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RACING SCENE - (T-Night Midget GP - Part 2)

RACING SCENE - (T-Night Midget GP - Part 2)
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(Part 1 of this article can be found here.)

 

Ten drivers raced in both USAC Midget and 360 sprint car divisions at the 2016 Turkey Night Midget Grand Prix in Ventura. Those drivers (with their midget/sprint car numbers in parenthesis) were: Carson Macedo (71k/21x), Cory Kruseman (21k/45), Michael Pickens (25p/81s), Jake Swanson, (17/12), Ryan Bernal (73/51t), R. J. Johnson (51/77m), Kyle Smith (55/55), Shon Deskins (20/20), Austen Figueroa (49jr/49), and Kaitlynn Leer (77/U47).

 

Five double duty drivers made both main events. They were: (with their midget/sprint car feature finishes in parenthesis): Macedo (P. 3 & 4), Swanson (P. 8 & 3), Pickens (P. 25 & 2), Bernal (P. 12 & 19), and Kruseman (P. 28 & 20). Three of the above drivers made only the sprint car main on Thursday. Their finishes were: Deskins (7th), Smith (9th), and Johnson (12th). Figueroa and Leer missed both mains.

 

Kruseman used No. 45 on his former 21 sprinter to honor his first sprint car owner Harlan Willis. His now black 45 throwback Spike looked as it did when Cory drove it decades ago. Willis was present to see Cory's tribute in competition again. ... The youngest driver racing in the 2016 TNGP was Michael “Buddy” Kofoid, 14, from Penngrove in a sprint car, with Courtney Crone second at 15. Oldest drivers were sprint car drivers Wally Pankratz, 71, plus Rick Hendrix and Bruce Douglass at 63.

 

ROOKIE OF RACE: The Don Basile TNGP Midget Rookie of the Race perpetual trophy with a $500 cash award from the late promoter's son Bob Basile also was presented in victory lane ceremonies. As usual it went to the highest finishing first time driver in the TNGP main event. ... Last year only four of the 22 drivers in the 2015 TNGP at PAS were rookies and 15-year old Robert Dalby, from Anaheim, won the Basile honor in his first midget race. He made the TNGP feature again in 2016 and finished 18th. Tyler Dolacki, 23, was a 2015 Basile award eligible driver who made the 98-lap race again and finished 21st.

 

There were ten eligible rookies in the 2016 TNGP at Ventura. Their finishing positions (with starting spot in parenthesis) were: P. 3 (started 3rd) – C. Macedo, 20; P. 9 (from 12th) – Spencer Bayston, 18; P. 10 (from 9th) – Cory Elliott, 16; P. 14 (from 27th) Holly Shelton, 21; P. 16 (from 18th) Ryan Robinson, 18; P. 17 (from 20th) Tucker Klassmeyer, 21; P. 19 (from 29th) Maria Cofer, 17; P. 22 (from 19th) Courtney Crone, 15; P. 24 (from 24th) Frankie Guerrini, 22; and P. 29 (from 7th) Gage Walker, 19, who was a flip victim on lap 1 in a turn one logjam. With young drivers such as those ten “rookies” and others, the future of midget racing looks bright.

 

The USAC program of bringing young drivers into open-wheel racing via the Focus and HPD Midget Series and through numerous USAC quarter-midget series has produced many talented young drivers. One such driver is Joel Rayborn, of West Covina, who turned 14 on August 13. He has raced since age 9 in various classes. He won USAC HPD rookie of the year and was in the Ventura pits observing. Joel told me he will race a 360 sprint car in 2017 for Denkel Racing of Hesperia in the Perris Young Gun Series for drivers 14-25.

 

Prior Basile TNGP rookie award winners in the 2016 race were: Dalby, Thorson, Bernal and Larson. Current NASCAR driver Kasey Kahne won the first Basile trophy in 1998, shortly after Don's passing. ... There were a TNGP record five female midget drivers this year and four of them were TNGP rookies. Cofer, Crone and Shelton made the feature, while Iowan Kaitlynn Leer, 17, did not. The fifth female was veteran driver Randi Pankratz, Wally's daughter.

 

The $5.00 76th TNGP printed program used extensive color throughout the 30-pages plus front and back covers. The artistic cover pictured a blue and white No. 98 Agajanian Special broad-sliding with palm trees and the ocean in the background. “The Program Guys” (Harold Osmer and Neil Nissing) and HO Publishing retired last year after doing the the annual TNGP printed program for several decades. They returned this year and worked their magic again. It is another collectors' item. I've attended 55 consecutive TNGPs since my first in 1962 at Ascot Park. I have programs from all 55 races.

 

The 2016 TNGP program is amazing because it came together quickly. Entry rosters for both midgets and sprint cars were almost perfect with not many write-ins in a combined 96 car field. Pre-entries are not required by USAC. Harold praised the effort by Richie Murray, of USAC Communications, for making the entry rosters and USAC midget and sprint car information so fan-friendly. With so many duplicate car numbers in each division it can get confusing for even veteran fans.

 

The Ventura program contents included: numerous color photos of midgets and sprint cars at speed, track records, top ten in 2016 points for USAC National and Western Series, accurate midget and sprint car rosters, space for race lineups, and a blank page to use at the formal drivers autograph sessions both nights. It also had the usual TNGP historical pages of top five drivers at all 75 prior TNGP features. This year Brady Bacon (2nd) and Carson Macedo (3rd) became top five TNGP finishers for the first time.

 

On page 5 there was a salute with photos of 2016 co-TNGP Grand Marshals Billy Boat, of Phoenix, and John Lawson, of Fresno. John owned the No. 15x midget Billy drove to the TNGP victory in Ventura and to three consecutive USAC Western Series driving championships in 1995-97. Billy went to the Indy Racing League in 1996 and raced in seven Indy 500s from 1997-2003. He drove for legendary A. J. Foyt from 1997-2000 and won one Indy Car race at the 1.5-mile Texas Motor Speedway. Billy also won six IRL poles, including the 1998 Indy 500 pole, driving for Foyt.

 

Billy, an Arizona State University graduate now 50, retired from race driving more than a decade ago. He started his successful B & B Performance Exhaust business for cars and trucks in Phoenix. His dad Bill, former race driver brother Mike, and son help as necessary. Billy's son Chad, 24, raced the Boat No. 84 Spike/Speedway Toyota in the 2016 TNGP. Chad, age five when his dad won the only prior Ventura TNGP, said he doesn't remember being present for that family memory.

 

Tracy Hines made his final USAC start before retiring last year after the Perris TNGP. He won his first USAC National Midget driving championship by 18-points over 2015 TNGP winner Tanner Thorson. This year Thorson won his first USAC National Midget driving title, also by 18-points ironically, over his Kunz Racing teammate Spencer Bayston, 18, from Lebanon, Indiana. Thorson, at age 19, became the first-ever champion from Nevada in a USAC national series.

 

In 2012 at Perris, photographer Albert Wong had first-time TNGP winner Kyle Larson kiss the brim of the authentic J. C. Agajanian bronzed Stetson hat placed atop the perpetual TNGP trophy. The base has plaques with the names of every TNGP winner. Larson obligingly kissed the brim for photographers and a new tradition was born. Every TNGP winner since 2012 willingly continued the Thanksgiving tradition. Larson did so for the second time in 2016. Maybe someday soon he also will kiss the bricks at the starting line of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway after winning the NASCAR Brickyard 400.