IRWINDALE, California — Ross Rankine, 14, started fourth and drove the Steve Lewis Nine Racing No. 9L Beast to a solid 2.453 second victory in a 40-lap USAC Western Pavement/California North & South Ford Focus Midget Series main event Thursday night. The 23-car race was event two of three features during the 71st running of the USAC Turkey Night Midget Grand Prix. FF Midget competition took place on the Toyota Speedway at Irwindale four-degree banked third-mile track. Rankine, a Willard, Ohio high school freshman, showed poise and perseverance beyond his years by storming into the lead not once, but twice. His lap 17 pass of race-long leader Brodie Kostecki, 14, was negated by a spinning car. Rankine, who took third on the third lap and second on lap 13 in a close, three-way contest, re-passed Kostecki on lap 20 in the fourth turn. He opened a 30-yard lead by lap 35 and extended his advantage to 40-yards by the checkered flag.
Runner-up Nick Drake, 15, battled Rankine for the USAC FF Midget National Championship and won it by 12 points over Rankine. Drake, the fastest qualifier and sixth starter in his step-father Troy Cline's Beast chassis, followed Rankine past Kostecki in turn four on lap 20 for P. 2. The son of versatile USAC driver Jay Drake, the 1998 TNGP winner at Bakersfield, and 1990s CLS mini-sprint driver Denise Sczumczak, challenged Rankine closely for five laps. Drake ran the fastest race lap of 14.269 (84.014 mph) on lap 4. Rankine logged the second quickest lap of 14.280 a lap later. Drake gradually faded to a comfortable P. 2 finish. West Sacramento's Garett Peterson, the 2009 TNGP FF Midget feature winner, started seventh in a ten-year old Rick Stewart-built combination dirt and paved track chassis that he has used each season. Peterson took third position from Australia native Kostecki on lap 23 and trailed the winner by 40-yards (3.588 seconds).
Sprint car veteran Jim Waters, from Salt Lake City, finished fourth in one of two Gary Walton Beast cars from Utah. He dropped “racing kangaroo” Kostecki's fading Western Racing No. 40 Arco-Plate Racing No. 40 Gerhardt chassis to fifth on lap 35. Disappointed young gun Kostecki, the USAC FF Midget 40-lap feature winner at Irwindale on August 27, placed fifth. Kyle Edwards (Beast), Winn Frazin (TCR), pole starter/Pennsylvanian Sheldon Didinger, in one of Ron Sutton's four Winners Circle Driver Development Program Steve Kent chassis, Brandon White (Gerhardt), and Utah's Ron Duncombe (Beast) completed the top ten. Paul Graham, Utah driver Austin Luttmer, Jessica Clark and Shawn Buckley finished in positions 11-14 respectively. Twenty of 23 drivers finished and 14 completed all 40 laps. The 22-minute race had two caution flags after spins on laps 17 and 21.
TOP 3 FINISHERS: The top three finishers and series champions stopped their cars at the finish line for post-race interviews. Winner Rankine told the crowd, “ Speedy dry caused me to move up at the start. This trophy is going on my mantle at home for sure.” P. 2 Drake stated, “We were horrible lap 5 on because of tires.” He thanked his dad and mom and Joe Custer. P. 3 Peterson stated, “ We had the motor out two times to fix the clutch this morning. Thanks to my dad and uncle for all their work. When I won this race two years ago I had to get through the field.”
FF Series champions also spoke to spectators. Southern California FF Pavement Champion and California South Champion Jessica Clark, a 17-year old high school senior from Westlake Village, thanked her crew of “ten guys for busting their butts fixing the front end.” She became the third-ever USAC female champion and joined fellow 2011 D1 Midget Series champion Taylor Ferns, 15, of Michigan, as USAC Series champions. Clark finished 13th despite a spin in the second turn on lap 17. Western Series FF Champion Kostecki said, “I had contact with a lapped car and the car wouldn't turn afterward. This finishes off the year. I wanted to get one win this year (in the USA) and got 24.” He thanked his many sponsors.
Four USAC FF Series showed the top five as follows:
> National – 1- Drake 720, 2 - Rankine 708, 3- Kostecki 702, 4- Peterson 687, 5- Jarett Andretti 687.
> Western – 1 – Kostecki 826, 2 – Waters 807, 3 – Peterson 769, 4 – Wally Pankratz 768, 5 – Chuck Groat 760.
> Western Pavement – 1 – Clark 1,249, 2 – Kostecki 1,088, 3 – Peterson 967, 4 – Keegan Walmer 902, 5 – James Edens 731.
> California South –1 – Clark 761, 2 – White 717, 3 – Graham 692, 4 – Kostecki 584, 5 – Peterson 398.
FF Midget teams had two practice session prior to qualifying all 23 cars from 3:29-3:48 pm. At noon Rankine was fastest at 14.352. Drake was quickest in session two at 1:25 pm with a lap of 14.262. The existing one-lap track record of 14.249 recorded by Todd Hunsaker at the 2002 TNGP FF Midget debut has withstood challenges since that time. This year under cool mid-60 temperature the record was in jeopardy. The fastest five came close to breaking the one lap mark. Their close times predicted the close main event that followed. Drake set fastest time of 14.264 (84.044 mph). Ricky Bowers (14.268), Rankine (14.269) Paul Graham (14.269), and Kostecki (14.309) were the next four fastest qualifiers.
The USAC FF Midget program started in 2002 as a driver development series. Rankine's triumph continued the remarkable string of new TNGP FF Midget winners. No driver has repeated as the FF Thanksgiving night feature winner. In order, the TNGP main event winners have been: Todd Hunsaker, Ryan Pace, Bobby McGowan, Benny Moon, Monte Faccinto, Nic Faas, Alex Bowman, Garett Peterson and Jake Blackhurst. Some of them have continued their careers in midget, sprint car and stock car racing.