IRWINDALE, California -- Caleb Armstrong was runner-up last year and this year on Thanksgiving evening he won the 71st running of the Mopar USAC National and Western Midget Series Turkey Night Midget Grand Prix. The site was the progressively banked, paved Toyota Speedway at Irwindale half-mile.
"Armstrong: Youngest Turkey Night Winner Ever!"
The 19-year old from New Castle, Indiana became the tenth different TNGP winner in 13 races at the Speedway since the track opened in 1999. The seventh fastest qualifier in a field of 35 started seventh and became the third race leader on lap 18 in the No. 7c C & A Motor-sports/Ferrell Gas Beast. He then led every circuit to the lap 98 checkered flag to become the 48th different and one of the youngest winners of the prestigious event that began in 1934 at Gilmore Stadium in Los Angeles. The long-running midget classic is second only to the Indianapolis 500 in longevity. Sixteen drivers have won multiple TNGP victories.
Armstrong and his family-owned team took home a large replica trophy of the permanent Agajanian trophy and $6,000 from the $33,000 midget portion of the purse posted by track management in conjunction with Agajanian Promotions.
The 54 minute race had five yellow flags for spins or crashes. Caution flag laps on the half-mile counted, but laps run on the third-mile were not counted. In the tradition of journalist Chris Economaki's book Let Them All Run , USAC officials allowed all 35 midgets present to run the feature and canceled two B mains for 15th and slower qualifiers to transfer P 1-8 from each B race to the feature. National and Western provisional starting berths would have pushed the starting field to more than 30 cars as in past TNGP events.
The 35-car feature had 21 cars running at the finish with 16 drivers on the lead lap. The final caution flag flew from laps 88-92 to remove a stalled car near the west end scoring pylon. The top five drivers had been dueling closely just prior to that caution as Armstrong led 2009-10 TNGP winner Bryan Clauson by five yards, with Darren Hagen 10-yards in back of Clauson. At the lap 93 green flag the three leaders raced three-wide into the third turn with Hagen on the inside. Hagen passed Clauson on lap 94 and kept P. 2 to the checkers at lap 98 (the race distance since 2007 to honor the late J. C. Agajanian, who revived the TNGP in Gardena after four years with no TNGPs). Hagen trailed the winner by 0.700 in one of two Don Fike-owned RFMS Spike/Esslinger-powered cars.
Don Basile Rookie of the Race Kyle Larson, who started sixth in a Keith Kunz Beast/Speedway Mopar, took third position from Clauson on laps 96-97. However, Clauson retook the final podium position on the final lap and trailed Armstrong by 0.867. The Noblesville, Ind. driver was seeking to become only the third driver to win three TNGP features in a row. He drove the same No. 39 Corey Tucker-BCI-Curb-Agajanian-NOS Energy-Curb Records Beast/Esslinger Ford he has raced in recent seasons. Impressive Larson, only 19, settled for fourth, 1.190 from a victory in his first racing experience at the Speedway.
Kody Swanson, 23, started from pole position as fastest qualifier in the No. 11 Wilke-Pak Motor-sports Spike/Toyota and led laps 4-17. He passed second quickest qualifier Alex Bowman--the laps 1-3 leader from his outside front row starting slot. Bowman, an 18-year old from Tucson and 2008 USAC National Ford Focus Midget Champion, has been racing on the NASCAR K & N-East and ARCA stock car circuits this season. He finished sixth in K & N-East points and won series rookie of the year honors, and also won his only two ARCA features driving for Bill Venturini. Bowman ran third to lap 20 and was sixth on lap 51 when he slowed and retired his Troy Cline/Haas Engineering Beast/Esslinger Ford. Swanson, who finished second in the last 100-lap TNGP in 2006, finished fifth, 1.823 seconds off the lead.
Rounding out the top ten were: November 19 USAC Ventura Raceway dirt feature winner/fourth starter Brad Kuhn (RW Motor-sports Beast/Fontana), tenth starter Chris Windom (RW team car), P. 20 starter Dillon Welch (Nine Racing Beast/Esslinger Ford), fifth starter Evan Margeson, from Tacoma (Harold Beal Beast/Esslinger/Ford), and P. 23 starter Levi Roberts (Nine Racing team car). The tenth place driver was 4.213 seconds in back of the winner. Also completing all 98 laps in order of finish were: Kyle Hamilton, Mario Clouser, past TNGP winners Bobby East and Billy Wease, Robby Josett, and 15-year old Taylor Ferns, from Michigan, in her first full midget ride at Irwindale. She raced in a Ford Focus Midget last year and became the second ever female USAC Series champion earlier this season by winning the 2011 USAC Mopar D1 Midget Series crown.
Only four drivers ran 16 second laps during the race. Winner Armstrong ran the fastest lap of the race on lap 22 at 16.823 (106.996 mph). Kuhn ran the next quickest race lap of 16.905 on lap 20. Clauson's best lap of 16.918 came on lap 23. K. Swanson ran his best lap of 16.984 while leading on lap 5. Runner-up Hagen turned his best lap of 17.144 (104.993 mph) on lap 84. The TNGP three features were shown in progress via live streaming on the Internet for the first time this year. 3-Wide Life at the TNGP launched its planned live network telecasts on the Internet of the best racing events around the nation. The telecast had more than 10,400 hits by the end of the midget feature.
RACE RECAP: The first caution flag flew during laps 13-16 after Scott Pierovich and Troy DeCaire tangled in the second turn. The next caution (Laps 51-56) was to remove two-time TNGP winner Jason Leffler's Keith Kunz Beast/TRD Toyota from the first turn after it broke a rotor and stopped at the first turn wall. A three car tangle on lap 59 in the third turn involved the cars of 2008 TNGP winner and fourth-running Bobby Santos III, in Tony Stewart's No. 20 Beast/Chevy, P. 7 Tanner Swanson (RFMS Spike/Esslinger Ford), and P. 10 Dakoda Armstrong (C & A No. 7d Beast). Contact eliminated all three cars. Clauson passed K. Swanson for second position on lap 69 via an inside pass from turn four to the starting line. Ninth place Dalton Armstrong, 17-year old 2010 Basile Rookie of the Race, lost the left rear tire of his No. 7a C & A Beast entering the third corner and it rolled to the fourth turn infield grass. That caution lasted from laps 73-81. DeCaire's stall on lap 88 at the outside wall consumed laps 88-92 and set-up the thrilling three-way lead battle to the checkered flag.
VICTORY CEREMONIES: The top three finishers pulled to the finish line after the 10:04 pm checkered flag to receive distinctive TNGP trophies and participate in interviews. Winner Armstrong told the crowd, I can't thank these guys (C & A crew) enough and our Toyota engine. I was just hanging on, looking up at the scoreboard to see who was behind me and getting worn out. I was waiting for the checkered flag to come out. I can't believe it. I didn't know if I could beat Bryan. I just had to hold him off. ... Runner-up Hagen stated, I saved my tires early, but we had nothing for the 7 (winner Armstrong). ... P. 3 Clauson, the winner of both USAC National Midget Series and USAC National Drivers Champion titles for the second year in a row, stated, We had the car to beat before the last yellow. Caleb was good on the short runs and got away. Sometimes you have to lose the battle to win the war and that's what we did. I qualified only 13th. I sat up in the seat when I needed to, but two national championships in a row feels pretty good.
As 2011 USAC National Drivers Champion Clauson again earned the $40,000 prize and racing scholarship. That prize consists of a rear-engine ride in the Firestone Indy Lights Series or possibly in the IZOD Indy Car Series after a meeting with Randy Bernard, the IZOD Indy Car CEO. Last year Clauson raced a Sam Schmitt Motor-sports car in all the Indy Lights oval races, including the May 100-mile race on the 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where he finished fifth.
FINAL MIDGET POINTS:
> Mopar National 1 Clauson 1,164, 2 Hagen 1,148, 3 Larson 1.082, 4 Tracy Hines 954, 5 Bobby East 867.
> Mopar Western 1 - Cory Kruseman 599, 2 David Prickett 562, 3 Johnathon Henry 518, 4 Cody Swanson 479, 5 Jake Swanson 421.
> Mopar Pavement 1 Hagen 421, 2 Larson 395, 3 C. Armstrong 359, 4 Clauson 304, 5 Tanner Swanson 280.
FINAL USAC NATIONAL DRIVERS' CHAMPIONSHIP 1 Clauson 1,062, 2 Larson 1,028, 3 Chris Windom 1,026, 4 Levi Jones 1,022, 5 Tracy Hines 991.
There were three afternoon practice sessions for the 35 midgets present. K. Swanson ran the quickest lap in the 12:55 pm session with his 16.509. Bobby East was fastest at 2:25 with a lap of 16.763. In the final session at 2:45 K. Swanson was quickest again at 16.411 (109.683 mph). That time was faster than the existing track record 16.472 (109.276 mph) that he set last year for the November 25 TNGP. K. Swanson, the eighth driver to qualify, shattered his old track record and his best practice lap with a NTR lap--16.386 (109.850 mph) on his second of two laps.
Qualifier 22-Alex Bowman-at 16.424 and Bobby Santos III, the ninth driver to qualify, at 16.442 also qualified faster than the year old track record. Both drivers also logged their best lap on lap 2. Qualifying for all 35 midgets took 29 minutes and ran smoothly from 4:41-5:10 pm. The Speedway's traditional driver autograph session for fans took place from 5:30-6:30 pm. Drivers from all three USAC divisions greeted fans next to their cars parked on the front straight, signed photo cards and distributed candy to youngsters.