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This article is from our archives and has not been updated and integrated with our "new" site yet... Even so, it's still awesome - so keep reading!

Published on Sat, Nov 25, 2006

By: The LACar Editorial Staff

© Irwindale Speedway


Look we know you want an excuse not to sit around the living room after Thanksgiving dinner listening to Uncle Ernie talk about how much he hates his boss down at the plant or Grandma Mabel go over her list of friends' medical ailments. Here's your out: next year, go to the Turkey Night Grand Prix at Irwindale raceway. This year's event was billed as the 66th running of the Turkey Night Midget Grand Prix, a tradition dating back in history to 1934 and at Irwindale Speedway to 1999. It featured racing by USAC Midgets, USAC Sprint Cars, and USAC Ford Focus Midgets in a program which saw qualifying races and feature events that kept the track busy for over four hours. Okay, so maybe you don't know that much about Sprints and Midgets, and to you a Ford Focus is a little four-door econobox. No matter - you'll have fun as you watch these little open-wheelers wing their way around the Irwindale half mile (the Ford Focus Midgets use the track's inner surface, a one-third mile oval). And, judging by the reaction of the fans at the nearly full track this year, you'll be around people who do know what's up. More than likely, they'll be willing to fill you in on what you're watching. Or, you can just sit there and absorb the atmosphere. The sound, particularly as the Sprint Cars run, thrums off the rear wall and hits you in the chest. The smoke from the tires, burned and scarred as the cars power through the corners and smoke their brakes, assaults your nose. The screams of the fans around you - well, you get the picture. It's a lot better than reruns of Pinks on the Speed Channel or late-night poker with cousins you only see once a year. Enough said about the atmosphere. What about the racin'? It's fast, it's wheel-to-wheel with drivers often using cross-over moves from the low to high line to try to seize positions. Guaranteed, it will force you to stay awake, pushing back the turkey haze from earlier in the day.

Jessica Helberg (Brian Kennedy photo) In case you've never been up close to a Sprint car, they're frightening. Huge tires on a tiny car with a short wheelbase. They run a 360ci V8 engine with 650-700 horsepower and a weight of just 1375 lbs. Because of their 90-inch wheelbase, threaten to do just what one car did Thursday night - flip backwards into the fence as they touch wheels with another competitor. Nobody was hurt in the accident. As for this year's event, you can find the results of the races at the Irwindale Speedway and USAC websites, so we'll spare you the details here and instead offer a few glimpses into the evening as seen through the eyes of three competitors. Sitting in the paddock waiting to go was Garratt Boyden, 19, from Santa Cruz. Boyden's crew is his dad, and he's been racing since he was five. His suit said "Sirrius" radio, so we asked him about his sponsorship. "I bought this suit from someone who won it at a raffle" he said. "We're unsponsored." He competed in fifteen races this season and hopes someday, somehow, to make it to NASCAR. Another youngster, one with what looks like a certain track to success, is Kody Swanson, the defending Western States Sprint Car champion. He is now racing Midgets, and he's 18, attending Fresno State on a full scholarship to study mechanical engineering. It was Swanson who flipped into the fence, incidentally, during the Sprint car feature race.

Kody Swanson (left) The team Swanson drives for, by the way, is run by Duane Gerhardt, a squad of five cars with Performance Trailers sponsorship. Gerhardt's family has been in racing since the 1950s. His grandfather Fred won the Turkey Night GP as an owner twice, in 1948 and 1955. Also driving was 19 year-old Jessica Helberg, who spent the year in Mooresville, NC, as part of NASCAR's "Drive for Diversity" program. She was piloting a late model stock car in that effort. To her, "this event is a highlight of the year. For me, and for my family, too. M, though unfortunately he didn't make the feature." Asked what it feels like to be out there, Helberg responded, "This is a professional race. It feels like it, the whole weekend has that kind of tone." When asked about the track, and driving this type of car, she replied, "You feel like the car is around you and underneath you; you can see the tires, unlike in a stock car." She added, "The track is big for this type of car, you use the brakes, and you're on the power." She said that setup is key, especially if you want to run the high line. Several drivers used that line all night, repelling challengers who tried to duck under them in turns 1-2 and then slide up past them coming onto the back straightaway. Helberg thanked Barndt's Welding for making this race possible for her. She now returns to life as a bio-chemistry major at University of North Carolina at Charlotte while she plans her next racing move.

Garratt Boydon (Brian Kennedy photo) These three youngsters were just a sampling of the people brave enough and good enough to take on Irwindale Speedway in its final event of the year. And how'd they do? Boyden ended up 18th in his qualifying race and didn't make the feature; Swanson was fast qualifier in both Sprint car and Midget and took second in the Midget car feature; and Helberg was fifth in the Sprint car race and set second-quickest lap. So remember - next Nov. 1st, get a ticket for Turkey Night. You need to buy it ahead of time, since the event nearly always fills up, and that way, you can have lots of lead time to plan your escape from your family's Thanksgiving purgatory. For more information about Irwindale Speedway events, click here.

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