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RACING SCENE: (USAC Ventura TNGP) - Part II

RACING SCENE: (USAC Ventura TNGP) - Part II
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The 79th running of the oldest midget racing classic known as the Turkey Night Grand Prix ran for the fourth consecutive year over the Thanksgiving holiday at the scenic fifth-mile clay Ventura Raceway across the street from the Pacific Ocean. Ventura also was the 1997 TNGP site. Spectator and participant attendance was impressive despite the realized forecast of rain Wednesday through Friday.


The unique perpetual Aggie Trophy has one of his personal Stetson hats bronzed atop the trophy. It honors late race organizer J. C. Agajanian, who revived the TNGP in 1955. No races were held from 1951-1955. His three sons continued presenting the TNGP since 1984 at five speedways. Cary and Jay attended the 2019 race.


Jay told me his family appreciatesVentura promoter Jim Naylor's tireless efforts preparing the track on his grader throughout the TNGP despite rain interruptions. He really knows the sea level water table and how it affects his clay track. It was rougher this year because of rain. People understood the reason and were happy the race was completed. Jay said it would not have been possible without Naylor.


Midget drivers came from 13 states and two foreign countries. California led with 38 of 68 drivers. Oklahoma (seven drivers ), Indiana (five), Colorado and N. Carolina (three each). Illinois and Kansas (two each), and Alabama, Arizona, Missouri, Pennsylvania.,Texas. and Wyoming had one rep. Australia and New Zealand each sent one driver.


The 360 sprint car field represented USAC West Coast and VRA circuits. They again supported the TNGP by racing two nights. The 28 sprint car drivers came from five states and one foreign nation. California led with 23 drivers. Single drivers came from Illinois, Indiana, Missouri and Oklahoma and New Zealand.


CHASSIS / ENGINES (Midgets): Last year the TNGP had 12 chassis builders and this year had 14. Spike led with 35 midgets. Next in order were: Bullet by Spike (seven), King and TCR (four each), Beast, Boss and Bullet (three each), Edmunds Autoresearch and Stealth (two each), and one each from Eagle , Ellis, Stewart, Twister, and Triple X.


Last year 18 midget engine builders had engines in the TNGP field and this year had 17 different engines. Speedway Toyota led with 18. Esslinger had 13, and Stanton SR-11x had 11, and Stanton SR-11 (five). Chevy had four engines, Fontana (three), Arias, Gaerte, and Toyota (two each). One each came from builders AMS, Claxton, Dodenhof, Ed Pink Toyota, Mopar, Stanton Mopar, Van Dyne Chevy and Warrior.


CHASSIS / ENGINES (Sprint Cars): The 2018 TNGP sprint car field had 14 different chassis and 16 engine builders. This year the sprint field named seven chassis and 12 engine builders. Maxim led with 11 cars, Next were Triple X (five), CS9 (four), Spike (two), and one each from KPC (from retired driver Steve Kent), Schnee, and Victory. Three late entrants did not list a chassis or engine builder. Chevy was the engine listed for 12 sprint cars. Rider and Shark each had two engines. The balance of the field had engines from individual builders such as Bailey Brothers, Borello, Panella, and RC Performance.


Female Drivers: The 2018 TNGP had seven female drivers in midgets, This year there were five females racing midgets and none in the sprint division. The five females were: Randi Pankratz, Holley Hollan, Maria Cofer, King of the Wing sprint car veteran-TNGP newcomer Audra Sasselli, and Karsyn Elledge, niece of Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and daughter of his sister Kelley.


GRAND MARSHALS: Ron “Sleepy” Tripp is the eight-time USAC Western States champion, 1975-76 USAC National Midget champion, and winner of 161 midget features. He was co-TNGP Grand Marshal with his long-time winning midget car owner Gary Zarounian. Gary and his late father George won 88 USAC features including eight in the USAC Silver Crown Series. Gary brought his red/blue white No. 1 VW midget and displayed it inside the Ventura front gate.


Top ten point standings drivers who raced at the 2019 TNGP were:

  > Nine of the top ten in USAC National Division points raced. Chad Boat (tenth) was present in the pits running his four-car team. He said he hasn't quit driving but he enjoys his car owner role.
  > USAC W/S Division: Nine of the top ten in 2019 points raced. Only P. 6 Shannon McQueen did not race. Her midget was damaged November 23 at Bakersfield.
  > USAC West Coast Sprints: Six of the top ten in points raced in the TNGP.
  > VRA Sprints: Three of the top ten in Ventura points raced in the combined USAC/VRA non-points TNGP.

The competitive USAC West Coast 360 sprint car series has had 10 different champions during its 11 years in existence. In order from 2009 through 2019 they are: Justyne Hamblin, Craig Stidham, Richard VanderWeerd, Bud Kaeding, Danny Faria, Jr., Matt Mitchell, Faria again, Brody Roa, Jake Swanson, Austin Liggett and Tristan Guardino.


PRINTED PROGRAMS: The 34-page color printed program from Harold Osmer and Neil Nissing (the program guys since 2001) was another winner and cost only $5.00. It included accurate midget and sprint car entry rosters, all Ventura track records, a TNGP crossword puzzle, point standings for all USAC series and VRA, numerous color photos, a USAC story about co-grand marshals Tripp and Zarounian, the usual top five finishers in all TNGP events starting in 1934, plus pages to write-in lineups, ads, and an autograph page.


TNGP Car Counts: Midget and sprint car counts for the TNGP during the last four years at Ventura have been impressive. In 2016 there were 96 cars (53 midgets and 43 sprints); 2017 - 99 cars (50 midgets and 49 sprints); 2018 - 105 cars (63 midgets and 42 sprints); 2019 - 96 cars (68 midgets and 28 sprints). USAC'S Richie Murray revealed 68 midgets this year was the highest TNGP midget count since 1992 at Bakersfield Speedway.


UNIQUE TNGP TROPHIES: Ventura TNGP trophies as usual were unusual and coveted. Two Naylor-built Ventura beach theme trophies (with miniature palm trees, surfboards and sand) went to 360 sprint car drivers. Chase Johnson took home the “Battle of the Beach” trophy for his feature victory. Troy Rutherford won the similar “King of the Beach” trophy as Ventura's four-race USAC/VRA point races champion. The annual Jason Leffler Fast Qualifier Trophy was a silver 1930s midget under plexiglass. K. Thomas, Jr. won it.


Midget main winner Larson won the Naylor-built metal replica of the Tripp / Zarounian 1980s VW red/blue and white No. 1 midget. It will be a prized trophy in Kyle's trophy room. USAC's California midget four November races also gave Kyle two other distinctive trophies. An Old West two-story jailhouse replica was on his November 20 Placerville “Hangtown 100” victory trophy. His November 23 Bakersfield 30-lap victory trophy had a replica oil derrick symbolizing the city as a major California oil producer. Kyle also won $32,000 at Placerville, $3,000 at Bakersfield and $6,000 at Ventura for his own No. 1K King/Speedway Toyota midget team.


After the 98 lap midget feature concluded six midgets and drivers came to the finish line for podium trophy presentations and for the official crowning of the series champions. It probably was the latest (12:20 am) and coldest (39-degrees) such presentation in memory. USAC's traveling pit announcer Georgia Henneberry, from St. Louis, conducted interviews.


USAC Western Midget 2019 champion Robert Dalby and Western Midget rookie star Ben Worth, 24, were there. Dalby said, “We hit our stride in the middle of the year.” He won three consecutive features from July-September. He said he plans to move to Indiana in 2020 to race a lot more often (in USAC and POWRi).


Tyler Courtney was fresh from his white flag lap flip across the finish line in his Clauson-Marshall No. 7BC about ten minutes earlier. His crew had to wheel out the team's NOS Energy Drink No. 17BC driven by Chris Windom. Courtney's flipped midget (taken to the pits) had front wheels pointing in opposite directions and would not roll. USAC National Midget 2019 champion Courtney sprayed champagne on his racing team following their group photo.


Runner-up McIntosh received the Basile Rookie of the Race award. The 16-year old sensation from Bixby, Okla, spoke to remaining fans who had not fled to the warmth of their cars. He said, “My legs lost feeling at the end. I drove hard for the first 30 laps. I knew something was wrong with my car near the end but didn't know what it was (broken rear suspension). I was not intimidated by Kyle Larson. I just drove my race. He drove around me (on lap 88 inside in turns three and four). It's not a win, but it's cool being up here. I want to thank my dad (car owner Dave McIntosh).”


Larson was delighted to receive another unique trophy and his third TNGP victory. His other TNGP victories were in 2012 at Perris and 2016 in Ventura driving for the Keith Kunz Motorsports team. The rich get richer. However, teams welcome NASCAR Cup star Larson at open-wheel dirt track races. He is a clean driver and attracts additional fans in the grandstand.


Larson continued his November hot streak by winning a Saturday, November 30 ASCS SW Region 20-car Copper Classic winged sprint car 25-lap feature at Arizona Speedway. He drove Paul Silva's No. 57 sprint car. It was unloaded and parked (with wing) in the Ventura pits next to Kyle's No. 1K midget. Kyle also raced it at track Sunday night, December 1 but he did not finish the feature.


The 80th running of the TNGP will be run at Ventura Raceway for the sixth time and fifth consecutive year. The dates will be Wednesday-Thursday November 25-26. Everyone hopes rain will not interrupt racing and cause a Friday conclusion next year.