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RACING SCENE – (Ventura TNGP Midgets – Part 5 of 6)

RACING SCENE – (Ventura TNGP Midgets – Part 5 of 6)


As expected, with midgets coming from numerous parts of the country, there were many duplicate car numbers in the 2016 USAC Turkey Night Midget GP. They included: Nos. 4 - 4d - 4h - 4k; 5 – 5t; 7 – 7b; 17 – 17k - 17w (all in the feature); 25 – 25p; 35f – 35w; 67 – 67k; 71 – 71d – 71k – 71s – 71w; 73 – 73f – 73t – 73x, and 97 – 97k. Sprint car duplicate car numbers were: 4k – 4s; 6k – 6n; 24 – 24x; 51 – 51t – 51x; 55 – 55m; 81 – 81m – 81s – 81t – 81x, and 96 – 96k. All the 81 sprinters were from one team.

The 2016 TNGP youngest driver distinction goes to Michael “Buddy” Kofoid, at 14. Oldest driver was Wally Pankratz, at 71. Ventura regulars Rick Hendrix and Bruce Douglass are 63. All three seniors race sprint cars competitively. The oldest race car in action was the Jordan Linson driven No. 10j John Boy sprinter built in 1992. It missed the feature both nights.

A TNGP record five female midget drivers raced on Thanksgiving this year. They were: rookies Maria Cofer, 17, Courtney Crone, 15, Kaitlynn Leer, 17, Holly Shelton, 20, and veteran Randi Pankratz, 46. Past TNGP entrant Shannon McQueen, 38, did not enter this year. She has been racing USAC Western 360 sprinters.

Midget teams with fleets of race cars and their drivers were: Keith Kunz (Columbus, Ind.) -- No. 67 (Tanner Thorson), 67k (Holly Shelton), 71 (Ryan Robinson), 71k (Carson Macedo), 71w (Kyle Larson), 97 (Spencer Bayston) and 97K (Rico Abreu). He also had two midgets in reserve. ... Midget driver Bryan Drollinger , 49, of Lomita, is related to 1960s USAC champ car driver Lee Drollinger, a cousin on his father's side.

Keith Ford/Berry Pack – No. 73 (Ryan Bernal), 73f (Dylan Ito), 73t (Kevin Thomas, Jr.) and 73x (Troy Rutherford). Three of the No. 73 midgets are TCR/Esslingers and one (the 73x) is a TCR/Fontana. All four midgets had sponsorship from 100 Nature-ripe Berry Growers on the hoods. USAC-CRA 410 sprint car No. 42 owner Dwight Cheney assisted the four-car 73 team in the pits.

STEVE WATT: The 53-year old industrialist owns five of the 43 sprint cars that raced at the 2016 TNGP. His TNGP drivers were: No. 81 - Brody Roa, 81m -Tristan Guardino, 81s - Michael Pickens, 81t – Dennis Rodriguez, and 81x – Trey Marcham. Cory Kruseman entered two sprints cars (No. 4k and 45) as well as two midgets (No. 12k and 21k). Steve Hix entered two sprinters to Tyler Edwards and Iowan Kaitlynn Leer.

Watt owns Maxwell Industries in Ventura. He brought his five sprint cars and the No. 14 Jake Hagopian midget to the TNGP in four trailers. Craig Dillard, of Oakdale, drove the Hagopian midget before Jake, who is a grandson of midget car owner Martin Hagopian. The 28-year old Fresno resident used No. 14 on his Spike/Esslinger because Brent Kaeding won the 1985 TNGP at Ascot in his granddad's No. 14.

Watt told me his Maxwell Industries has 12 part-time employees at race tracks and three full-timers at his Ventura shop. One works only on his sprint cars, one builds headers and coolers, and one repairs shocks for light rail systems such as the LA Metro and San Diego light rail rolling stock. Steve said he uses No. 81 on all of his race cars because he was a long-time fan of Ernie and Pat Rose at San Jose Speedway and they used No. 81.

Chris Wakim won the PAS Senior Sprints 2015 championship in Perris driving Steve's No. 81. This season Courtney Crone drove Steve's No. 81m to the 2016 PAS Young Gun championship. Steve said he has both Maxim (three) and the relatively new GS9 (two) sprint cars. Ricky Bray, of Lemoore, started building micro 600s. Steve bought the first sprint car chassis Bray built. The firm has built 12 GS9s so far and Steve said he might buy more GS9s.

At age 18 Dennis Rodriguez was a top 1990 CRA sprint car rookie (No. 20 family-owned Chevy). That car bit the dust in a CRA mid-western tour race. Dennis worked in financial planning in Los Angeles. The Burbank Burroughs High School graduate married his high school sweetheart 12 years ago after being together 15 years. They have a son age 11. They now reside in Las Vegas where Dennis, 44, sells cars. His brunette wife is a UNLV professor of Epidemiology (public health) and was in the Ventura pits with him. Dennis placed fourth in his heat Wednesday and sixth in his B-main Thursday to just miss the two sprint features.

Midget crew chief/team manager Brad Noffsinger, of North Carolina, towed the No. 76m FMR Beast/Toyota west for the TNGP for the second year in a row. He stopped in Indiana and picked up Beast builder Bob East and his No. 4 Klatt Beast/Stanton SR-11 and drove Bob and his midget to Ventura. Brad said he never had such a hilarious passenger on a racing trip. Brad's wife Robin flew west and accompanied him on the ride home as she did last year so he would not drive too far each day. His friend Stan Atherton rode west with Brad last year to Perris and assisted him in the pits.

East said he prefers TNGPs on half-miles as they were in the Ascot era. He flew home and Noffsinger dropped off East's No. 4 on his trip home to N.C.. Brad's No. 76m set fast time and finished a close second in the 98-lap main event. Damion Gardner again raced the Klatt/East Beast to fifth place. Damion also finished fifth and third in the 2013 and 2015 PAS TNGP features, so a TNGP victory in the future for the four-time USAC-CRA 410 sprint car champion would not be a surprise.

UNIQUE STORIES: Every pit has a story to tell. One of the more interesting this year involved the No. 122q Spike/Chevy of David Pickett. Three years ago he sold all of his midgets and racing equipment to pay mounting medical bills for his newborn daughter. She was born with a gene/chrome-ozone genetic defect in babies. She underwent the needed but costly surgery on a heart valve at three months of age. His daughter turned three on December 3. David returned to his love of midget competition ASAP with his friend Terry Nichols (No. 1 Spike/Chevy). David uses No. 122q on his car because it is a number connected to the surgery his daughter received.

Another TNGP midget with a story behind a number change is the No. 288 Spike/Chevy owned and driven by Chuck Ennis, from Bakersfield. He was one of three midget drivers to flip on Thanksgiving. Three sprint cars flipped Wednesday and three more flipped Thursday. Ennis executed two and a half endos without injury in the first B-main on lap 1 in turn one.

The No. 86 he used at the 2014 TNGP in Perris was changed to 288 in November. It was in tribute to his Florida-based friend Mark Luhcala, 48. Mark competed in the November 2016 SCORE-sanctioned Baja 1,000 with his No. 288 TT Speed Truck. Ennis, 30, drove the support “chase truck” with parts/supplies for Mark's truck.

On Saturday, November 19 on the Ensenada-San Felipe road, Mark's truck collided head-on at 60 mph with a still hospitalized competitor, Cody Parkhouse, 29, of Long Beach. Mark received a badly broken left leg and other injuries. His truck received the major brunt of the crash on the drivers' side. He had to be cut from his badly mangled vehicle. His navigator escaped serious injury. It took about six hours to evacuate both drivers to UC San Diego Medical Center. Doctors had to amputate Mark's left leg. He never regained consciousness. He underwent an angiogram and died unexpectedly from a heart attack. Mark is survived by his wife of 18-years and daughters 12 and 2.

Sprint car hard chargers at the TNGP were: Wednesday – Arizonan R. J. Johnson (No. 77m Bill Michael Sherman/Ford) from 19th starting to tenth at the finish (+ nine positions); Thursday – USAC-CRA driver Jake Swanson (No. 12 Matt Dale/Gage Huntley Spike/Shark) from 14th starting to third finishing position, a gain of 11 tough positions among front running competitors. Anaheim's Swanson also drove his No. 17 midget from a P. 17 start to eighth place finish (+ nine spots).

BEN WALKER: Ben Walker, a former NASCAR No. 35 late model driver and INEX Legend car driver, was in the pits working with customers. The 35-year old businessman runs his own firm—Walker Performance Intake Systems--in Sun Valley, California. His lightweight air intake product fits atop the engine and is used on all Keith Kunz midgets at $600 per car. His product for sprint cars costs $1,000 per car. Sprint car drivers Jac Haudenschild and his son Sheldon, David Gravel, Sammy Swindell and Brady Bacon, Bud Kaeding and Willie Croft are customers.

Ben last raced his No. 35 legend car at Irwindale in 2015 and sold it to someone in Arizona. He said he got married and has two daughters under the age of 5. Ben added that his father Bob, a former CRA/SCRA 410 sprint car driver, has retired. Bob owned of Air-Sep, Inc. in the San Fernando Valley for many years. Ben's business is a natural offshoot from his dad's business.

I asked Ben about his older brother Tyler, 37. He was a winning USAC Silver Crown driver and World of Outlaws 410 sprint car driver who won the Eldora Speedway King's Royal feature in 2011. He also raced NASCAR CW Trucks for a season. In July 2012 Tyler had a pit tirade at Williams Grove Speedway (Penn.) against an official ruling. Video of his rant went viral on the Internet. In January 2013 Tyler gained national notoriety for his three state, high-speed police chase on I-15 into Utah through a tri-state portion of northern Nevada and Arizona.

Tyler and his girl friend were arrested and charged with drug possession and evading police. Lengthy legal procedures to keep Tyler from serving major prison time followed. Eventually the case was resolved. In 2015 Tyler returned to racing winged sprint cars in California and was fast and competitive. I saw one result where he led the feature and finished second at Tulare. Tyler and his current girl friend are living in Santa Clarita. Ben said Tyler has reverted to his drug habit. Family efforts to get Tyler clean have not worked. Only time will tell what the future holds for him.

ITO CLAN: TNGP Midget driver Dylan Ito, 23, is the nephew of former USAC Western States Midget competitor George Ito, of Ventura. George owned his own No. 73 Dave Ellis-built midget and was the USAC Western States Midget 1990 rookie of the year. Known as the strawberry farmer, he had numerous best midget feature finishes of second. Earlier, George won four USAC-TQ Midget main events. Dylan's father is Henry Ito, brother of George. Both were in the pits lending moral support.

Dylan began racing go-karts years ago on the short track in the infield at Ventura. At his first TNGP he drove one of the Keith Ford No. 73 midgets and was the first of 53 drivers to qualify. Rookie Dylan set 47th fastest qualifying time of 50 drivers with times. He started 16th and finished 15th in the first 12-lap B-main. He did not race in the 15-lap LCQ race limited to P. 4-12 finishers in the two B-mains.