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RACING SCENE - (Ventura TNGP Midgets) - Part 1

RACING SCENE - (Ventura TNGP Midgets) - Part 1
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The 78th running of the prestigious USAC “Turkey Night Grand Prix” took place for the third consecutive year Thanksgiving evening at the scenic Ventura Raceway. The banked fifth-mile clay oval is located across Shoreline Drive from the Pacific Ocean. Check the track website for an aerial photo of the track and its proximity to the beach. Promoter Jim Naylor hosted the oldest classic midget race for the fourth time (1996 was the first time); he did everything necessary to make the event successful.

Everyone agreed the 2018 TNGP was another home-run. Fans, competitors, USAC sanctioning body officials, the TNGP host Agajanian family, and promoter Naylor were pleased Thursday after the final checkered flag. Spectator attendance Wednesday and Thursday seemed to be significantly higher than the last two years and car counts increased. Word is getting around racing circles that Thanksgiving is Turkey Night GP time in Ventura.

The 2,500 seat main grandstand was packed and there must have been 1,500 to 1,800 persons in the crowded pits. Mother Nature cooperated with temps in the 50s, and rain only overnight. Thanksgiving had blue sky and sun shining brightly. You needed a jacket once the sun went down behind the grandstand. Wind blowing from the east caused race dust that was pesky but tolerable for real race fans, especially Ventura regulars who brought goggles.

Multi-talented Naylor handled promotional duties include posting the purse, announced all preliminary night races Wednesday, prepared the race track surface each day on his grader, and also hand-made unique and coveted TNGP trophies. They are presented each year to appreciative midget and 360 sprint car drivers. Jim brought in Perris PA announcer Scott Daloisio to be the PA announcer Thursday again in 2018 so he could concentrate on track preparation.

Naylor wisely moved the Wednesday night TNGP midget practice and 360 sprint qualifying races forward several hours with rain predicted for Ventura after 7:00 pm. If he had not done that the drizzle and then light rain that arrived about 7:30 pm would have interrupted and prevented the completion of the Wednesday program. It rained in Ventura until well past midnight and left a mini-lake in the track infield.

Thursday dawned sunny with blue sky and sun shining and 0% chance of rain. Naylor arrived at his track early on Thanksgiving and began making his track racy again. He even hopped onto his grader during a break in the feature and re-worked the third and fourth turns to give drivers a more competitive track surface. That is dedication.

Midgets had ample 2:30 to 3:15 pm practice time Wednesday and even following the final 360 sprint race. Midgets hot-lapped in groups of nine or ten cars for five green flag laps. Most fans in the grandstand stayed and watched until drizzle and then light rain started about 7:25. One midget (No. 77B) with an engine problem ran several green light laps to diagnose the problem in a light drizzle. Rain Wednesday night made track prep even more difficult than usual for such a large field of midgets and sprint cars.

A 15-lap “Dash” for the top ten sprint car drivers after five 10-lap heats and four 12-lap qualifiers concluded Wednesday racing by 7:00 pm as planned. All sprint races this year were run for passing points only and the top ten raced the “Dash” instead of the usual Wednesday 20-lap sprint car main. The “Dash” finishing order was the 30-lap starting order for the Thursday 30-lap sprint car feature that paid $3,000 to win.

During opening ceremonies at the starting line Thursday USAC Western official Chris Kearns spoke on the PA mic. He praised Naylor and said this is the 40th year Jim has promoted Ventura Raceway. He led spectators in singing “Happy Birthday” to Jim for his upcoming 72nd birthday. Kearns said Jim not only promotes Ventura Raceway, he prepares the track, announces on the PA mic, and builds multiple unique and coveted TNGP trophies from scratch. He uses metal and wood, fabrics and other material from hobby/craft stores.

Kearns continued, “Jim is the hardest working promoter I know. I know first-hand about Jim's helpfulness. In 2009 I took over as Santa Maria Speedway promoter. Jim phoned me and offered to help me in any way necessary,including towing his grader north to prepare my track if necessary.” Naylor replied, “I don't deserve those kind words. I've been called ornery.” Later, Jim interviewed the three grand marshals and said he is friends with former USAC Western VP Tommy Hunt, but acknowledged they “had disagreements and went nose-to-nose at times.”

PRINTED PROGRAM: The annual printed Turkey Night” color program by The Program Guys—Harold Osmer and Neil Nissing--was 34 pages this year. It is another winner to keep in your collection of racing souvenirs. All 500 programs sold out on race night. The color cover featured action photos of USAC National Midget champion Logan Seavey, USAC Western Midget champ Michael Faccinto, and USAC West Coast 360 sprint champion Austin Liggett. A photo of the TNGP “Aggie trophy” also graced the cover. The unique trophy had a realistic-looking, scale replica No. 98jr Agajanian-Bowes Seal Fast metal midget with a life-like J. C. Agajania figure sitting in the cockpit wearing a jacket and his familiar Stetson hat.

Program pages contained the two-day TNGP schedule, race preview and Don Basile Rookie of the Race Trophy stories, top ten in points for four series (three USAC and VRA 360 sprints), track records, stories about three TNGP Grand Marshals—Cory Kruseman, Jay Drake and Tommy Hunt, plus very complete entry rosters for midget and sprint car divisions. There were only seven midget write-ins and eight sprint car late entrant write-ins.

As usual the top five finishers in all 77 prior TNGP midget features were listed on two pages. It shows an impressive array of Indianapolis 500 and open-wheel national champions over the decades from the 1930s to the present. The top five this year were repeaters--winner Christopher Bell and runner-up Kyle Larson. New top five drivers in P. 3-5 order were: Arizonan Chad Boat, Kansan Tucker Klaasmeyer and Indianan Tyler Courtney.

Action photos and the usual TNGP-related crossword puzzle (all TNGP-related answers found elsewhere in the program), were included. The puzzle this year came from Harold's daughter Mirinda. The driver autograph page at the back was included as usual. Ventura's TNGP driver autograph session had drivers sitting at two rows of tables on the main walkway behind the grandstand. During a break for track preparation, drivers signed programs and/or their pre-printed color “hero cards for fans.

FEMALE DRIVERS: Nine females, including four TNGP rookies, were entered in midgets at the 2018 TNGP. They were: Californians Maria Cofer (No. 57), Holly Shelton (No. 67k), and Randi Pankratz (No. 8); Oklahoman-based Michelle Decker (No. 4m) and Holley Hollan (No. 35), Iowan McKenna Haase (No. 85), and Colorado driver Olivia Bennett (No. 77B). The latter four were turkey night rookies. All seven raced. Californians Shannon McQueen and Ashley Hazelton-Heredia scratched and their midgets were not present. McQueen only raced a 360 sprint car this year but said she will have her midget team at the Tulsa Chili Bowl in January, 2019.

MIDGET CHASSIS / ENGINE REPRESENTATION: The TNGP field of 63 midgets in the pits had 14 different builders as shown on the USAC official roster this year. One late entry (No. 45 had an unspecified builder/engine). Spike was the most popular chassis with 31 (almost half the field). Others were: Bullet by Spike-11, TCR-four, Rick Stewart-three and two each from Beast, Edmunds Autoresearch and Triple X. Single chassis builders were: Boss, Breka (New Zealand), Bullet, Dave Ellis, Eagle, Elite, and Stealth.

Midget engines came from 16 constructors as follows: Speedway Toyota supplied 19 and Esslinger 16 power-plants. Next in order were: Stanton SR-11 with six, and Fontana with four. Two engines each came from Arias, Chevy, GAM Chevy, Toyota and Van Dyne Chevy. Single engines came from Deppe, GAM Pontiac, McCabe Chevy, Mopar, Stanton, Transfer Esslinger and Warrior. Unspecified engine completed the field.

SPRINT CAR CHASSIS / ENGINE REPRESENTATION: The TNGP 42 car field of 360 cu. in. sprint cars had 11 specified chassis builders and five not listed. Maxim led with 17 cars, followed by Spike-six, Triple X-four, and DRC-three. Single cars came from CS9 (central Calif.), Eagle, Jon Boy, KPC, Race-crafter, Stinger (Richard Harvey), and Speed Tech.

Sprint car engines came from 16 builders. Chevy had 12, followed by Borello-six, Shark-four, and RC Performance-two. Solo engines came from Bailey Brothers (Napa), BRC, Burbank, Derek Claxton, Don Johnson, Downing, Panella, S & S, SRE, Timmons, Van Dyne, Van Meter, and Wesmar. Five entrants did not specify an engine builder.

A few of us old timers were talking in the pits at Ventura about how many TNGP events we had seen in person. The 2018 TNGP was my 56th in a row (starting with Billy Cantrell's 1962 win at Ascot). Timer/scorer Dick Hindman said this year was his 46th in a row. Announcer Scott Daloisio said he saw his first Turkey Night race in 1978, but he missed some years. Tom Luce indicated on the internet that this year was his 34th. Cary, Jay and Chris Agajanian, whose father J.C revived the TNGP in 1955 after four years without a TNGP event, have seen more than 50 turkey night races. However, Jay said they missed a few over the years.

Christopher Bell, 24, won his second consecutive TNGP at Ventura this year and his third overall (including 2014 in Perris). On Saturday, November 17 Bell raced at the 1.5-mile Homestead (Fla.) Speedway for the NASCAR Xfinity Series championship. He qualified for the four driver title race within a race by going from last (40th) at the start of the Phoenix, (Ariz.) 200 on November 10 to win the race. A problem caused his Toyota Camry to lose a lap and he placed fourth in final NXS points. Nor Cal's Tyler Reddick, a NASCAR truck series grad, won his second NXS race of the year and the NXS 2018 championship during his rookie NXS season.

Bell's car did not pass tech inspection three times prior to the Phoenix race so he did not post a qualifying time. After time trials he gave a TV pit reporter a great line in response to his starting last. Bell calmly answered a question, “Just because I am starting last doesn't mean I can't win the race.” Then he proved it on the track by driving his Joe Gibbs Racing No. 20 Toyota Camry to his seventh NXS victory in 33 series races during 2018. He had to win the race or he would have missed the four-driver NXS playoff battle despite having by far the most victories.

Bell is the most talented racer since Kyle Larson in anything he drives and he has denied Larson TNGP victories in Ventura two years in a row. Their Ventura TNGP 2017-18 slide jobs to take and retake the lead are fan-captivating epics. They remind some of us of the 1960s TNGP battles at Ascot Park in Gardena between A.J. Foyt and Parnelli Jones. Four-time Indianapolis 500 winner Foyt, the 1960-61 TNGP winner, and 1963 Indy 500 winner Parnelli, the 1964 and 1966 TNGP winner, also engaged in classic battles for TNGP victories.

Bell enjoys dirt track racing as do NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series winners Larson, Tony Stewart and Kasey Kahne. They all enjoy getting back to their dirt track roots. People feel dirt track drivers develop their impressive car control ability on any surface by racing dirt track cars by the feel of right rear tire traction and adjusting throttle response.

Following his NASCAR duties in Florida, Bell flew home to Norman, (Okla.) to visit family for a few days. He told me Wednesday afternoon in the Ventura pits he flew Tuesday on a commercial flight from Tulsa to Los Angeles, rented a car and drove from LAX to Ventura to race. He and the Keith Kunz team stayed at the 11-story Crowne Royale Hotel at the beach and just a block south of the race track. They have the same pit spaces just inside Ventura's pit gate each year.

Bell, after his latest TNGP victory and his continuing love for open-wheel racing on dirt tracks, could actually catch eight-time TNGP winner Ron Shuman for most turkey night midget victories. Ron scored his victories for several different car owners and in different chassis/engine combinations from 1979 to 1993, including four in a row from 1979-82. Bell now has three victories (two in a row and counting) and his tenure at KKM is secure. The thing that could derail his dirt track racing is his Toyota Racing Development contract or a NASCAR Cup car owner limiting or forbidding his dirt track racing once he become a NASCAR Cup star and championship contender. Time will tell.

More TNGP Notes to follow.