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RACING SCENE - (Ventura TNGP Midgets) - Part 3

RACING SCENE - (Ventura TNGP Midgets) - Part 3
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The oldest classic midget auto racing event known as the “Turkey Night Grand Prix” on Thanksgiving Day has found its “forever” home in Ventura. Car counts at the event dropped precipitously from 59 in 2012 to only 22 in 2015 at the half-mile clay Perris Auto Speedway in Riverside County. The event was on the ropes and its future in doubt. The first midget classic event dates to 1934 at Gilmore Stadium in Los Angeles. It ran without interruption except for World War II years and from 1951-55.

A USAC record 109 midgets from throughout the United States competed in the final TNGP at Gardena's Ascot Park in November, 1990. The property was sold for development by the widow of the long-time property owner. The 109-car record stood until this year when 110 USAC midgets were in the pits at the new clay track built inside the third turn of the 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Zeb Wise and Brady Bacon won the September 5-6 features before SRO crowds.

The TNGP went to five different speedways (three clay and two paved) from 1991 onward with varying degrees of success. The Irwindale Speedway paved half-mile hosted the TNGP each year for 13 years from 1999-2011 and added 360 sprint cars to the event. Irwindale's oval ceased operating in 2012 under the original owner/promoter, so Perris Auto Speedway hosted the midgets-only TNGP for four years.

Three years ago the TNGP found a new home track adjacent to the Pacific Ocean. The TNGP has flourished at Jim Naylor's Ventura Raceway, the self-proclaimed “Best Little Dirt Track in America”. Check aerial photos on the track website to see for yourself how scenic the setting is as an auto racing venue. Ventura and Calistoga Speedway are the most scenic sites of any tracks that I've visited.

TNGP car counts have increased each year at Ventura. Three years ago there were 96 cars—53 midgets and 43 of the 360 ci sprint cars. Last year there were 99 cars, 50 midgets and 49 sprint cars. This year total car count was 105 with 63 sprinters and 42 sprinters. All but one midget made the race track and competed. The No. 78 Elite/Deppe midget of owner/driver Marvin Mitchell, 72, from Madera, unloaded in the pits but had cylinder problems and never hot-lapped.

Additionally, eight midgets (including Rusty Kunz-owned team cars for Brad Sweet, Kevin Thomas, Jr. and Brayton Lynch) were not present. One owner/driver, Robby Josett, found a ride with another team and parked his own midget. Thirty sprint cars listed in the program were not present this year and many of them raced in the 2017 TNGP. So the potential for growing car counts at Ventura is definitely there.

TRADITIONS: TNGP traditions have become part of the lore of the event over the years. The addition of 360 sprint car racing to the evening gave fans more racing for their admission price. Other TNGP traditions and the years they started are:

   > 1998 – The The Don Basile Memorial Rookie of the Race Trophy for the highest finishing first-year TNGP main event driver started at the TNGP on the third-mile clay Bakersfield Speedway. Bob Basile, son of the late racing promoter and NSCHofF inductee, funded the trophy and awarded each winner $500 cash from his own pocket to honor his late father. Future NASCAR star Kasey Kahne was the first recipient.

   > 2007 - The TNGP feature distance of 100-laps was cut to 98-laps each year to honor the late long-time TNGP promoter J. C Agajanian, who used No. 98 on his race cars. Racing vendor Kirk Rockwell made that suggestion to Jay Agajanian and he liked the idea. He received approval from USAC to implement the change and it remains in effect. Interestingly, a current 39-lap midget feature in the Midwest honors the memory of champion driver Bryan Clauson who lost his life in a midget racing crash during the 2016 Belleville Nationals.

   > 2012 – Two new traditions started at Perris. The fastest midget qualifier received the Jason Leffler Memorial Fast Time Trophy, a scale-size metal 1930s era midget replica mounted on a solid base. It was built each year by a journeyman metal-smith, Mr. Peterson. It was on display in the pits and coveted by every driver. Parker Price-Miller, a teenage TNGP rookie, won it in 2012.

   > 2012 - Every TNGP feature winner kisses the brim of a bronzed J. C. Agajanian-worn Stetson hat that sits atop the TNGP winners perpetual “Aggie Trophy”. Names of all TNGP winners are engraved on plaques on the trophy in the tradition of the Indy 500 Borg-Warner Trophy. Photographer Albert Wong suggested a photo of 2012 winner Kyle Larson kissing the hat during victory ceremonies and he obliged. Every winner since then has done so. It isn't kissing the bricks by Brickyard 400 winners at Indy, but is a nice tribute to the man who revived the TNGP at Gardena Stadium in 1955.

   > 2016 – Unique one-of-a-kind trophies built by promoter Jim Naylor for midget and 360 sprint winners were on display for drivers and fans during the event and given to appreciative winners.

   > 2017 – A $50,000 bonus for any driver who won both the 360-sprint car 30-lap main event and the 98-lap midget feature on Thanksgiving evening was offered for the first time. Automotive Racing Products, Inc., of Ventura, offered the bonus for the last two TNGP events. It has gone unclaimed, but several drivers had opportunities to win the bonus money each year.

TNGP TROPHIES: A table-full of TNGP 2018 trophies stood on the main concourse near the large hospitality tent named “Aggie's Alley” and nearby pits. It contained the following unique trophies (with names of the 2018 winners in parenthesis):

   > Jason Leffler Memorial Fast Time – a wooden base mounted 1930s-era metal midget with Jason's TNGP winning No. 29 on the tail. (Tanner Carrick, a Nor Cal teenager, won it.)

   > Aggie Trophy - a scale model metal No. 98jr Agajanian-Bowes Seal Fast midget with a scale model Aggie sitting in the cockpit wearing a brown jacket and realistic-looking Stetson hat also had three billboards behind the midget. (Feature winner Christopher Bell won his second Aggie Trophy made from scratch by Naylor.)

   > Don Basile Rookie of the Race Trophy - It now has a metal ice bucket, actually awarded to a 1930s TNGP winner and purchased from his estate, sitting atop the trophy. (Rising USAC open-wheel star Jason Mc Dougal, 23, won the award plaque and five crisp $100 bills from Bob Basile.)

   > “Battle of the Beach” ARP Trophy - 360 Sprint Car 30-lap feature winner trophy made by Naylor with beach-related items featured on the wooden tiki figure trophy. (Carson Macedo, 22, from Lemoore, Calif., won it in Tom Tarleton's sprint car.)

   > “King of the Beach” ARP Trophy – 360 Sprint Car four-race series at Ventura for USAC and VRA 360 drivers high-point driver. Naylor included a tiki hut, blue surfboard and green palm tree on a beach-sand appearing base. (Ryan Timmons, from Pleasant Hill, Calif., won the distinctive trophy that will stand out among his collection of trophies.) He also received a $500 check with the title.

Top ten drivers in USAC series point standings were listed in the TNGP printed program for both the National and Western States Series. Points did not include the November 17 race in Bakersfield. Nine of ten National Series drivers raced at Ventura. Only Kevin Thomas, Jr. (P. 8) was absent. National Midget champion Logan Seavey was honored at the finish line and sprayed champagne, as did USAC Western champ Michael Faccinto.

Six of the top ten Western States drivers raced in the TNGP, including the top five and P. 7 in points. Eighth place was shown as a three-way tie at 370 points for Frankie Guerrini, five-time Western Midget champion Ronnie Gardner, and Shannon McQueen. The three-way tie remained following the final two 2018 races because none of the three earned points at the final two events.

The 360 sprint car seasons for both USAC and VRA drivers had concluded and the TNGP race was a non-points special event. USAC West Coast 360 Sprints had six of the top ten (P. 1-6) race at the TNGP. VRA 360 Sprints also had six of its top ten in final points compete on turkey night. They were the P. 3, 4, 5, 6, 8 and 9-ranked drivers.

The 2018 TNGP printed program had the usual Billy Boat Exhaust of Phoenix, Arizona, half-page ad on page 27. This year the ad showed a color photo of Billy's younger brother Mike in tribute. He was shown kneeling beside his No. 74 sprint car that he raced successfully for years. Mike, 48, passed away unexpectedly September 21, 2018 at home in Phoenix.

Mike's nephew Chad, 26, posted second fastest qualifying time in his No. 84 Spike/Speedway Toyota. He started the feature second, led the first 50 laps and finished third for his best TNGP result. He started the evening two points in back of second-ranked National Midget Series driver Brady Bacon. Chad, whose father Billy is a three-time TNGP winner including the 1997 Ventura race, earned second place in final National standings over Bacon by 15-points (918-903).

PIT NOTES: I had a nice chat with Kyle Larson's father, Mike, who still resides in Elk Grove, near Sacramento. He said Kyle's Chip Ganassi NASCAR Monster Cup No. 1 teammate for 2019 would be named soon. It was announced December 4 that Kurt Busch would replace Jamie Mc Murray and Kurt would bring his Monster Energy Drink sponsorship to the No. 1 Chevy. Jamie will remain with Ganassi Racing in some capacity.

Kyle and spouse Kaitlynn, sister of driver Brad Sweet from Nor Cal, were married this summer at the big North Carolina home of NASCAR driver Ricky Stenhouse, Jr.. Kyle's older sister lives in North Carolina near Kyle and handles publicity/PR duties for Kyle's winged 410 World of Outlaws sprint car team. Carson Macedo will drive the No. 2 WoO sprinter for Kyle in 2019 with former WoO driver Joe Gaerte as his crew chief after their recent successful collaboration. Larson's WoO team should win double-figure main events in 2019 as WoO driver David Gravel did recently.

Kyle's mom and wife Kaitlynn, along with son Owen, 4, were in the pits at Ventura. Owen is getting close to getting his own small car to keep up with kids of other NASCAR drivers. Kyle's six-month old daughter Audrey (born May 7) was in a stroller and was alert about everything happening. She was named for Kaitlynn's grandmother and has blue eyes and blond hair like her mom Kaitlynn.

Mike said Rico Abreu is from St. Helena, Calif. and not from nearby Rutherford (his mom's hometown). Fan-popular Rico was walking nearby and had long hair. Mike said Rico told him he will never let it grow that long again. Mike said both Rico and Kyle like the Ventura track. Both drivers from Nor Cal call the Thunderbowl Raceway third-mile, high-banked clay oval in Tulare (Calif.) the best dirt track in the United States.

Attendees on Thanksgiving for the 2018 78th TNGP included: five-time CRA sprint car champion Jimmy Oskie, 72, retired CRA driver Mike Sweeney, 61, plus two and four-wheel racer Sonny Nutter. Cary Agajanian flew in from the east just for Thursday's TNGP and flew east the next day. Sammy Tanner, 79-year old AMA flat track and speedway bike luminary, rode to the track with Jack Crone and his versatile racing daughter Courtney, 17. Courtney raced as a rookie in the 2017 TNGP in one of two Jerome Rodela-owned midgets and made the feature. She finished the 98 lap race 22nd (- one lap) with 24 drivers on track.

This year Courtney, a speedway bike racer, 360 sprint car and midget veteran, raced formula cars exclusively. She won nine of 14 races and her class championship in a No. 25 Trench Shoring-sponsored formula car. She raced at the Buttonwillow, Portland and Sonoma road courses in the Mazda Road to Indy program. She was the only female driver in the 20-young drivers on and off-track competition December 7-8 in Arizona. At stake was one $200,000 Mazda and Cooper Tires sponsored racing scholarship. An Australian driver, 19, won the scholarship based on voting by a distinguished panel of judges.

More TNGP Notes to follow.