramento, said her best USAC finish so far has been fourth place.

Larson came to Ventura just days after leading many laps in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Hometead, Fla. 400 aboard Chip Ganassi's No. 42 Target Chevy. He would have won his second Cup race this season if late yellow flags had not caused two double-file restarts. Kyle maintained his lead after the first restart, but Jimmie Johnson got a better start with three laps to go and won the race and his seventh NASCAR Cup championship, all in the No. 48 Lowe's Chevy. A late race crash cost race-dominant Carl Edwards his first Cup championship after an incident sent his Joe Gibbs No. 19 Toyota Camry into the inner wall entering turn one and out of the race.

In the Ventura pits, Kyle told me he flew commercially from the east coast to Santa Barbara, rented a car and drove south to Ventura. His blond son Owen and his mom Kaitlynn came to Ventura with Kyle. Owen, almost 2, was on Kyle's lap behind a row a tables during the lengthy drivers autograph session for fans. Owen seemed very interested. Kyle's parents from Nor Cal also attended and were with his group at the Denny's Restaurant in Ventura after midnight (late turkey dinner???).

Kyle attended the NASCAR Championship banquet at the Wynn's Hotel in Las Vegas Friday, December 2. As a Cup Chase “playoffs” driver he was interviewed on the NBCSN live telecast. The Tulsa Chili Bowl (Jan. 9-14, 2017) will interrupt his off-season free time. MAVTV Network again will be televising the Chili Bowl C. B an A mains live nationally in 2017. The 2016 Tulsa live telecast on-air talent were excellent. The telecast even stayed live for an extra hour or so of the A-main when it went over the scheduled time.

Larson's TNGP record is amazing. He was the 2011 Don Basile rookie of the race at Irwindale after finishing fourth. He won in 2012 at Perris, and was only a spectator in the Kunz pits in 2013. He finished third in 2014 and second in 2015 also in Perris. His TNGP average finish is an incredible 2.2 after five starts. All of his midget rides have been in a Keith Kunz Bullet/Speedway Toyota. Kyle's first racing attempt at the banked, fifth-mile Ventura Raceway produced second fastest qualifying time and feature victory in his first visit to the track. .

The 2016 TNGP had only two past winners—Larson and Tanner Thorson, 20. There were four past winners in the 2015 TNGP in Perris. Darland was not an entrant this year. Two-time Irwindale TNGP winner (2009-10) Bryan Clauson tragically lost his life in August during the Belleville (Kan.) Midget Nationals. He had TNGP on his ambitious list of racing in 200 events during 2016.

MIDGET CHASSIS: There were 12 different chassis builders represented in the 53 midget field this year. The were: Spike-21; Bullet-eight; TCR-five; Stealth-four; two each from Beast, Boss, Breka, Edmunds Autoresearch, Ellis, Hyper, and Stewart, and one from Triple X.

MIDGET ENGINES: There were 18 different engines in the 53 midget field led by Esslinger. Following were: Speedway Toyota-eight; Chevy-six; Stanton SR-11—three; two each from Ed Pink Toyota, Fontana and Toyota; one each Arias, Arias-Fontana, Brayton Ford, Gaerte Fontana, Pontiac, Sala, Shark, Stanton Toyota, Van Dyne and Warrior.

SPRINT CHASSIS: There were 15 sprint car chassis builders in the 43 car field as follows: Maxim-14; Spike-nine; three each from Eagle, KPC (Steve Kent); two each from CS9, ITI, and Triple X; plus one each from ART, John Boy, Race-crafter, Schnee, Sherman, Sled, Stinger and 777. ... SPRINT CAR ENGINES: Twenty-one engines were represented. Chevy led with 12. Shark built five, RC Performance three and Wesmar two. Numerous individual engine builders built one engine.

Former USAC Midget driver Chuck Gurney, Jr, 33, led TNGP early laps at Irwindale in 2008 and was sidelined by a mechanical problem before mid-race. He got married in Mexico afterwards. Chuck said he has a daughter (6) and son (4) and works part-time for Keith Kunz as the tire specialist at races. He works full-time in Indiana for a fabrication firm. Chuck said Kunz has seven employees at the track and one full-time employee at his shop.

Pete Willoughby and crew chief “Big Al” drove the two Kunz 18-wheelers that carried nine Kunz midgets to Ventura (five in one trailer and four in the other). It was a two-truck convoy heading west and returning to Indiana. Keith and Chuck, Jr. flew separately to California (Keith to LA and Chuck to Burbank). They each rented cars to get to Ventura. Seven Kunz midgets were lined up in a row just inside the pit gate and attracted numerous spectators to watch the team work.

Jerome Rodela, a two-time USAC Western Midget driving champion and current midget owner, had his two New Zealand built Breka midgets with Ed Pink Toyota power at Ventura. Courtney Crone, his season-long driver, ranked fifth in 2016 Western Midget points. The 15-year old H/S sophomore and TNGP rookie drove Jerome's 2016 model (No. 25). TNGP “hired gun” Michael Pickens, from New Zealand, drove Jerome's older 2014 Breka (No. 25p). Both made the 29 car feature. Michael parked on lap 31. Courtney was lapped by leader Larson on lap 33 and stayed right on his tail learning from a master. She remained in front of P. 2 Brady Bacon to lap 60 and finished a lap down in P. 22 of 24 running at the end.

Non-California vehicles in the Ventura spectator parking area were an indication of what an attraction the TNGP is for open-wheel racing fans. I saw Washington, Oregon, Arizona., Nevada., Colorado and Oklahoma license plates on double-feature (sprints and midgets) race day. USAC Communications VP Dick Jordan and wife Sue attended the TNGP for the first time in two years. Helpful Richie Murray, (USAC Communications) also worked the Ventura TNGP.