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RACING SCENE: (USAC Ventura TNGP) - Part I

RACING SCENE: (USAC Ventura TNGP) - Part I
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The 79th running of the prestigious midget racingTurkey Night Grand Prix was one of the most unusual. It rained and postponed Thanksgiving competition to Friday, November 29. Weather forecasts called for rain on the preliminary racing night (Wed. Nov. 27). Ventura Raceway promoter Jim Naylor expedited the program and it was completed from 3:00 to 7:50 pm for 360 ci sprint cars and 59 midgets on hand only for scheduled practice.


The 28 USAC and VRA sprint cars were divided into four 10-lap heat races. Winners were Max Adams, fast timer Chase Johnson, Tyler Courtney and Tyler Edwards. Next were four 12-lap qualifying races. C. Johnson, Troy Rutherford, Tanner Carrick and Brady Bacon won. Top point scorers were: Johnson (225 points), Courtney (203), Geoff Ensign (191), T. Edwards (191), Carrick (191), Bacon (189), Rutherford (182), Austin Liggett (180), Adams (179) and T.J. Smith (179).


The final event Wednesday was a 15-lap “Dash” to set the first ten starting positions in Thursday's 41-lap sprint car feature. The finishing order was: Courtney, (who won $1,000), Johnson, Ensign, Rutherford, Bacon, Liggett, Carrick, Edwards, Adams and Smith. The 90% chance of rain for Thanksgiving Day came to pass. Naylor wisely had the track covered with tarps overnight so rain late Wednesday night and Thursday did not “lose” the track for Friday racing.


Naylor and USAC officials met after a downpour Thursday morning and about 10:15 am postponed the racing to Friday when the weather forecast was promising. USAC used social media to notify everyone. Prior TNGP events had been delayed by rain in 1983, 1981, 1975, 1973 and 1965. One event was delayed until the first Saturday in December. No TNGP midget classic from 1934 to present had been canceled by weather. That amazing record still stands.


What did TNGP racing teams do for Thanksgiving dinner? Some, including Keith Kunz Motorsports eight car team remained at their hote--the 11-story Crowne Plaza Hotel)--two blocks south of the Ventura Fairgrounds track. They had turkey dinner there. Ventura area residents/veteran drivers Cory Kruseman and Troy Rutherford hosted racing friends for dinner. Other teams dined at Denny's Restaurant or pitside in motor homes. Others went to fast food restaurants such as Carl's Restaurant. All improvised and hoped for clear weather Friday. Some drivers planned to race ASCS sprint cars at Arizona Speedway near Phoenix Saturday and Sunday.


Ventura weather Friday was sunny with blue sky, white clouds and 61-degrees when the pits opened at 11 am. The drivers meeting in the pit grandstand was 2:45 pm. Warmups/hot laps for all 28 sprint cars started on time at 3:15 followed by the midgets. Qualifying for midgets ran from 4:58 to 5:56 pm; all 68 midgets ran in their drawn order. Johnny Cofer, the USAC Western States 1994 midget champion and father of current USAC driver Maria Cofer, set the track record (11.675 - 61.67 mph) on 11/18/95. His time was not challenged again this year.


Two-time TNGP winner Kyle Larson, the only past TNGP winner entered this year, was the third driver to qualify. He posted a 12.796 before spinning out low in turn four on his second lap. Kyle's only lap slipped to 16th fastest time. The ten fastest qualifiers locked into the feature and started the 98-lap race straight-up by their qualifying times. Kyle would have to race hard this year to win his third TNGP and second at Ventura. He started 15th and did just that in a talented field of veteran drivers and young chargers.


When time trials concluded the ten fastest qualifiers ranged from 12.409 by fast timer Kevin Thomas, Jr. to 12.737 by tenth quickest Carson Macedo. The ten fastest in order were: (with qualifying position order in parenthesis) were: Thomas (66th), midget rookie Chase Johnson (41st), Jerry Coons, Jr. (26th), Spencer Bayston (32nd), Rico Abreu (48th), Michael Pickens (25th), rookie Gio Scelzi (65th), rookie Cannon McIntosh (37th), A.Liggett (18th), and Macedo (11th). Just missing the top ten was Zeb Wise at 12.752 (8th qualifier).


Following more track prep and driver PA interviews, the first of three 12-lap qualifying heats (with 19 or 20 drivers in each) started at 6:49 pm. The top four finishers in each heat transferred to the feature behind the ten fastest qualifiers. P. 5-10 finishers in all three heats transferred to a 15-lap semi-main that also advanced the first four finishers to the feature.


T. Courtney, USAC National Midget 2019 champion, led every lap in the first heat as light sprinkles started at the checkered flag. With second heat cars on track at 7:10 sprinkles turned to light rain and the track became too wet for racing. Officials sent all cars back to the pits. Some of the 2,000+ fans in the grandstand sought cover and some did not. Weather forecasts called for brief light showers about 7:00 pm and they were correct.


Rain stopped in about 15 minutes and fans returned to watch track preparation for racing. The delay was about an hour and 40-minutes. The second 12-lap heat started at 8:52 and T. Carrick won a five minute race. The third heat was another quick five minute race with P. 2 starter Larson leading all 12-laps after passing pole starter Logan Seavey at the start.


Officials canceled the two nine-car, 12-lap sprint car semi-mains because of the lengthy rain delay. The first six finishers in each semi were to advance to the sprint car feature and start 11th to 22nd. So the P. 7-9 drivers were allowed to start at the back of the now 25-car sprint main event.


SPRINT MAIN: The 41-lap race (in honor of the late WoO winged sprint car driver Jason Johnson) started at 9:20 and concluded at 9:52. Prior to the start, various sprint car drivers on the starting grid received cash randomly in envelopes marked by starting position numbers. Sprint drivers were recipients of $5,500 cash given by Ventura's Automotive Racing Products (ARP), a supporter of the Ventura TNGP for years. Some drivers received $50, $500, and even $1,000.


Nor Cal driver Chase Johnson started second and led all 41 laps despite four caution flags for spins or stalls. Fellow Nor Cal veteran G. Ensign took second position from pole starter Courtney on lap 32. Courtney, B. Bacon and T. Edwards completed the top five with 20 of 25 starters still racing at the finish.


Next was the 15-lap, 18-car Last Chance Qualifier for the P. 5-10 finishers from three 12-lap heats. The three P. 5 drivers were followed in starting order by heat race finishers in sixth through tenth positions. Showing how tough the midget field was, P. 10 heat race finishers earlier were Dillon Welch, Damion Gardner, and Bacon. Only the first four LCQ finishers advanced to the 26 earned feature starting spots. Four drivers--two each in USAC National points (Z. Wise, and Chris Windom) and W/S points (Robert Dalby and C. J. Sarna)--used provisional spots. They started in P. 27-30 on the banked fifth-mile clay track.


Missing the LCQ cut (P. 5 and lower) were USAC National Sprint 2019 champion C. J. Leary, who flipped high three times on the front straight to turn one while in P. 4 in his heat on the final lap), He helped load the No. 13 Gene Gile midget into the hauler and later said the car wasn't damaged too badly. Leary and Gile will race their new DRC sprint cars as No. 1 on the USAC 2020 National Sprint circuit.


Other drivers who failed to transfer to the feature included: Andrew Layser, D. Gardner, All-Star C of C champion Aaron Reutzel, Nick Drake, Holly Hollan, Bacon, Tucker Klassmeyer, multi-USAC W/S champion Ronnie Gardner, and USAC W/S 2019 champion Robert Dalby. Justin Grant and Welch scratched from the LCQ race. It had one red and three yellow flags and ran from 10:01 to 10:22 pm.


MIDGET MAIN: The 98-lap TNGP started at 10:56 pm with various cell phones in the grandstand showing 43-degrees. With wind-chill off the Pacific the temp felt like the high-30s. The feature concluded at 12:19 am with cell phones showing 39-degrees. Racing action on track kept warmly-dress real race fans in their seats to the checkered flag.


Friday night had nine flips (two in heat one and one in the semi-main). Six flips occurred during the feature. C. Johnson (lap 11), Rickey Stenhouse, Jr. - twice (on laps 22 and 28), G. Scelzi (lap 35), pole starter K. Thomas, Jr. (lap 70) and P. 4 Courtney on the final lap just past the starting line at the white flag. That flip resulted in a green, white and checkered flag finish.


Main event leaders were: K. Thomas, Jr;. (Petry No. 5) on laps 1-20. 16-year old rookie Cannon McIntosh, from Bixby, Okla., in his father's No. 08, laps 21-87, and Larson, in his own No. 1K King/Speedway Toyota, laps 88-98. This year because of all the flips only 16 of 30 starters were racing at the finish; all completed 98 laps. Last year 25 drivers finished.


ROOKIE OF RACE: There were 27 TNGP rookies in the 68 driver 2019 field. That total was up from 23 rookies in 2018. Seven TNGP Don Basile Rookie of the Race contenders this year made the feature. They were eligible for the $500 cash award posted by Bob Basile in honor of his late father, a NSCHoF inductee. Winners also have their names inscribed on plaques afixed to the sides of the Basile RotR perpetual trophy.


Rookies (by starting positions and showing finishing positions in parenthesis) were:

  >P. 2 Chase Johnson, in Malloy 25x, (29th flipped);
  >P. 7 Gio Scelzi, in Tucker-Boat 84, (30th flipped);
  >P. 8 Cannon McIntosh, in Mac 08, (2nd – led 66 laps & had best finish in 21 years of the award;
   >P. 17 Daison Pursley, in KKM 98, (19th-DNF); >P19 Buddy Kofoid, in KKM 97K, (6th);
  >P 25 Ben Worth, in Alexander 5G, (15th);
  >P 30 C. J. Sarna, in Sarna 20, (21st)-DNF.
Teenage rookies were: McIntosh, Pursley, and ScelzThe Basile Rookie of the Race award started in 1998. It has been given at four speedways—Bakersfield, Irwindale, Perris, and Ventura. Of the 20 prior TNGP Basile rookie award winners six raced at the 2019 TNGP. They were: (2019 TNGP finishes in parenthesis): 2011-Larson (P. 1 this year); 2012-Ryan Bernal (10th); 2015-R. Dalby (26th); 2016-C. Macedo (P. 5); 2017-Z. Wise (12th); 2018-Jason McDougal (P. 4).

The TNGP program each year lists the top five in TNGP main events from the first in 1934 to the latest race. Next year will list the names of three new top five finishers. They are: third-C. McIntosh, fourth-Spencer Bayston, and fourth J. McDougal. That is a real achievement. ... Indianapolis 500 winners who also won a TNGP were: Bill Vukovich (1948 at Gardena), Johnnie Parsons (1955 at Gardena), A. J. Foyt (1960-61 at Ascot), and Parnelli Jones (1964 and 66 at Ascot.