PERRIS, California — Rising star Kyle Larson, a 20-year old versatile open-wheel and stock car driver from Elk Grove, Calif., dominated the 72nd running of the prestigious“Turkey Night Grand Prix” USAC Mopar National and Western Midgets Series event Thanksgiving evening. He led 77 of the scheduled 98 lap feature. The half-mile, semi-banked clay Perris Auto Speedway, which hosted the event in 1996, and more than 4,000 fans welcomed the classic back to dirt for the first time since the 1998 running at Bakersfield Speedway. The event has been held on the half-mile paved Irwindale Speedway from 1999-2011. Last year Larson finished fourth and received the Don Basile TNGP Rookie of the Race award.
“Young money” Larson, the third fastest qualifier in a 60-car field, started third and became the third and final race leader on lap 22 of 98. He drove the No. 71 Keith Kunz Motorsports-Curb-Agajanian Bullet/Speedway Toyota. He earned $6,000 from the $31,000+ purse posted by Don Kazarian's Oval Entertainment, LLC. Larson recorded seven triumphs in the 23 race 2012 USAC National Midget Series. Eleven drivers won the 23 completed races with three events lost to adverse weather. Larson won four of the last five USAC National Midget features, including the last three since September 22. He became the 14th different USAC Western Midget feature winner in 16 completed races of the 18 race schedule that had two rainouts.
Darren Hagen, from nearby Riverside, won his first USAC Mopar National Midget Championship in Don Fike's RFMS No. 3 DRC/Esslinger. He won four 2012 features. Kunz won the USAC National Midget car owner title and had all three of his cars in the top ten. Shannon McQueen, from Bakersfield, won the USAC Western Midgets overall dirt/paved track driving championship. She became the fifth female driving champion in 57 years of USAC racing. Fresno's David Prickett won the separate USAC Western dirt track crown for his first USAC driving title. Bryan Clauson won the USAC National Driving Championship (for points accumulated in the three USAC national series) for the third consecutive year. The honor comes with a financial scholarship to advance his racing career that helped him make the 2012 Indianapolis 500 field.
Hagen, the ninth qualifier in a 60-car field, set a new track record of 17.025 and broke the USAC mark of 17.037 set by Billy Boat for the 1996 TNGP. The 14 fastest qualifiers advanced directly to the feature. Two 12-lap qualifying races for odd and even number qualifiers 15th and slower transferred the first eight finishers in each qualifier to main event rows eight through 15. Oklahoman Brady Bacon and Iowan Davey Ray started first and third respectively and led the qualifying races all the way. Four provisional starters (two National and two Western Series) started from the final two rows. The 34-car field had five former TNGP winners and 12 TNGP feature rookies.
FEATURE: The race ran under the green flag to lap 33. Pole-starter Hagen led the first three laps. Fourth starter Jason Leffler, driving Shane Hmiel's Beast/Esslinger, paced the next four laps. Hagen ran first again from lap eight through 21 as Leffler's car faded. Larson led laps 22-98 despite heavy pressure from challengers. His Kunz teammate Clauson almost took command at one point. However, Clauson flipped without injury after banging off the first turn wall on lap 79. Then Tracy Hines raced Larson evenly. On lap 90 Hines shot under Larson on the inside to take the lead briefly. Larson cut to the inside in the second turn and promptly reclaimed the lead. Hines was still challenging for the lead when the white flag waved, but his worn right rear tire blew leaving turn four. He pitted for a tire and returned, placing 13th.
The green, white, checkered flag last lap dash to the lap 98 finish had Larson, Ryan Bernal, Jerry Coons, Jr, USAC-CRA sprint driver Nik Faas and Shane Golobic in the first five positions with the first four cars nose-to-tail followed by a lapped car The TNGP 98 lap distance has been used since 2007 in honor of the late TNGP promoter and two-time Indianapolis 500 winning car owner J. C. Agajanian who used No. 98 on his cars. Larson led the final lap by several lengths. Coons took second from USAC-CRA 410 sprint car veteran Bernal with an inside pass leaving the fourth turn. Bernal, 18, placed third and won a $500 bonus and plaque as the 15th Don Basile Rookie of the Race. His Keith Ford Spike/Wirth Fontana teammate and fellow TNGP rookie Faas, 22, finished fourth. Golobic earned fifth with Brad Kuhn, in Mason Cook's BCRA Beast/Fontana, sixth and the last driver on the lead lap. The one hour and 19 minutes race had seven yellow flags and a red flag of 20 minutes.
Seventh finisher Bacon was down a lap after lap 86 tire failure when he was running fourth in the Wilke-Pak No. 11 Spike/Stanton Toyota. Post-lap 75 caution laps were not counted, but cars that stopped at the work area were penalized a lap. Casey Shuman, son of eight-time TNGP winner Ron Shuman, Zach Daum and Dalton Armstrong completed the top ten. Johnathon Henry, 2011 TNGP winner Caleb Armstrong, Hines, 19-year old Dillon Welch, Hagen, Australian Michael Pickens, Prickett, McQueen, rookie Jake Swanson, POWRI's Ray and Troy Rutherford were the other finishers in the top 21. All other drivers did not finish.
PODIUM: Winner Larson said, “ I wasn't sure how much right rear tire I had and tried to save my tires. I knew Tracy (Hines) had to be using up tires. I saw him coming. He's a good driver and it's fun to race with Bryan and Tracy.” Larson added, “I didn't expect the track to take rubber, but it did. I was saving my car even when he (Hines) was alongside. I drove it in straight. I won the Gold Cup (at Chico) awhile ago and now “Turkey Night”. All that's left is the Chili Bowl and that's in January.” He also won the NASCAR K & N East Series 2012 stock car championship and rookie of the year title. He made his NASCAR Camping World Truck Series debut with three late season starts and had a pair of top five finishes. During a November appearance on SPEED Channel, host Dave DeSpain stated Larson had 27 victories in 115 features during 2012. Add the tough TNGP and he has 28 with a racing trip to Australia on tap in December.
Runner-up Coons said, “I started deeper in the pack (17th). I drew a terrible qualifying draw, fifth from the end. I got up there, fifth or sixth, and just rode for awhile and raced at the end when they started dropping out. The track got slick and laid down rubber. Need to keep it straight. I'm excited Turkey Night is back on dirt and hope it's here for a long time to come. Maybe we'll win next year.” He thanked car owner Joe Dooling, Spike chassis and Esslinger engines.
Third place Bernal received his Basile Rookie of the Race plaque and $500 from Bob Basile. He stated, “I'm glad Turkey Night is back on dirt and honored to have this plaque. I'm happy we're on the podium for the Turkey Night Grand Prix. I'm speechless. My parents came down to watch too.” Hagen talked about finalizing his first USAC National Midget championship in front of his hometown fans and family. “I took off and led a bit on a soft tire compound and fell back to save it. Thanks to my lord and savior Jesus Christ. Thanks to all the fans. Come back next year.” He also thanked his car owner, crew and sponsors.
Coons won the 2012 National Midget Driver of the Year championship by 130 points over two-time National Midget Driver of the Year (NMDOTY) driver championship over two-time NMDOTY champion Brad Kuhn. Coons won four features, including the prestigious Belleville (Kan.) Nationals in August. He tallied points driving for five different car owners. USAC's Hagen finished third, 137 points back. After 178 events for all midget sanctioning associations, 508 drivers earned NMDOTY points. Coons won his first NMDOTY championship five years ago according to NMDOTY coordinator Bryan Gapinski. Kunz/Curb/Agajanian swept the top two positions in the NMDOTY car owner championship. Rico Abreu won the rookie of the year honor. In NMDOTY manufacturers points, Spike won the chassis constructor title and Ford-Esslinger again took the engine builder points championship. All NMDOTY point fund checks and trophies will be presented in Tulsa, Oklahoma at the Lucas Oil Chili Bowl final night—January 12, 2013.