LOS ANGELES, California — As I arrived at Toyota Speedway @ Irwindale for the USAC Midget Turkey Night Grand Prix it was 81 degrees at 12:30 pm under a cloudless clear-blue sky. I had been listening to continuous Christmas music on 103.5 fm on the car radio, was in shirt-sleeves and going to a major USAC Midget auto race. What could be better than that in late November? That was the “only in Southern California” realization for many open-wheel racing partisans from around the nation, including “snowbirds” from Canada. Motor-homes from distant locales had been parked in the TS@I spacious east side parking lot for days It was still 55 degrees when racing concluded at 9:35 pm. ... The TNGP was telecast live on the Internet on the USAC website. Dean Mills manned his camera on the roof from qualifying through the final main event as last year when it received a reported 5,000 hits. Rob Klepper, of USAC, provided commentary and brought coverage to people who could not attend in person. ... Twelve WRA vintage midgets midgets (including the yellow/silver No. 99 Frank Kurtis roadster midget now owned by Ken Hillberg) and three quarter midgets were on display in the TS@I chalet village. Five DAK sprint car simulators were nearby for spectators to try their hand at being a sprint car racing driver--electronically.
Three USAC divisions participated in the 69th running of the midget racing classic. TS@I hosted the TNGP for the 11th consecutive year. Car counts in all divisions were down from the 2008 TNGP in part because of the national economic recession that has lingered since autumn 2008. MIDGETS: 41 cars (including one back-up car) were in the pits versus 64 last year. 360 SPRINT CARS: 29 cars participated versus 33 in 2008. FORD FOCUS MIDGETS: 25 cars raced this year compared to 31 at the 2008 TNGP. The spectator count in the main grandstand, suites and turn one bleachers appeared to be similar to last year—approximately 5,000. ... TS@I management hosted a catered Thanksgiving turkey meal at midday for about 150 needy families in the San Gabriel Valley. There were more than enough volunteer food preparers and servers. Track workers and staff enjoyed track provided turkey dinners from 2:00-4:00 pm in the chalet village area west of the main grandstand. Last year TS@I hosted several bus-loads of 100 U.S. Marines from Camp Pendleton for turkey dinner about 5:00 pm. The hosted USMC enlisted personnel were scheduled to depart in January 2009 for service in Afghanistan. Following their meal they went to the driver autograph session on the front straight and also watched the racing competition.
DRIVERS BY STATES: TNGP drivers came from 17 states and three sprint car drivers towed from western Canada (British Columbia). The specific numbers by division were: FF MIDGETS: Eight states: CA-15, UT-4; and one each from AZ, IL, MI, NH, NV and OR. (25 total). ... 360 SPRINTS: Six states and Canada: CA-14, ID, IN, UT-3 each, WA-2, and 1 from FL. Three drivers call Canada home. (29 T). ... MIDGETS: 11 states: CA-18 drivers, IN-11, AZ, ID-2 each, and one each from CO, IL, MA, MO, NC, WA and WV. (40 T). ... Team haulers began arriving at the track shortly after the USAC race in Ventura on November 21. Teams were allowed to move 18-wheelers and other tow vehicles into the pit area Tuesday morning and park in their chosen pit stalls. ... TNGP teams made abundant use of the Wednesday, November 25 USAC-only open-practice session from 3:30 to 8:30 pm in mid-70s temperature. Practice cost $200 per car to cover TS@I costs of on-duty ambulance staff, safety workers and lighting. Two sprint cars spun and backed into the crash-wall. Crews for Randy Bauer (No. 50) and Tim Skoglund (No. 16) had to hammer out the crunched tails so they could race Thursday. FF drivers ran the third mile and the other two divisions used the half-mile track. Teams dialed in their set-ups for the only USAC event held at TS@I this season. Last year USAC FF Midgets ran five events at the track and Alex Bowman won four of them, including the TNGP FF preliminary main.
By my count, there were 24 first time TS@I racers in action at the TNGP. MIDGETS: (6) – Cale Conley, Caleb Armstrong, Austin Mero, Alex Schutte, Nick Chivello and Henry Clarke SPRINTS: (6) – Matt Mansell, Troy DeCaire, Luis Ramos III, Drew Church, Jeff Bird and 20-year old Eric Barlow. FF MIDGETS: (12) – Dennis Simunovich, Keegan Walmer, Jake Blackhurst, Connor Kassik, Kyle Cline, Jessica Clark, Kyle Edwards, Cody Gerhardt, Nik Romano, Taylor Ferns, Greg Paul, Michael Daniels. ... Six female drivers raced in the 2008 TNGP. There were four females in the 2009 TNGP -- Sprint cars (1) – Audra Sasselli; FF: (3) – Randi Pankratz, Jessica Clark and Taylor Ferns. ... Absent drivers from the 2008 TNGP included: Kasey Kahne, Chuck Gurney, Jr., 2009 ARCA stock car star Parker Klingerman, Jerry Coons, Jr., Levi Jones, Nic Faas, Johnny Rodriguez, Billy Wease, Matt Mitchell, Brian Olson, Ricky Ehrgott, Brady Bacon, Brad & Al Galedrige, Robby Josett, Shane Golobic, Nick Green, John Sarale, Chris Windom, Michael Faccinto, Chase Scott and Ricky Stenhouse. ... This year was the eighth consecutive year FF Midgets have competed in the TNGP since the debut as a series in 2002. Car counts have been in order: 17, 27, 21, 26, 23, 25, 31, and 25. ... DRIVERS WHO RACED IN MORE THAN ONE TNGP DIVISION: Eleven drivers both raced a sprint car and midget during the 2009 TNGP. They were: Dakota Armstrong, Bobby East, Davey Hamilton, Tracy Hines, Tony Hunt, Ryan Kaplan, Mike Murgoitio, Scott Pierovich, Kody and Tanner Swanson, and Cole Whitt.
CHASSIS & ENGINES: FF MIDGETS: There were nine different chassis builders represented in the 25 car field. Beast had 8, Stealth-6, Steve Kent-3, Edmunds and Gerhardt-2 each, and one each from Ellis, Hawk, Stewart and Wysong. Arizonan Rick Stewart built the winning FF Midget, but he succumbed to an illness earlier in the month. ... 360 SPRINT CARS: Chassis—Ten builders were led by Beast-10, Eagle-8, Hornet (of Ripon, CA)-3, LeJeune (of Canada)-2, and one each East, Hanson, J & J, Maxim, Mitchell and Wysong. (29 T). ... Engine Dept.--Eight builders were led by Chevy-19, Losorwith-4, and one each from Ford, Mopar, Schwenke Chevy, Shark and TRD.(Toyota). (29 T) ... MIDGETS: Chassis--Only five chassis manufacturers accounted for the 41 midgets present: Beast led with 34 (82%), Gerhardt-3, Spike-2, and one each by ART and Bullet-1. Engine Dept.-Eight builders were led by 22 Esslinger-Fords from South El Monte, CA located a few miles south of TS@I, Mopar-6, Toyota-5, Fontana-3, TRD Toyota-2, and one each Speedway Mopar, Stanton Toyota and Van Dyne. (41 T).
Missing Midgets: The reduced car count could be explained in part by which teams present last year did not return in 2009 or returned without as many cars. Steve Lewis (3 cars to 0), Tony Stewart (2 to 0), Kasey Kahne/Mike Curb (3 to 1), Al Galedrige (2-0), Cruz Pedregon (1-0), Wagner Racing (3-1, Walker Racing (2-0), and single car teams such as the BCRA Marco DeGeorge Beast/Esslinger Ford No. 78 that was sold to the No. 27B Dan Chivello team. The DeGeorge team plans to go USAC 360 sprint car racing in 2010. Last year Levi Roberts drove his dad Dave's No. 2x Gerhardt/Mopar and he was one of four Marc DeBeaumont drivers this year. DeBeaumont cars No. 11d, 2d and 51 finished the TNGP main in P. 1-2-5. The fourth team car (No. 21d -Alex Schutte) was a DNF on lap 60 with an engine problem. DeBeaumont moved his DMS Driver Challenge shop from Concord to nearby Pittsburg in the SF Bay Area during 2005. Marc told me he plans to relocate his team to Indiana to race more in 2010. In 1999 Marc drove his DeBeaumont & Sewell No. 11d, the same number on Bryan Clauson's 2009 TNGP winning car, when he won the second ever USAC Midget feature at TS@I. Marc's best finish driving in the TNGP feature was sixth place.
THURSDAY PRACTICE SESSIONS: The all drivers meeting took place at 11:00 am. Timing for the Thanksgiving afternoon two practice sessions for all three divisions: FF Midgets ran from 12:00-12:25 and 1:25-1:55; Sprints were on track from 12:25-12:55 and 1:55-2:25; Midgets ran from 12:55-1:25 and 2:25-2:55. Qualifying (single car, two timed laps): FF Midgets-3:35-3:50; Sprints-4:04-4:25; Midgets-4:40-5:11pm. Race cars remained in the infield and then went to the front straight in ample time for the 5:45-6:30 on track fan autograph session which was well attended by fans as usual. Most teams had photo cards for drivers to autograph and fans seemed pleased to meet unfamiliar drivers and teams.
On his fifth lap in the first Midget practice session Josh Wise ran the fastest lap of the session at 17.116 (105.165 mph). Leffler (17.162), Hansen, Santos, Carter, Sweet, D. Armstrong, Margeson, T. Swanson and Murgoitio at 17.287 rounded out the top ten in speed order as 38 of 40 drivers participated. Bobby East ran the most laps (13). The second session for Midgets had Tanner Swanson the fastest at 17.014 (105.795 mph). Clauson (17.021) was second quickest. Hanson, Roberts, Hamilton, Sweet, Murgoitio, Kaplan, East and Wise at 17.192 rounded out the top ten. Thirty-nine drivers ran up to eight laps each as cars entered and exited periodically under the yellow flag in manageable groups. ... The FF Midgets first session had 21 cars on the track. Nik Romero, 19, recorded the best lap at 14.719 (81.446 mph) with Taylor Ferns second at 14.817. Cars 9-95-7-25-8x-70-32 and 91 completed the top ten as drivers ran up to ten hot laps. FF round two had 24 drivers on track for up to 11 hot laps. Ferns' 14.654 (81.807 mph) was the fastest lap. Michael J. Lewis' 14.663 was second fastest. Cody Gerhardt, Illinois driver Jake Blackhurst, Romano, Garrett Peterson, Oregonian Keegan Walmer, Shawn Buckley, Zach Stout and Michael Daniels followed in that speed order.
> Chad Boat, 17, will be driving a new NASCAR stock car effort in 2010 on the Camping World West and East touring circuits, which rank just below the NASCAR top three national series. Dad Billy has posted some of their Maxim midgets and sprint cars for sale currently. The Boats also will compete in some USAC open-wheel events as their schedule allows.
> Josh Wise, 26, a former Riverside resident now living in North Carolina, got married this spring. Josh and wife Ashley welcomed their baby daughter Harlow into the world on October 13. Josh's parents, Eric and Kris, now reside in Nashville and attended the 2009 TNGP. Josh's younger brother Brandon “Buddy” still lives in Riverside.
> Californian Henry Clarke, 20, will return as a Keith Kunz midget and sprint car driver in 2010 confirmed Kunz. It will be his second season racing for Kunz on the USAC sprint car and midget national circuits.
> Cole Whitt, 18, and Bobby Santos III, 24, were featured in sports page one TNGP stories in Wednesday and Thursday editions of the San Gabriel Valley Tribune daily newspaper in West Covina. A color 3 X 4 inch color photo of Whitt and an 18” story graced the front sports page Wednesday. The Santos story Thursday started on sports page one and ran 15 inches, including a continuation of the story on an inside page. Tribune post-race coverage Friday ran a 16” race story that started on sports page one. The same page also ran a 5 X 8” color photo of 11 midgets in action turkey night and a 4 X 4” color photo on page 3 showing four TNGP midgets racing. The Tribune A.1 front page Friday also ran a 3 X 4” color TNGP midget racing photo that showed seven TNGP midgets on the pace lap.
> Third generation driver Cole Carter and his parents Pancho and Carla were at the TNGP as usual. Cole drove the No. 15 David Prickett Beast/Esslinger Ford because Prickett hurt his back during his November 21 race crash at Ventura.
> The oldest FF drivers competing in the 2009 TNGP were veteran J. R. Williams, 74, from Carson City, NV and FF rookie Greg Paul, 60, from Stockton. Greg said he raced mini sprints before he got married and raised a family. He numbered his FF Stealth “combo car” No. 70 because that's the year he got married. Greg started and finished 11th on the lead lap, while retired Hawaiian Airline pilot J. R finished 21st, down a lap.
> Michael J. Lewis, who finished third in the TNGP 40-lap FF Midget race in one of the Kevin Gerhardt's Western Speed Racing Gerhardt midgets, is the 18-year old son of multi-season USAC National Midget car owner champion Steve Lewis. He'll turn 19 on December 24. He has been racing IKF karts since age 13 and winning in the US and Europe. He raced the Formula BMW America Series on road racing circuits in the US and in Singapore and Japan during 2009 as his primary emphasis, with FF Midget events squeezed into his schedule whenever possible. He won three 2009 paved track series FF main events a tMadera, Las Vegas and San Bernardino
> Keegan Walmer, from Portland, OR, set fast time in one of two entered Ron Sutton Winners' Circle FF cars on his first visit to TS@I.
> Dennis Simunovich turned 15 years of age in October and raced a new Beast paved track car for the first time. He started 14th and dropped out on lap 30 to become the only FF non-finisher. Dennis finished third in 2009 CA Dirt FF Midget Series final points.
> Newcomer Matt Mansell, from Victoria, B.C, Canada, raced the No. 14m LeJeune Chevy for Rob and Gordy Rendle, who are Canadian daily farmers attempting to sell their farm and go racing.
> Drew Church, from Seattle, is the son of former sprint car driver Vern Church.
> Luis Ramos III, of Clovis (south of Fresno), is 16. He said the TNGP was his third sprint car race. Luis scored a P. 11 finish in the TNGP 40-lap main aboard Ken Kaplan's No. 21 Eagle after starting10th . His first two sprint races at Madera produced P. 9 and P. 8 finishes.
> Teenager Caleb Armstrong (No. 7c midget) earned the eighth and final transfer from his qualifying race by passing Thomas Meseraull's No. 38 on the inside in turn two on the final lap.
> Tony Hunt raced the No. 56 Mike Phulps sprint car. He praised the $14,000 Schwenke LS3 spec Chevy engine that is built in Minneapolis, MN. Tony said it is more cost effective than more expensive engines. His No. 56 team ran it all year, had four poles and one win at Roseville with it. Tony finished in a second place tie in series 2009 points with Jo Jo Helberg. Tony's wife Philippa and four-month old son Logan (born July 14) were in the pits and watched Tony race his 56 sprinter and Bob Rosen's No. 4x Mr. Expresso Beast/Fontana midget. He started the sprint car race 14th and finished ninth, 5.758 seconds off the lead.
> Tracy Hines' winning car in the 2008 TNGP sprint car feature--the No. 27 Andy Morales J & J/Shaver--was not entered for the 2009 TNGP. Tracy said was the reason was money. Tracy raced the No. 3F Ted Finkenbinder Beast/Chevy this year in the sprint car event, started 11th and finished 13th. Ricky Ehrgott drove the No. 3F car on turkey night last year.
PRINTED PROGRAM: The 42-page color cover TNGP printed program produced by outside suppliers The Program Guys (Harold Osmer & Neil Nissing) is a first-class keepsake as usual. Only 1,200 of the $5.00 programs were printed. The cover depicted 1938 winner Bob Swanson and 2008 winner Bobby Santos III in their midgets. Renowned racing artist Joe Henning drew the TNGP cover as usual. ... The 11th annual Fred Ercse Memorial Kart Race is staged by driver J. J. Ercse and his wife Lisa. It took place Tuesday, night, November 24 at Go Kart World in Carson and again raised money for the American Heart Association to honor the memory of J. J.'s dad Fred who died suddenly from heart failure. Past winners of the 50-lap main event have been current front-running drivers such as Garrett Hansen and Josh Wise. This year some TNGP drivers Thursday competed. The top three finishers were: Jake Argo, Fred Elliott and Levi Roberts, who finished second in the TNGP Midget feature two nights later. ... The friendly yellow lab retriever who annually rode in the blue Jeep that pushed off TNGP cars was absent again this year. ... Bobby Santos III raced the same No. 98 Santos Beast/Esslinger Ford that he drove to victory in the 25-mile race at PIR-Phoenix mile Thursday, November 12. They had only that car in their hauler when they towed west from Massachusetts. ... The TNGP Midget planned 30-car feature fields have been augmented by provisional starters in recent years. In 2007 35 drivers started, 33 started last year, and 32 started this year. ... Brad Kuhn, 28, became a first-time USAC National Midget Champion by a slim 8-point margin after the 2009 TNGP. His No. 17B Rotondo-Weirich midget is numbered and painted exactly the same as the team's RW Racing USAC Silver Crown and sprint cars.
ATTENDEES: The three Agajanian brothers—Cary, Jay and Chris—and their families were present on turkey night as usual in a suite. It was the 55th year of Agajanian promotion of the TNGP. Their father, J. C, revived the race in 1955 after a lapse of four years following the closing of the original site--Gilmore Stadium--the home for TNGP races from 1934-1950. CBS Television City now stands at the old Gilmore location at Beverly Blvd & Fairfax in Hollywood. ... I have attended every TNGP race since 1962 when Billy Cantrell won. One of my favorite TNGP memories is a first place battle between Indy 500 winners A. J. Foyt and Parnelli Jones in the mid-60s. I'm at 48 consecutive TNGP races and counting.. .. Early arrivals in the pits at noon were retired USAC Midget driver Don Weaver and five-time CRA sprint car champion Jimmy Oskie. Driver Jeff Heywood was present as was retired BCRA driver Richard Walsh (No. 92 Benson chassis) who assisted the No. 5 FF Midget team. Walsh said BCRA midget hall of famer George Benson (the 1969 TNGP 100-lap winner at Ascot Park) is living near Oregon. He is writing a book about his boating trips and plans to write a book about his auto racing experiences. Midget driver/builder Dan Drinan was in the pits. Past winner Billy Boat was in the pits helping his son Chad on their No. 30 midget. Past TNGP Midget champions in the field this year were: B. Santos, Dave Darland, NASCAR Nationwide Series driver Jason Leffler and Bobby East; all experienced problems.
DON BASILE ROOKIE OF THE RACE: The award is named for the late right-hand-man of J. C Agajanian and later the promoter of the extinct Speedway 117 in Chula Vista, south of San Diego. The award goes to the highest finishing driver who made the TNGP main event for the first time. Past winners from 1998 through 2008 have been in order: Kasey Kahne, Dave Steele, Aaron Pollock, Bobby East, Jerome Rodela, Ryan Durst, Brad Loyet, Kevin Swindell, Kody Swanson, Mike Murgoitio and Nic Faas. Nic did not enter the 2009 TNGP because he concentrated on sprint car racing in the Midwest this year. Levi Roberts, 19, won the Basile award this year. He entered the 2008 TNGP, but he did not transfer out of a qualifying race to the feature last year in his father's No. 2x car. ... The 2009 TNGP feature had nine drivers eligible for the Basile award. Here's how they all performed with starting and all-important finishing positions in parenthesis: Levi Roberts (St. 3 – Fin. 2), Tanner Swanson (19 – 5), Alex Bowman (28 – 8), Caleb Armstrong (29 -12), Zach Daum (11 - 14), Henry Clarke (32 – 15), Adam Kramer (22 - 19), Alex Schutte (25 – 20), and Shane Hmiel (27 -25). The non-existing hard charger award among this group of TNGP feature rookies would have to go to 16-year old Bowman, who passed 20 cars and finished on the lead lap, only 16 seconds in back of the winner. The Tucson resident still had racing on his mind and left SoCal Friday morning to race in a non-USAC midget race Friday night at Canyon Raceway, a dirt track near Phoenix in Peoria, AZ.