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RACING SCENE - (Ventura TNGP Midgets) - Part 2

RACING SCENE - (Ventura TNGP Midgets) - Part 2
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The “Gathering of the Clans” became a popular name for the annual open-competition 410 cu. in. sprint car race at Keith Hall's half-mile clay Manzanita Speedway in Phoenix, Arizona from for decades starting in 1968. The classic Western World Championship sprint car event occurred each October when most point seasons around the nation had concluded.

Drivers were attracted to the Manzy WWC event by its large at the time payoff for competitors and for the traditional themes with colorful and entertaining pageantry surrounding the three-night event final night Saturday. The WWC event was a key part of the sprint car triple crown events that included the Knoxville (IA) Nationals in August and the Pacific Coast Open at Ascot Park in So Cal during October.

Midget racing has had its usual classic events at the Belleville (Kan.) Nationals from 1978 through 2017 and the annual Tulsa (Okla.) Chili Bowl Midget Classic since 1987. Entries from around the United States and some foreign nations have swelled the Chili Bowl field for the quarter-mile race inside a block-long building to more than 300 entries each January during recent years.

The multi-day event expanded from four to five days and in 2019 will run six nights from Monday through Saturday, January 14-19. It is the undisputed king of midget racing classics in terms of entries and national interest. The Chili Bowl draws entrants and fans from almost everywhere open-wheel racing exists. I witnessed the 1991-92 Chili Bowl events in person and it has grown so much larger since then it is difficult to believe. MAV-TV now televises live nationally each year the Saturday C, B and A mains.

The USAC Thanksgiving Night Midget Grand Prix (TNGP) now has restored its claim to the “Gathering of the Clan” in the West as it was under the auspices of promoter J. C. Agajanian during the glory years at Gardena's Ascot Park through 1990. Upon his death in 1984 his three sons have kept the TNGP annual event on track at five speedways in So Cal.

This year the lure of competing in the annual TNGP at Ventura attracted drivers from 12 states. California, Nevada and Arizona were joined by drivers from the Midwest (Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri & Ohio), Washington, Colorado, Oklahoma and even New York. So the race could be called the latest gathering of midget racing clans.

The TNGP event in 2018 followed widely-publicized tragic events in Ventura County starting November 8. Wildfires named Woolsey and Hill scorched about 100,000 acres of the county, killed three persons, and destroyed 1,600 structures before being fully contained on Thanksgiving Day. Also, a crazed lone-gunman shot and killed 12 persons at a western restaurant/nightclub in nearby Thousand Oaks.

Wildfires caused people to evacuate their homes. Approaching wildfires also caused the evacuation of horses and other large animals from private property to Ventura County Fairgrounds, site of Ventura Raceway. Barns were crowded with evacuated animals and areas between barns used in the past as pit stalls for TNGP entrants were not available. Barns were fenced off this year. The crowded pit area extended south into the usual pit parking area; rows of pits for midgets and sprint cars consumed pit parking spots. Everyone understood and found parking on paved parking lots elsewhere on the fairgrounds property.

In keeping with the midget racing version of the gathering of the clans, drivers this year came from 12 states. California had 37 representatives and Oklahoma six. Colorado and Indiana sent five drivers each and Arizona three. One driver came from each of the following states—Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Nevada, New York, Ohio, and Washington.

TNGP 360 sprint car drivers came from seven states and New Zealand. California had 28 reps, Arizona four, Indiana and Oklahoma two each. One driver came from each of the following states—Kansas, Nevada, Oregon & off-shore New Zealand. Two late entrants were not identified by a state.

KKM: The Keith Kunz Motor-sports fleet of TNGP midgets, from Columbus, Indiana, increased from seven in 2017 to 11 cars this year. In fact, a team rep said it might be 12 midgets next year. Three of the KKM drivers were USAC Midget Series rookies. Logan Seavey, the POWRi Midget 2017 champion and 2018 KKR driver from Sutter, Calif., won two 2018 USAC Midget main events, captured the 2018 USAC National Midget Championship with a race remaining, and earned USAC National Midget 2018 rookie of the year honors.

The other two USAC rookies on the team were Sam Johnson, 16, from Missouri, and Red Bluff, Calif. resident Jesse Colwell, 19, who set the 11thfastest qualifying time of 62 qualifiers and won a heat race. Both limited midget experience KKR rookies raced at Ventura for the first time and made the TNGP feature. Colwell finished 12th on the lead lap and Johnson placed 23rd, down three laps. Zeb Wise, from Missouri, was the 2017 TNGP Basile Rookie of the Race at age 15. Zeb won a USAC National Midget feature during August, 2018 in Pennsylvania and finished ninth in final point standings.

The 11 KKM Bullet by Spike/Speedway Toyota midgets all were black as usual. Some had orange, red, or light blue hood trim depending upon sponsorship. Proving adept at attracting sponsors, KKM had eight different sponsor names on the hoods. Toyota was on two cars (21 of C. Bell and 97k of Rico Abreu). Kyle Larson's midget (No. 1) hood did not have sponsorship.

Other KKR midgets and sponsorship were: KKM (27 T. Klaasmeyer), Mobil (67 Seavey), Sirius XM (67k H. Shelton), Abreu Vineyards (71 Ryan Robinson), CVC Concrete (71k Tanner Carrick), JBL by Harman (71x (Colwell), Kokomo Joes (72 S. Johnson), and Craftsman (97 Spencer Bayston).

Klaasmeyer, 23, has raced in three TNGP events. In 2016 he started the feature 20th and finished 17th, down a lap in his own No. 27. Last year he started his own No. 27 12th and placed 25th (DNF). This year he started sixth and finished fourth in the KKM No. 27 after running third from laps 18-90. Klaasmeyer also won the 2018 POWRi Midget (Mid-western series) championship, succeeding his 2018 KKR teammate Seavey.

KKM transported all 11 midgets on two large 18-wheelers and occupied the same row as always just inside the Ventura pit gate. Eight KKM crewmen, including Chuck Gurney, Jr., were present. They were not assigned to a specific car, but worked on all 11 cars as necessary. It is a smooth-running operation to watch and team owner Keith Kunz oversees it all.

All KKM midget frames carry a number that identifies when it was constructed and differentiates it from other frames in the fleet. Frames have IDs affixed to the left side roll-cage upright and all indicate DM (for dirt midget) followed by the chassis number in ascending order based upon when it was built. Frames that are crashed and bent beyond repair (destroyed) are junked.

This year the 11 KKM frames raced went from DM 27 (the oldest) to DM 51 (the newest). Midget bodies, hoods and side panels are interchangeable with the team's midgets. That is one reason KKM uses so many duplicate car numbers to the annoyance of racing fans. KKM long-time car numbers have been 67, 71 and 97 with a K or X after the number as necessary for electronic transponder scoring of each car in the same race.

At the 2018 TNGP the frames from oldest to newest were: DM 27—(No. 97k of Abreu); DM 28 – No.1 of Larson); DM 33 (67k of Shelton); DM 34 (71k of Carrick); DM 35 (27 of Klaasmeyer); DM 42 (72 of Johnson); DM 45 (67 of Seavey); DM 46 (21 of Bell); DM 47 (71x of Colwell); DM 50 (71 of Robinson), and the newest DM 51 (97 of Bayston). DM 34 was the frame that Bell used under his No. 21 body to win Ventura's 2017 TNGP.

It is interesting to note how many frames the KKM team goes through in a full season. Frame numbers of the seven KKM midgets at Ventura a year earlier were DM 20 to DM 34, which was the newest. DM 20 (No. 67k last year) ran all 2017. DM 23 (No. 71k) was new in mid-2017. DM 27 (No. 1) raced all 2017. DM 29 (67) ran all 2017. DM 31 (97) was new in mid-2017. DM 32 (71) was five races old at the 2017 TNGP. DM 34 was new in late 2017 and Bell drove it to his initial Ventura TNGP victory. It is obvious that even winning/championship racing teams need sponsorship to keep racing.