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Ventura T-Night Midget GP (Part I)

Ventura T-Night Midget GP (Part I)
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The 80th running of the USAC NOS Energy Drink National Midget Series “Turkey Night Grand Prix” ran Saturday, November 27 this year following a one-year absence. The COVID pandemic canceled the 2020 TNGP. Using the one year hiatus and break from the traditional Thanksgiving race date, Cary and J.C Agajanian, Jr. and Ventura Raceway promoter Jim Naylor decided to change the 2021 event from Thanksgiving Day to Saturday of the Thanksgiving four-day holiday weekend to see what would happen. Instead of Wednesday practice and Thursday racing, Ventura Raceway ran Friday and Saturday this year.
 
The result was a sellout of all 2,700 grandstand seats. There were more than 500 people in the pits. Many people bought pit passes just to get into the speedway. Naylor said some people were turned away for the first time after all seats were sold. Many people returned home and purchased the FLO Racing internet live telecast.
 
I wanted to see what the verdict is for the 81st running of the Thanksgiving midget GP. I spoke to promoter Naylor recently and he said he “would love to keep the 2022 midget classic on Friday-Saturday of Thanksgiving weekend”. I also contacted J.C. Agajanian, Jr. to learn the Agajanian position. J.C, Jr. stated, “Though I am a traditionalist, I have to agree that with COVID and missing last year's race, this was the right time to break with tradition and move the event to its new days...Friday and Saturday after Thanksgiving.” USAC concurs.
 
It is obvious that many more people were able to attend the 2021 TNGP on Saturday than on Thanksgiving night. I spoke to numerous racing fans in the pits and families in the grandstand. Many said they would not have attended the race if it was held on Thanksgiving evening because that is family gathering time. They came in person this year because Saturday is their usual race night.
 
This year was the first time a TNGP sold out at Ventura, which hosted the event in 1997 and from 2016-19. I have seen 59 consecutive TNGP events from 1962 at Ascot in Gardena to Saugus, Bakersfield, Ventura, Perris, and Irwindale (1999-2011). None of those events sold out, although those speedways have larger seating capacities than Ventura. The last TNGP that had a standing room only crowd was the final TNGP at Ascot in November, 1990.
 
Ventura Raceway management said the 2021 Thanksgiving midget race was the largest midget race crowd in track history. The banked fifth-mile clay raceway, which calls itself “The best little racetrack in America”, has had other sellouts for various events. Annual multi-division events and demolition derbies at the county fair pack the grandstand. So make your seating reservations as early as possible for the 2022 TNGP.
 
BULLETIN: USAC on December 9 published its 2022 national midget schedule and the 38 race dates show the annual Thanksgiving midget GP will be in Ventura on Saturday, November 26. It will be the final 2022 point race and culmination of a seven race California swing from November 15-26 at the same four speedways as this year. The schedule shows Bakersfield (15th), Placerville (17-19th), Merced (22-23rd), and Ventura (26th). That is welcome news.
 
The Thanksgiving midget classic began at Gilmore Stadium in Los Angeles during 1934 when midget racing first became popular. The 80th running in 2021 had a USAC season-high 51 midgets entered and 50 midget drivers drew qualification order positions. There also were 28 USAC 360 ci sprint cars in the pits for races Friday and Saturday. Midgets qualified 46 cars Saturday from 4:05 to 4:39 pm under a blue, cloudless sky. It was 80 degrees inland earlier. The seaside high was 75 degrees at the raceway across the street from the beach and Pacific Ocean.
 
Sprinters raced heats and qualifying races for position and passing points Friday and a ten car, 15-lap dash for the ten high point drivers after preliminary races. On Saturday, 18 drivers raced a B-main that transferred the first four finishers to the back of a 24-car, 30-lap feature prior to the 98-lap midget main. The race had three leaders and four lead changes. Troy Rutherford led laps 1-13 and 15-23. Ryan Bernal led lap 14 in Paul Silva's No. 57 usually raced by Kyle Larson. Winner A. J. Bender, from San Diego, started eighth and led laps 24-30. He earned $3,000 for his victory. Bernal, Carson Macedo, Rutherford and Texan Chase Randall finished in P. 2-5.
 
History-making results for the TNGP and USAC occurred this year when female drivers qualified fastest and second fastest. Both USAC veterans are TNGP rookies from Oklahoma. Kaylee Bryson, the 16th qualifier, set the fastest time and her Keith Kunz-Curb-Agajanian teammate Taylor Reimer, the first to qualify, was second fastest of 46. Her initial lap 11.724 topped her 11.849 second lap. The female duo earned the front row for the feature. That was a first. Bryson ran an opening lap of 12.128 and her best lap on lap 2 at 11.678 almost broke the track record of 11.675 set in 1995 by Johnny Cofer. Retired USAC Western Midget champions Cofer and Robby Flock were co-grand marshals this year.
 
The ten fastest drivers locked into the first ten positions in the eventual 28-car field. Maria Cofer, daughter of the grand marshal, qualified seventh fastest and made it an amazing three of five female drivers present in the top ten. Bryson, 20, led the first 17 laps and finished fifth. Reimer, 21, finished eighth and Cofer, 22, placed 13th also on the lead lap. The late Denise Bennet, from Phoenix, held the best female TNGP finish record of 13th in 1988.
 
Reigning NASCAR Cup champion Kyle Larson was the 11th to qualify and set the eighth fastest time in his own No. 1k King chassis with a Speedway Toyota engine. His NASCAR Cup teammate Chase Elliott, the 2020 NASCAR Cup champion, drove Larson's second midget (No. 9 of course) at Ventura. He qualified 23rd and set the 18th fastest of 46 qualifying times. He had to race in one of three 12-lap heats that sent the first four finishers in each heat to the feature in starting P. 11-22. Elliott started third and finished sixth in his heat. Elliott started fifth in the 15-lap B-main (for heat finishers five through ten) that advanced P. 1-4 to the main in P. 23-26. Elliott ran fifth to lap 5, and after a red flag dropped to ninth with 14 of 18 starters still racing.
 
However, the Georgia native received a promoter's option starting spot (27th) for the main. Thomas Meseraull (who was ill in the pits and did not race) used a USAC provisional starting slot and started 28th. Elliott, learning dirt track racing on the fly, was lapped about lap 35, spun in turn one ten laps later, rejoined the race and finished in P.22 while gaining plenty of open-wheel dirt track racing experience. He raced in the January 2021 Tulsa Chili Bowl and will most likely do so again in January 2022 with more usable dirt track racing skills from his November midget forays in California.
 
Larson started eighth and ran a close third behind first-time TNGP winner Logan Seavey and runner-up Buddy Kofoid, 19, in a tight, three-way battle for the lead from lap 19-85. The two leaders swapped the lead. Then fourth starter Mitchel Moles, 21, saw Larson's car get tight and push up the track so he darted under Larson exiting turn two and took third. Moles, the Don Basile Rookie of the Race, retained third to the lap 98 checkered flag, relegating three-time TNGP winner Larson to fourth. Californians earned the top four positions. Car owner Tom Malloy and crew chief Jerome Rodela (both from So Cal) won their first TNGP and were elated.
 
Larson's record since he earned the TNGP Basile Rookie of the Race in 2011 at Irwindale is amazing. He has raced in nine of the last ten TNGP races and has never finished lower than fourth at the three speedways. In order he finished fourth in 2011, first in 2012 (at Perris), in 2013 he was present as a spectator but did not race, third in 2014, and second (to Christopher Bell) in 2015 at Perris. At Ventura he was first in 2016, second (to Bell in 2017-18), first in 2019, and fourth in 2021.
 
Four days after racing in Ventura Larson was in Nashville, Tennessee with all his family and attired in a tuxedo at the awards ceremony for all three NASCAR national divisions. He accepted his 2021 NASCAR Cup driving championship rewards for ten victories and the championship for the No. 5 Rick Hendrick Chevrolet team. He gave a very proficient acceptance speech and thanked everyone necessary for his comeback of the year after a trying 2020 NASCAR suspension. He made the most of his second chance. The ceremony was shown tape delayed by NBCSN on Saturday, December 4 from 4 to 6 pm PT.
 
As owner of his Larson Racing two midgets team, and with his outstanding crew chief/mechanic Paul Silva turning the wrenches, Larson should be an entrant in the 2022 Ventura Midget GP. Maybe his NASCAR Cup teammate Elliott, also will make it a two-car tandem again at the 81st Thanksgiving weekend Midget GP on November 26. They both seemed to enjoy their midget racing experience in Ventura this year.