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RACING SCENE – (Ventura TNGP Midget GP – Part 6 of 6)

RACING SCENE – (Ventura TNGP Midget GP – Part 6 of 6)


The eve of the 2016 USAC Turkey Night GP had midgets practice-only in groups of seven cars at the time. The 360 ci sprint cars raced six ten-lap heat races with the top three finishers in each advancing to the $1,000 to win 20-lap main event that evening. Heat winners were: Carson Macedo, Trey Marcham, Shon Deskins, Kyle Smith, Klint Simpson and Troy Rutherford. All but Rutherford started from the front row; Troy started from inside row two.

The 20-lap main went to second starter Tristan Guardino, 20, from Fremont. He made an outside second turn/backstretch pass of home-track favorite Cory Kruseman, the laps 1-5 leader from the pole. The first eight finishers in Wednesday's feature earned automatic transfers to the 30-lap, $3,000 to win Thursday feature. Wednesday's sprint main ended at 9:05 pm. All 47 midgets on the track Wednesday practiced in the same groups of seven or eight midgets at a time until 9:55 pm.

On Thursday, 35 sprint cars not seeded into the main that evening ran three 12-lap heat races that transferred the first four finishers in each heat into Thursday's feature. All 53 midgets qualified Thursday from 4:29 to 5:07 pm. Brady Bacon, 11thdriver to qualify, ran lap 1 at 12.351 and lap 2 at 12.277, which stood up for fast time. Kyle Larson, (48th to qualify) ran second fastest time of 12.356 and 49th qualifier C. Macedo ran the third best time of 12.378. So the well-groomed track allowed speed throughout qualifying.

Thursday's three sprint car heats stated at 5:58 and were won by pole starters T. Rutherford, R. J. Johnson and K. Simpson. Two drivers who transferred to the feature started fifth. Two midget 12-lap main event qualifying races started at 6:50 and sent the top four finishers in each to the 98-lap feature. Ryan Bernal led every lap from pole. Then Chad Boat, from outside row two, passed race-long leader Ronnie Gardner on the outside from turn four to start/finish on lap 11 and led the final two laps in a thriller.

Then Wednesday's 20-lap main P. 1-8 finishers ran hot laps. All eight stopped at the starting line infield to blindly draw their Thursday night main event starting positions. Thursday feature winner Guardino picked his pill first and drew P. 8. Geoff Ensign drew the coveted pole and Macedo selected P. 2.

Then the 16-midgets last chance race (15-laps) started at 7:47 pm. Kruseman led laps 1-4 and 9-12. David Pickett, from fourth, led laps 5-8. On lap 9 leader Pickett slowed leaving turn two and stopped with a broken fuel pump drive at the pit entrance from turn three. Robby Josett, the October USAC Western Series 30-lap Ventura feature winner, came from seventh starting spot. He passed Kruseman and led the final three laps, winning by ten-yards over Kruseman. Tyler Dolacki earned the hotly contested P. 6--final ticket to the feature.

Provisional feature berths at the back went to two USAC National and two USAC Western drivers. Ryan Greth (P. 10 in National points) was in P. 4 on lap 9 of the last chance qualifier (LCQ) when he flipped in third turn traffic. He escaped injury. Ryan's midget could not make the call, so the 30-car field started 29. Rookie Holly Shelton, 20, was P. 7 in USAC National points in a Kunz Bullet/Toyota and received the second National provisional. Western provisional berths went to Randi Pankratz and Maria Cofer, P 7 and 8 respectively in USAC Western points.

Spectators were patient as promoter Jim Naylor remade his clay track into a racy surface for the sprint and midget features. The 30-lap non-points sprint car main ran from 8:50 to 9:17 pm. Heat winners started in P. 9-11, P. 2 in heats started 12-14, P. 3 P. 15-17, and P. 4 18-20. Ensign, from Sebastapol (Sonoma County) led every lap in Ted Finkenbinder's No. 3F. He earned $3,000. P. 2 Macedo's engine was smoking on lap 9 and a small engine fire erupted on the backstretch. He stopped and a fireman quelled the small blaze. At the work area his crew discovered the engine was good and spilled old oil caused the fire. Macedo restarted at the back and raced forward to P. 4 in an exciting charge aboard Tom Tarlton's No. 21x KPC.

The lap 30 finishing order was wild after third place Rutherford's car slowed suddenly exiting the fourth turn on the final lap. Several cars piled in and all involved cars slid across the finish line. It took electronic transponders to sort out the finishing order. Fifteen of 20 starters finished. Ensign told the large crowd, “This is my first time here in Ventura. I like it.” Kyle Smith earned Naylor's hand-built “King of the Beach” unique tiki trophy.

The 29-midget, 98-lap midget feature started at 10:07 and a lap 1 flip in turn one caused a red flag. The 10:14 restarted race had four yellow flags. The race ran green from lap 67 to the lap 98 checkered flag. Lapped traffic made the close top three battle intense. Larson (No. 71w) had a 35-yard lead on lap 71 reduced to ten-yards by lap 83 and to a car length by lap 90. Bacon made one brief try for the lead and then fell back.

On the final lap Macedo (No. 71k) took P. 2 from Bacon in turn two. Bacon (No. 76m) charged back and at the third and fourth turns retook second place from Macedo. Many excited fans though Bacon had passed Larson's similar-appearing No. 71w team car. However, Larson was about ten yards (0.3 seconds) in front of Bacon at the checkers. Larson came back to turn four and did several celebratory donuts. He tossed his steering wheel onto the track. Team owner Keith Kunz quickly retrieved the steering wheel as Kyle walked to finish line victory ceremonies.

Larson told still standing spectators, “I love driving midgets when tracks get racy like this.” He accepted the unique winner's trophy from infield announcer/track promoter Naylor, who made the trophy. Larson raved about the uniqueness of the trophy (a 1930-era mounted large midget and track-like billboards behind it). The 24-year old winner said the 2016 TNGP trophy will have a prominent place in his trophy room.

Larson will be dirt-track racing four-times in Australia after Christmas. He will return to the USA on January 3 to race in the January 9-14 Tulsa (Okla) Chili Bowl. There he can again play in the dirt before returning to his day job—NASCAR's newly named Monster Energy premier series. Larson told writer/broadcaster Robin Miller at the recent PRI show in Indy that he wants to race in the Memorial Day double (Indy 500 and Charoltte 600) if car owner Chip Ganassi allows.