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RACING SCENE (T-night Midget GP - Part 1)

RACING SCENE (T-night Midget GP - Part 1)

Any concerns about the health of the annual USAC Turkey Night Midget Grand Prix were put to rest this year at the 76th running of the longest-running midget auto racing classic event. The traditional holiday event dates back to 1934 at Gilmore Stadium in Hollywood. The midget car count for the last four TNGP events at the half-mile clay Perris Auto Speedway attracted steadily declining midget car counts of 59, 48, 34 and 22 last year. Spectator attendance dropped as well each year leading to a major move for the event this year.
Agajanian Promotions, run by late race organizer/car owner J. C. Agajanian's three sons (Cary, Jay and Chris), knew a change had to be made to keep the TNGP a major event. Many months ago they moved the 2016 TNGP to Ventura Raceway in cooperation with long-time track promoter Jim Naylor. Their now two-day Thanksgiving classic on Wednesday-Thursday November 23-24 drew a strong field of 53 midgets and 43 USAC Western/VRA 360 cu. in. sprint cars that ran a non-point event.
The infrequent USAC open-wheel doubleheader in Southern California was a bargain. It should grow in importance as the USAC-CRA 410 sprints and USAC Western Midgets have experienced in recent years at the Calistoga Speedway half-mile in Nor Cal's wine country on the Labor Day weekend. A pleased Jay Agajanian late Thursday used the track PA mic and said, “We (Agajanian Promotions) will have to get together with Jim soon about doing this again next year.”
With 96 cars on the beach-front fairgrounds property, race cars and trailers were parked in every nook and cranny available, including between fairgrounds barns and equipment buildings. The only other USAC Turkey Night Midget GP event conducted at Ventura Raceway occurred in 1997. It awarded USAC National and USAC Western States Midgets 1997 points. The track also hosted midgets on ESPN's Thursday Night Thunder in the 1990s.
The Pacific Ocean, sandy beach, wet-suit clad surfers, boats, the Ventura pier and a frontage road are behind the track grandstand. Sunsets are spectacular. Beyond the backstretch are north/south railroad tracks with Amtrak and freight trains passing at times, US 101 Freeway, and hillside Ventura homes in the distance. The track, on Ventura County Fairgrounds property, is surely one of the most scenic race track settings anywhere. Note: California fair boards receive money from parking and concessions.
“The Best Little Dirt Track in America” is what Naylor calls his banked, fifth-mile clay track. The hard-working promoter and track lessor triples as race promoter, track preparer on heavy equipment, and PA announcer. He tries to give fans and competitors the best race track possible each week. The TNGP tested even his experience with the huge TNGP midget/sprint car field. He prevailed.
To accomplish the feat Thursday, Jim hired Perris Auto Speedway chief announcer Scott Daloisio to do all booth announcing. Naylor, who announced Wednesday night practice and sprint car racing, concentrated all Thursday on track preparation. The move worked fabulously. Jim only handled infield mic duties for driver interviews after both features.
The TNGP this year as expected attracted a sizable crowd to the main grandstand Wednesday for midget practice sessions and six 360 sprint car heat races plus a 20-lap main event ($1,000 to win). It advanced the first eight finishers to a 30-lap ($3,000 to win) Thursday feature. An impressive crowd occupied maybe 85% of the main grandstand and top quarter of the first turn bleachers on Thursday. The sunny, 70 degree warm afternoon on Thursday also had windy conditions off the ocean in late afternoon and evening. Knowledgeable fans dressed warmly for just such conditions. It was still 55 degrees when racing concluded.
Naylor operated the Caterpillar grader, track digger and water truck prior to the two main events Thursday. There was noticeable wear on the clay surface during numerous races by 50+ midgets and 40+ sprints prior to the two features. He dug up the inside and outside grooves in turns three/four and one/two and reworked them to make them race-worthy. Trucks wheel-packed the re-watered track all around the oval and made it like new for the two features. His efforts paid dividends. There was plentiful passing for positions and lapping in both features to the final checkered flag at 10:42 pm.
Hard-working Naylor spent 45 minutes from 8:05 to 8:50 pm reworking the clay surface to give drivers and fans a new race track. During that necessary delay, uncomplaining fans were occupied by the regular intermission and by a lengthy driver autograph session. All drivers were seated behind a long line of tables between the grandstand and pits. Fans got autographs and talked to visiting national drivers, including popular Kyle Larson, Rico Abreu and young newcomers. Fans also could watch simultaneously through a wire fence as teams prepared midgets and sprints for the features.
TNGP MIDGETS: The 53 midgets this year came from the following locations unofficially by my count:
  > 15 – USAC National Series.
  > 20 - USAC Western Series.
  >  5 - BCRA (Nor Cal).
  >  7 - Central Cal.
  >  3 - Arizona.
  >  3 -Other: (VRA Midgets & ARDC).
As expected, car owners who avoid half-mile tracks and prefer shorter tracks returned to the TNGP when it returned to a short track. Expect more midgets next year.
TNGP midget drivers came from 13 states and one from New Zealand. States were: Calif.-37; Ariz.- four; Ind. -two; and one each from Alab., Ill., Ia, Kan. Mo., Nev., Okla., Penn., and Wy.. The 43 360 sprint car drivers came from five states and one from New Zealand. California had 37, Ariz.-two; and Iowa, Nev. and Oklahoma one each.
At the TNGP feature of 98 laps (in honor of J. C. Agajanian who used 98 on his cars), yellow flag laps counted through lap 75. Only green flag laps counted from laps 76-98. Per Richie Murray of USAC Communications, by USAC rule cars that spun out during the first 75 laps did not lose a lap waiting to be pushed of safely. Spencer Bayston and Frankie Guerrini spun on lap 42; Bayston did not get pushed off until lap 47. When the green flag flew on lap 52 he was scored on the lead lap and finished ninth with 98 laps officially.
Kevin Thomas, Jr and Chad Boat spun together on lap 66 in turn three. They restarted on the lead lap. Guerrini and Boat were lapped by leader Kyle Larson on lap 83 in traffic. They both finished 97 laps officially. There were 24 cars still racing at the finish. The first 13 finishers completed all 98 laps. The P. 14 – 22 drivers ran 97 laps and P. 23-24 drivers logged 96 laps. Four midgets retired with mechanical problems and one car flipped with no driver injury on lap 1 in the first turn.
More info to follow in TNGP Part 2.