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RACING SCENE - (Ventura TNGP Midgets) - Part 5

RACING SCENE - (Ventura TNGP Midgets) - Part 5
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The Thanksgiving Midget Grand Prix at Ventura Raceway held a practice-only day for USAC Midgets on Wednesday, November 21. There were two sessions of hot laps from 2:00 to 2:45 pm and 59 midgets participated in both sessions. Midgets hot-lapped in groups up to ten cars at a time on the fifth-mile banked clay oval. Early-arriving fans watched hot-lapping from the main grandstand. The first turn bleachers during prior years were gone this year.

The existing one-lap track record--11.675--was set in 1995 by Johnny Cofer in the No. 57 Dwaine Esslinger Edmunds Autoresearch/Esslinger. Cofer, from Sonoma, won the 1994 USAC Western States Midget Championship in the No. 57 by 145-points over Billy Boat, the 1995 series champion and later an Indy 500 starter for A. J. Foyt. Johnny won ten USAC Western Midget features during his career.

Cofer, now 53 and a resident of Macdoel (near the Oregon border), is the father of current USAC Midget driver Maria Cofer, 19. She won the overall (dirt & paved tracks) 2017 BCRA (Nor Cal) Midget Championship. She finished second in 2018 to Toyota-backed rising star Jesse Love IV, 13, from Menlo Park. Johnny worked on his No. 57 Cofer Spike/Esslinger in the Ventura TNGP pits. He joked maybe he should race again and try to beat his existing Ventura track record.

Maria decided at age 11 she wanted to emulate her dad's open-wheel racing career and did so with success. As a 17-year old TNGP 2016 rookie she raced her dad's No. 57 at Ventura from 30th to 19th (- one lap) with 24 of 30 starters still racing. Last year she again drove her family midget and finished 11th in the B-main, five spots short of advancing to the feature. This year she finished 12th in her 17-car heat race and only ten cars advanced, so she watched the feature.

As a 2018 Toyota Racing Development driver, Maria raced midgets for two Toyota-powered national midget teams--Keith Kunz and Petry Excavating. She raced in the Midwest about 13 times in both POWRi and USAC National events. Her rides were the KKM Craftsman No. 97 that Spencer Bayston drove in the TNGP, and the Petry No. 35 that Holley Hollan drove in Ventura.

A record 110 midgets competed at the first USAC Midget BC39 two-night race in the Indianapolis Motor Speedway dirt track inside the IMS third turn. Maria drove the KKM No. 97 and won the second of 12 nine-car, 10-lap heat races Friday. Then she raced in a 25-car, 20-lap pursuit race based on event points and finished 20th. The next night Maria drove to P. 7 in her 10-lap qualifier race. Her point total earned 24th starting spot in a 26-car feature that 110 drivers hoped to make. She raced to 17th place in that historic IMS midget race.

Maria was one of eight drivers who participated this summer at Irwindale Speedway in a three-day TRD late model stock car driver development session for talented young drivers. Six females and two males, including J. Love IV, 13, and KKM driver Tanner Carrick,16, participated in off-track and on-track competition judged by TRD racing program managers.

Love will turn 14 in January and just signed as a KKM part-time midget driver at mid-western tracks during 2019. Additionally, Love will race the full Spears SRL super late model stock car west coast schedule. Four of the Irwindale stock car racing test session females, including Maria, later raced HPR Chevy late models in NASCAR point races on the paved Irwindale half-mile.

The fastest lap during the 2018 TNGP practice sessions was 12.132 during group one by Alex Schutte, the 2018 USAC Western Midget Series point leader following a November 17 race in Bakersfield. Next fastest in order were: Kyle Larson (12.215), Justin Grant (12.278), Brady Bacon (12.295), 16-year old rookie Sam Johnson (12.319), Robby Josett (12.333), Christopher Bell (12.421), rookie Ricky Lewis (12.467), Tyler Courtney (12.521), and T. Carrick (12.522).

Later, the group two session had the same 59 midgets on the track. Courtney's 12.135 was the quickest lap and second fastest overall. Next in order were: Bell (12.229), S. Bayston (12.241), Shane Golobic (12.258), Zeb Wise (12.312), S. Johnson (12.324), Chad Boat (12.338), Larson (12.362), Bacon (12.371), with C. J. Leary (12.405) completing the top ten.

The 42 USAC/VRA 360 sprint car teams present practiced and completed their scheduled events from 2:45 to 7:00 pm. Then midget teams that wanted to take advantage of more time for practice after the sun had set were able to do so for almost 30-minutes. Cars ran about five green flag laps with up to ten cars on the track at a time. Most of the midget drivers were able to improve their lap times on the now racy clay surface.

MIDGET QUALIFYING: USAC electronically qualified 62 midgets past a timing beam on Thanksgiving afternoon from 4:11 to 4:56 pm. There was a brief break in action when 49th qualifier Randi Pankratz barrel-rolled her No. 8 entering the first turn on her second timed lap. She later raced the repaired car.

Past TNGP winners C. Bell and K. Larson drew pills with high numbers near the end of time trials in the sixth and final group of qualifiers. Only the ten fastest qualifiers (not 14 as in the past) advanced directly to the feature. Bell was the 54th and Larson the 59th to qualify. Their times figured to be slower than qualifiers who drew early to mid-range numbers. They were not fazed by the pill draw. Larson qualified third fastest and Bell ninth fastest overall. Both drivers punched their ticket to the main event without having to race their way into it.

TEN FASTEST: The ten fastest qualifiers in order (with the order they qualified in parenthesis) were: second year TNGP driver T. Carrick fourth out) at 12.425, C. Boat (40th) 12.426, Larson (59th) 12.444, S. Golobic (sixth) 12.457, Tanner Thorson (ninth) 12.464, Tucker Klaasmeyer (third) 12.487, Ryan Robinson (14th) 12.537, T. Courtney (16th) 12.548, C. Bell (54th) 12.555, and B. Bacon (44th) 12.570.

Second racing generation Golobic brothers from Fremont (near San Francisco) drove team midgets again this year. Their dad John raced 410 ci sprint cars for years. Shane, 27, and his fiancee Sarah Wood, daughter of his midget car owner Matt Wood (owner of the Elk Grove Ford dealership near Sacramento) have been engaged. On October 27 they got married in Nor Cal's wine country at an old winery in Yountville and reside in Elk Grove.

Dustin, 24, said the No. 17G he raced at the TNGP was the car Shane raced to two 20-lap feature victories at Calistoga in September. Dustin said his midget ride at Calistoga bit the dust while he was running second. Shane's No. 17W at Ventura was a new car fielded by his father-in-law.

GROWING TREND:

Keith Kunz Motor-sports started the growing trend in USAC Midget racing years ago with a fleet of midgets at major events. This year he brought 11 midgets to the TNGP aboard two large, double-decked 18-wheelers. KKM drivers ranged from talented racing champions such as Larson, Bell and Rico Abreu, young champions such as T. Thorson and S. Bayston, plus younger rookie drivers.

This year USAC rookie Logan Seavey, 22, won the 2018 USAC Midget championship for KKM after winning the 2017 POWRi Midget Series champion for another team. His KKM 2018 teammate T. Klaasmeyer followed Seavey as the 2018 POWRi champion after racing the KKM No. 27 midget in both circuits.

Other midget racing teams, such as Brad Loyet, Zach Daum, Cory Kruseman, Don Fike, A. J. Felker, Don Droud, and Jody Rosenboom, bring multiple midgets to the Tulsa Chili Bowl Classic each January. Bakersfield's Shannon McQueen brings at least three midgets to Tulsa each year. It is a known fact that teams in the 370+ car field have spare “for rent” midgets at Tulsa each January. Tulsa 2019 race dates are January 14-19. MAVTV Network televises the Saturday C, B and A mains live.

The 2018 USAC Midget Series now has other well-funded, multi-car teams following the KKM example. At Ventura's TNGP Tim Clauson and Richard Marshall Racing had three Spike/Stanton SR-11 midgets. The NOS Energy Drink cars were No. 7BC for T. Courtney, No. 17BC for rookie Cole Bodine, and No. 17S for Sheldon Haudenschild, a 25-year old TNGP rookie. Clauson-Marshall collaborates with Matt Wood and occupies five adjacent pit stalls with the affiliated Golobic brothers in No.17G and 17W Spike/Esslinger midgets.

PETRY RACING: The four-midget Petry Excavating Motor-sports team increased from one midget for Jerry Coons, Jr. at the 2017 TNGP. This year it had four identically painted black/red/white Spike/Speedway Toyota midgets pit together in one of the many rows of race cars at the expanded south side pit area.

Petry has an interesting and likeable way of numbering the four midgets. All car numbers ended with 5. The No. 5 driver from Arizona was Sterling Cling, 22. No. 15 was Jason McDougal, 23, from Oklahoma and the 2018 TNGP Don Basile Rookie of the Race. No. 25 was 2017 Petry driver Coons, Jr. 46, from Arizona. No. 35 was Holley Hollan, 17, from Oklahoma in the car for which Toyota Racing Development selects the driver. If Petry expands to a fifth midget it should carry 45.

Three of four Petry midgets raced in the 2018 TNGP. McDougal finished eighth and Coons ninth. Rookie Hollan was last (30th) after being involved in a three-car crash on lap 18. Cling finished 13th in his 12-lap qualifying race Thursday and only P. 5-10 advanced to the 15-lap LCQ race. Batting 750 for Petry's expanded four-car TNGP team is commendable. Look for victories by this team next season.

Team owner Scott Petry, from Greenfield, Indiana, owns Petry Excavating, Inc. in Indiana and employees 16 people. Scott and his wife flew from Indy to San Diego to visit their son serving on active military duty there. They rented a car and drove to Ventura and enjoyed the trip. I told Scott the red numbers on black tails of his four midgets appeared as a blob and were difficult to read from the stands with his cars were racing together in the feature. He agreed and will rectify that and said his car numbers will be clearer (maybe white) in 2019.

Petry Excavating Motor-sports operation is growing. He said he hopes to have both USAC newcomer Jason McDougal and his mentor Kevin Thomas, Jr. in two of his midgets all of 2019. McDougal moved to Indiana in July to race and resides at the home of Thomas and his wife as a tenant. Having both friends on the same team should help both drivers and the Petry team prosper.

On December 7, amid driver signings with new teams, Thomas signed to race a Petry midget in the 2019 expanded 33-race USAC Midget schedule. That's an increase from 25 races in 2018. C. J Leary will replace Brady Bacon as the full-time FMR No. 76M Midget driver. Bacon will scale back his midget schedule to 10-12 races for FMR in the second team Beast/Toyota. Scheduled USAC National Midget western tracks and race dates are Arizona Speedway (Western World) Nov. 15-16, Placerville Nov. 20-21, Bakersfield Speedway Nov. 23, and the 79th TNGP at Ventura Nov. 28.

MORE MULTI-CAR TEAMS: Another TNGP multi-car midget team was the Keith Ford four-car team of TCR/Esslinger-powered cars. Dylan Ito drove No. 73. and 360-sprint car vet/midget rookie Buddy Kofoid, now 16, drove 73K. Ryan Bernal drove No. 73T and Carson Macedo drove the team's 73X. All cars were black and confusing for spectators.

Tucker-Boat Motor-sports three-car Spike/Speedway Toyota team had Chad Boat in No. 84. Cars 85 and 87 had McKenna Haase and Colby Copeland respectively. For the December indoor dirt track race at Du Quoin Ill., Tucker-Boat is fielding midget No. 81 for C. Bell and 89 for Tanner Berryhill. Boat's team is cornering numbers 80 to 89. That avoids duplicate numbers common with KKM. Tucker-Boat ran three midgets at the IMS third turn infield race in September. Drivers were Boat (No. 84), female midget rookie Karsyn Elledge (No. 83), and Zane Hendricks in a No. 27Z.