IRWINDALE, California — Bobby Santos III and Cole Whit departed the progressively banked half-mile Toyota Speedway at Irwindale Thanksgiving evening with "dream" victories in front of about 5,000 spectators in the grandstand and pits during the 68th running of the famous USAC Midget Series Turkey Night Grand Prix. The $33,000 Midget classic dates to 1934 at Gilmore Stadium in Los Angeles and includes some of the most famous names in racing among past winners. Santos, a 23-year old from Franklin, Mass, earned $6,000 for the victory. He drove the No. 45 Western Speed Racing/Toyota/K & N Filters Gerhardt/Toyota to the most significant victory of his career and became the 46th different winner of the event. His winning time was 35:56.994 (81.780 mph), just off the 33:09.135 (88.682 mph) record established last year by Dave Darland.
The feature distance was 98 laps for the second consecutive year in honor of late race organizer/Indy Car and sprint car owner J. C. Agajanian. He used the number 98 on his racing cars and revived the TNGP race in 1955 following a lapse of four years. The TNGP feature this year was one of the most competitive main events in the ten years it has been held at the Irwindale track, near Los Angeles. The feature had four different leaders and four lead changes on the track. There were several championships at stake and the USAC National Midget Championship was not decided until the final lap concluded. Whitt entered the race 17-points in back of point leader Tracy Hines, who was trying to capture his first USAC National Midget title and thereby become the sixth USAC Triple-crown (Silver Crown, Sprints and Midgets) champion.
Fastest qualifier/pole starter Bobby East, the 2004 TNGP winner and one of four past TNGP winners in the race, led the first five laps in his Klatt Beast/Esslinger Ford. Chuck Gurney, Jr. came from fourth grid position in his own Beast/Fontana and passed East on the inside exiting turn four on the sixth lap. He passed outside front row starter Kody Swanson's No. 19 Steve Lewis Beast/Ed Pink Ford earlier on that lap. NASCAR driver Jason Leffler started fifth in his own Beast/Toyota and moved passed East on the inside in turn four a lap later. Lef'fler, the 1999 and 2005 TNGP winner, passed Gurney on lap nine and opened a 40-yard cushion over Gurney by lap 25. Seventh starter Billy Wease, the 2006 TNGP winner, was third at lap 25 with Indianapolis 500 veteran Davey Hamilton, 46, up from sixth to fourth. East, with handling and set-up problems and later an engine misfire, had dropped to fifth at the quarter mark en-route to an eventual 16th place finish. Bryan Clauson, a 2008 NASCAR Nationwide Series driver, raced from 15th to sixth. Swanson, Ryan Kaplan, Darren Hagen and Whitt completed the top ten after 25 laps.
At lap 50 Leffler led by 25-yards over Hamilton, who dropped Gurney to third on lap 46. Santos, who was tenth on lap 32, was fourth by mid-race, with Wease, Clauson, Kaplan, Swanson, Hagen and Josh Wise completing the top ten. A spin by Scott Pierovich and Garrett Hansen on lap 51 consumed four caution laps. At the lap 56 green Hamilton shot to the inside and led Leffler through the first two corners and to turn three. Leffler retook the point with an inside pass in turn four. Lap 67 produced another lead change as Hamilton, in Rick Ehrgott's Beast/Esslinger Ford, passed Leffler and opened a 15-yard lead by lap 60. Leffler later showed rear end grease that leaked onto his right rear tire and said he burned up his brakes trying to keep up with Hamilton. On lap 67 fourth place Gurney, 25, stopped at the third turn inside edge of the track after his engine had a valve failure and blew a hole in the side of the engine. A wrecker pushed his car to the infield, ending his best TNGP effort.
On lap 75 Hamilton still led by 30 yards over Leffler, with Hagen (driving Steve Lewis' No 9 2007 Beast/Ed Pink Toyota that Dave Darland drove to the TNGP victory last year) up to third. Santos was fourth at the three-quarters mark, with 20th starter Wise (in NHRA champion Cruz Pedregon's Gerhardt/Toyota) fifth, Clauson, Swanson, Kaplan, Wease and Whitt comprising the back portion of the top ten. .Brad Sweet and Dakoda Armstrong, 17, were 11th and 12th. Santos passed Hagen for third by lap 83 and nipped Leffler on lap 84 for second with an outside move from turn four to the starting line. He closed steadily on leader Hamilton as they lapped slower cars. Both drivers were attempting to win their first Aggie TNGP trophy. On lap 90 Santos went to the inside in the third turn as Hamilton encountered traffic. Santos took the lead in turn four with an inside move. He won by 15-yards over Hamilton (-1.048 officially) with the lapped 19th place car between the two leaders. Hamilton earned $3,200.
Hagen came home third, 2.264 seconds in back of Santos and collected $2,100. Kaplan was fourth (-3.098) for a $1,500 payday.. Leffler was fifth (-5.197) and took home $1,200 for his own team. Swanson, Wise, Armstrong, Clauson and Wease (-9.011 seconds) finished sixth through tenth respectively. Whitt trailed the winner by 9.597 seconds. NASCAR Sprint Cup star Kasey Kahne finished 22nd, down one lap, in his Zarounian-Seymour Paint Team ASE Beast/Speedway Mopar, the same car he drove to second place in the 2007 TNGP feature. Leffler ran the fastest lap of the race according to AMB electronic timing. His best lap was 17.039 (105.640 mph). The next four fastest laps were 17.136 by Hamilton, 17.257 by Gurney, 17.297 by Wease and 17.334 by winner Santos. The slowest quick lap by any driver in the 33 car field was 17.803. The first car lapping occurred on lap 24. The feature started at 9:52, had four caution incidents and concluded at 10:28 pm.
WHITT FINISH = TITLE
Whitt, from Alpine near San Diego, had to finish no lower than 11th position to become the series champion. He started tenth and ran most of the race in positions nine, ten or 11. With the 14 fastest qualifiers seeded directly into the feature, Hines qualified 42nd fastest in the 64 driver field. He also missed transferring to the feature by two positions in one of the two qualifying races (won by Clauson and Sweet) for qualifiers 15 and slower. Hines used one of two USAC National Series provisional starting positions and started 31st in the feature. However, he spun across the starting line at the start of the second lap and was lapped on lap 38 and again later. Hines finished 26th with 27 of 33 starters racing as the the finish. He could only watch Whitt's assault on his point lead. Whitt's Keith Kunz-Red Bull Beast/Esslinger Ford edged closing Sweet by five yards (0.323). Whitt thereby became the youngest USAC National Champion by one point (1196-1195) over Hines. Sweet had followed Whitt from lap 30 to the checkered flag from starter Tony Roberts.
When the pit announcer told Whitt he was the 2008 USAC National Midget Champion by one point over Hines the small in stature, red-head with a heavy throttle foot stated, "It's awesome;. I'm speechless. It's amazing. This is my first full year in Midgets, so I don't know what to say." The 17-year old two-year Red Bull Energy Drink developmental driver finished second to Santos in the 2007 TNGP 40-lap Western Sprint feature on the Irwindale half-mile. J. C. Agajanian, Jr., the Agajanian Promotions representative at the finish line, mentioned that his brother Cary is Whitt's lawyer/business representative and he would call Cary to let him know about his client's historic achievement. Whitt thanked his team, "Bo, Dan and car owner Keith (Kunz), and Esslinger power." Then he asked, "How does the crowd feel?" He received cheers of approval.
Hines did win the National Midget Driver of the Year honor over East 1317 to 1255 based upon points compiled for all Midget racing associations throughout the season. Tony Stewart Racing (No. 21) won the car owner of the year Midget championship with 1177 point to 1138 for Terry Klatt's No. 4. This year the TNGP was the 221st event that carried NMDOTY points. The $25,000 Toyota Challenge for Midget Car owners three-race series championship changed hands. Gurney entered the TNGP leading but he dropped to third place and the $15,000 first place check went to Santos' car owner Western Speed Racing. Nic Faas , the 19-year old 2008 USAC Western Midget Series rookie of the year and series champion, started 19th and finished 13th. The Huntington Beach driver won the Don Basile Memorial Rookie of the Race Award. Six TNGP rookies started and Faas was the only race rookie on the lead lap at the end. Chad Boat, 16, started his Billy Boat Beast/Esslinger Ford 14th and was two positions in front of Faas on lap 83 when he pulled into the infield after his engine quit with suspected rocker arm failure. Faas, driving the No. 40 Western Speed Racing Gerhardt/Toyota, became the 11th winner of the Basile RoR Award winner. Past winners since 1998 in order have been Kasey Kahne, Dave Steele, Aaron Pollock, Bobby East, Jerome Rodela, Ryan Durst, Brad Loyet, Kevin Swindell, Kody Swanson and Mike Murgoitio. Faas, a 2008 USAC-CRA 410 sprint car rookie, also finished tenth in that series on a part-time schedule. He was a USAC Ford Focus Midget California champions last year.
Winner Santos told the crowd, "This is my favorite race. I look forward to it more than any race all year. I had tough luck the last two years. Thanks to Western Speed Racing (of Fresno). It's unbelievable. I don't know what to say. It's the one race I wanted to win more than any other. I'm so happy." Later Santos told the media, "The car was good. I was just taking my time. I knew I didn't have to be leading, but I had to keep them in sight. This is my fourth Turkey Night Midget race and I've never finished." (He won the 2007 TNGP 40-lap Western Sprint car main for Western Speed Racing and gave the Toyota engine its first sprint car feature triumph.) Asked why the TNGP race meant so much to him, Santos replied, "This track is so great to race on. It creates awesome races. This race is so important to me because of Tony Stewart and Kasey Kahne being here, it is run on Thanksgiving night, and it is a long-distance race."
Runner-up Hamilton raced against his father Kenny, 67, in the TNGP 40-lap sprint car feature earlier and finished 17th with his father 22nd on the same lap. Hamilton told spectators via the PA microphone, "I wanted that one. I just came up short. It was a great car all day. Thanks to the Rick Ehrgott family (car owner) and to the track owner and management and to the Agajanian family. I really wanted that Aggie trophy." Third finisher Hagen stated, "I have to thank Steve Lewis (his retiring car owner and the TNGP Grand Marshall). It's a great car." Hagen said his plans for 2009 are up in the air. He is seeking a racing opportunity for another car owner. Whitt came to the press box with Santos and the new champion explained his race strategy. "I was trying to stay up as far as I could. I didn't know how I stood until the end when they came running. I was thinking about it (making up a 17-point deficit and becoming the 2008 National Champion and youngest in 53-years of USAC sanctioning racing). I was running a conservative race to stay out of wrecks, but I still had to be fast enough," Whitt added.
The $25,000 Toyota Challenge money went to the top five car owners in three designated premier USAC Midget Series point races. They were the Night Before the 500 in May, the Toyota Racing Classic on July 24 and the TNGP at Irwindale. The first two events were run at O'Reilly Raceway Park in Clermont, Indiana, just west of Indianapolis. Final points (per USAC and Toyota) showed the fop five owners in the series as follows:
No. 45 Western Speed Racing - 182 points - $15,000
No. 19 Nine Racing (Steve Lewis) - 158 points - $ 5,000
No.151 Chuck Gurney, Jr. - 147 points - $ 2,500
No. 4 Terry Klatt - 127 points - $ 1,500
No. 80 Western Speed Racing - 126 points - $ 1,000.Fast Time: Bobby East, No. 4 Klatt, 16.725.
1st Qualifying race, 12 laps: (Top 8 to Feature) - Bryan Clauson, Dave Steele, Nic Faas, Parker Kligerman, Paul Zimmerly, Kasey Kahne, Shane Golobic, Bradley Galedrige, David Byrne, Michael Faccinto, Ricky Ehrgott, Alison MacLeod, Joe Payne, Jr., Ben Petter, P. J. Jones, David Prickett, Cole Carter, Brad Kuhn, Alfred Galedrige, Chris Schmelzle, Marco DeGeorge, Bobby Grewohl, Steve Mathews. NT.
2nd Qualifying Race, 12 laps: (Top 8 to Feature) - Brad Sweet, Scott Pierovich, Josh Wise, Chris Windom, Brian Olson, Matt Mitchell, Garrett Hansen, Mark Atkinson, Brady Bacon, Tracy Hines, Adam Kramer, Robby Josett, Levi Roberts, Justin Grant, Levi Jones, Jerome Rodela, Chase Scott, Danielle Dickson, Zach Daum, Henry Clarke, Zach Schiff. NT.
Feature: 98 laps: Bobby Santos III, Davey Hamilton, Darren Hagen, Ryan Kaplan, Jason Leffler, Kody Swanson, Wise, Dakoda Armstrong, Clauson, Billy Wease, Cole Whitt, Sweet, Faas, Steele, Zimmerly, Bobby East, Josett, Golobic, Olson, Evan Margeson, B. Galedrige, Kahne, Brad Loyet, Mitchell, Atkinson, Hines, Kligerman, Chad Boat, Chuck Gurney, Jr., Pierovich, Hansen, L. Jones, Windom. NT.