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RACING SCENE - (Ventura TNGP Midgets) - Part 4

RACING SCENE - (Ventura TNGP Midgets) - Part 4
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Automotive Racing Products, offered a $50,000 bonus to any driver who could win both the 30-lap 360-sprint car and 98-lap USAC Midget main events at Ventura Raceway Thanksgiving evening, November 22. The Ventura firm posted the bonus for the second consecutive year. Eleven sprint car drivers in the 42-car field had midget rides and therefore were contenders for the huge payoff.

The 11 drivers (with their sprint car and midget car numbers in parenthesis) were: Brady Bacon (No. 99 and No. 76M), Ryan Bernal (73 and 73T-same car owner),Tanner Carrick (83T and 71K), Colby Copeland (16A and 87),Tyler Courtney (81 and 7BC), Geoff Ensign (3F and 3F-same owner), C. J. Leary (30 and 55), Austin Liggett (83 and 67X), Carson Macedo (21 and 73X), Logan Seavey (21K and 67), and Jake Swanson (34AZ and 68W).

Four of the eligible drivers for the $50K bonus lost their eligibility by not qualifying for the midget feature during Thursday time trials (top ten qualifiers advanced directly to the feature). They also did not race their way into the midget feature by finishing in the top four in one of the three 17-car, 12-lap qualifying races, nor in the 15-lap Last Chance Qualifier (for P. 5-10 finishers in the three qualifying races). The LCQ advanced only the first four finishers to the midget feature.

Finally, the four disappointed $50K bonus chasers did not qualify for one of four provisional starting positions. P. 26-30 positions in the feature were available for two USAC National and two USAC Western drivers based on season-long points. Eliminated drivers were: Bernal--started and finished eighth in his heat; started 12th and finished eighth in the LCQ. Swanson--started 16th in his heat race and DNF. Macedo--started tenth in his heat, spun while in P. 8 with two laps to go and finished 16th (not transferring to the LCQ). Ensign-started 13th in his heat and DNF.

Sprint car 30-lap main event starting positions for all 11 drivers follow (including finishing positions in the sprint main for each driver). Leary started on the pole and led the first 13 laps in his Leary sprinter. (A two-car crash on lap 21 sidelined his car.) Macedo started third and led laps 14-30 and won the feature, but he had lost his $50K bonus opportunity by not making the midget feature. Therefore, the sprint main winner was not in the midget feature so the $50K bonus was not awarded for the second year in a row. At the 2016 TNGP Macedo finished fourth in the sprint main and third in the 98-lap midget main.

How did the seven drivers who made both sprint and midget features do in the 98-lap midget main? Fastest qualifier Carrick started on pole and finished sixth. (He started 13th and finished ninth in the sprint main.) Courtney started eighth in the midget main and finished fifth. (He started ninth and placed second to Macedo in the sprint race.) Bacon started tenth and finished seventh in his midget. (His starting and finishing spots in the sprint race were P. 4 and a DNF.) Those were the close contenders.

Seavey started 18th and finished 16th in his midget after starting and finishing 14th in the sprint race. Leary started 19th and finished 20th in midgets, after starting on pole and being one of the non-finishers in the sprint 30. Copeland started 23rd and finished 13th in a midget. (His starting/finishing positions in his sprint car were P. 15 and P. 7.) Liggett started 26th and was a non-finisher in the midget main. (He started sixth and finished fourth in the sprint main.)

TNGP ROOKIES: There were 30 TNGP midget first-time drivers in 2018. They included several highly regarded national drivers (Cole Bodine, Sheldon Haudenschild, and Jason McDougal), plus four females (Olivia Bennett, Michelle Decker, McKenna Haase, and Holley Hollan, 17). Midget newcomers listed in prior paragraphs also included Copeland, Ensign, Leary, and Liggett.

Teenage rookies were: Grady Chandler, Jesse Colwell, Carson Garrett, Sam Johnson, and Buddy Kofoid. Others included: Daniel Anderson, Kyle Beilman, brothers Blaze and Lance Bennett, Sterling Cling, Jesse Fernandez, Mike Leach, Ricky Lewis, Jake Morgan, C. J. Sarna, Chris Sheil, and Kevin Woody.

Haase, a 21-year old Knoxville sprint car veteran from Des Moines, drove one of three Tucker-Boat Motor-sports Spike/Speedway Toyota midgets. She told me, “I love this track, it's super.” WoO sprints 2017 Rookie of the Year Haudenschild is the 25-year old son of WoO star Jac, now 60. Sheldon told me Ventura “is a cool track.” He qualified poorly, started 13th in a 17-car heat and finished tenth to earn the final LCQ berth. He started 17th in the 15-lap LCQ and finished seventh (with 15 cars still racing), missing the 98-lap feature by three positions.

A TNGP pre-race press release from USAC HQ announced 67 midget entries, largest in 20-years for a TNGP. No show midgets were: Matt Mitchell (No. 75), Chase Johnson (71R) Robby Josett (2), Ashley Hazelton-Heredia (15X), and David Pickett (24X). Late entry program write-ins were: Johnathon Henry (1X), Tanner Thorson (3C), Marvin Mitchell (78), Jake Morgan (45), Justin Grant (76E), and Jesse Colwell (71X). Ventura temperature was in the 60s Wednesday with rain overnight and sunny blue sky on Thanksgiving for race day. High temp was 65 and low in the 50s.

ROOKIE OF RACE: Don Basile Trophy contenders are first-time TNGP midget entrants regardless of their racing experience. Nine of the above named rookies made the 98-lap feature. The highest finishing rookie each year wins the Basile rookie honor. Twenty prior Basile award winners are: Kasey Kahne, Dave Steele, Aaron Pollock, Bobby East, Jerome Rodela, Ryan Durst, Brad Loyet, Kevin Swindell, Kody Swanson, Mike Murgoitio, Nic Faas, Levi Roberts, Dalton Armstrong, Kyle Larson, Ryan Bernal, Tanner Thorson, Isaac Chapple, Robert Dalby, Carson Macedo, and Zeb Wise.

Jason McDougal, from Broken Arrow, Okla, started 17th and finished eighth to earn the rookie plaque and $500 this year. His name will be engraved on a plaque and affixed to the Basile perpetual trophy. He was suitably impressed and is a worthy winner destined for racing greatness. Personable McDougal stated over the PA mic, “This track is phenomenal. We had a top and a bottom to race. This is amazing. I never thought I'd be rookie of the race. This is awesome.” Asked if he would come back next year, McDougal replied, “That is the plan.”

The other eight TNGP rookies in the 2018 feature, in order of finishing positions (with starting spots in parenthesis) were: Basile runner-up P. 11- Cody Bodine (15th), P. 12 - Jesse Colwell (11th), P. 13 – Colby Copeland (23rd), P. 20 – C. J. Leary (19th), P.23 – Sam Johnson (27th), P. 27 – Austin Liggett (26th), P. 28 – Carson Garrett (24th), and P. 30 – Holley Hollan (29th). An amazing 25 starters were racing at the finish with 17 on the lead lap.

VICTORY LANE:

TNGP 2018 winner Christopher Bell kissed the brim of the bronzed Stetson hat atop the trophy. As a three-time winner he knows the routine. He won $10,000. Runner-up Kyle Larson said, “You try to hit your marks. Second place has an advantage of seeing where the leader is racing and you can go by somewhere else.” Third place Chad Boat, the L 1-50 leader, said, “We had a good west coast swing.” He set fast time in a 40-car field November 17 at Bakersfield, won the B-main, started seventh and finished fifth in the 30-lap feature.

Logan Seavey received his 2018 USAC National Champion recognition. He had a 137 point lead after the November 17 race and could not be caught at Ventura for the title. Third place Boat did take second in final points from Brady Bacon at the TNGP.

The 2018 USAC Western Midget championship battle between pre-TNGP point leader Alex Schutte and Michael Faccinto concluded the season with both tied at 753 points. USAC used the tie-breaker system of most feature victories to determine the champion. Faccinto had three and Schutte two, so Faccinto, from Hanford, is the 2018 champion.

Incredibly, the 2018 USAC National Sprint Car championship used the same tie-breaker system after Tyler Courtney and Kevin Thomas, Jr. finished the season at Perris tied in points at 2,733. Courtney became a first-time USAC National Champion based on his 11 victories in the series to “only” seven by Thomas.

TNGP DRIVERS:

John Sarna, 27, raced his orange/blue No. 20 2017 Spike/Van Dyne Chevy. His father John also raced a No. 20 midget in the USAC Western States Series during the 1990s. At age five John received a quarter-midget from his dad and raced that. He progressed to full midgets and won 2007 rookie of the year. In 2008 John won his first USAC Western Midget feature at the now closed, paved half-mile Altamont Speedway, near Tracy. Sarna sold that car to Ron Blondell, who later sold it to Robert Dolacki.

John left racing in his past for ten years. He was a criminal justice major at Arizona State University. Then he spent four years in the U.S. Army from 2013-17. Upon his honorable discharge he returned to to USAC midget racing on the west coast. He currently works in Long Beach as a member of Local 12 of the Operating Engineers Union.

Midget/sprint car driver Jake Swanson, 25, of Anaheim, will be getting married in about two months reportedly. He has been dating former auto racing driver/college student Jessica Clark, 24, for years. She raced her family-owned No. 44 USAC Ford Focus midget years ago, a dwarf car on dirt, and a HPR Chevy stock car at Irwindale Speedway for a season. That marriage between racers should work. Jessica won't tell Jake to quit racing.

Michelle Decker, 46, from Guthrie, Okla, is a frequent Tulsa Chili Bowl competitor. She crossed the TNGP off her bucket list this year. She has raced in Tulsa 15 times for Bakersfield owner/driver Shannon McQueen. Michelle, who is not related to ARCA stock car drover Natalie Decker, raced the No. 4M Boss/Esslinger at Ventura for a female car owner, Stephanie Meents, from Illinois. Michelle started 11th in her 12-lap heat and finished eighth. She started 11th in the 15-lap LCQ and finished sixth, missing the feature by two positions. She beat nine drivers in the LCQ.

Brent Wiles, of Bakersfield, attended the 2018 TNGP. He told me his father Norm Wiles died on July 18, 2017 from cancer at home in Bakersfield. Norm, a 6' 2” blonde CRA sprint car driver, raced periodically from July 3, 1965 (at Santa Maria Speedway) through 1968. He made his early starts in the No. 75 Glen Beach Ford 289 and later raced an Offy sprinter for Don Blair. Records show Norm won one CRA 3-lap trophy dash.

Retired CRA sprint car driver Mike Sweeney, 61, and his wife live in Camarillo. Their children are in their 30s. Mike still works as a movie/TV show lighting technician, a career he started 44 years ago. He now works on the CBS-TV show “Mom” starring Allison Janney and Anna Faris. Mike said he worked for years on Charlie Sheen's TV show “Two and a Half Men” and on movies “The Green Mile” and “Perfect Storm”.

Mike's father Max raced midgets and CRA sprints for about 20-years. He was helping Mike in the pits when Mike, at age 22, won his first CRA main event on Sunday, March 4, 1979 in El Centro aboard their new Sweeney No. 71 sprint car with 46 sprinters present. On June 22, 1979 at Ascot, Max rode up a wheel of another midget following a false start and barrel-rolled many times on the front-straight. He was hospitalized in a coma and later in a semi-conscious state for almost three years. Max passed away on May 1, 1982 at age 44 and is interred at Inglewood Park Cemetery.

Mike's mother Sally, years following the death of Max, married Bob Hogle, the 1963 and 1968 CRA driving champion. Mike's sister Patti married Jac Haudenschild almost 30 years ago and is third-generation racer Sheldon's mother. Mike's other sister Susie was at Ventura also to watch their nephew Sheldon compete in his first TNGP. Mike said his step-father Hogle, 84, suffered a broken hip and elbow in a fall. A hospice worker visits Hogle at home three days a week to provide assistance.