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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 Tue, Dec 2, 2008

By: The LACar Editorial Staff

A BETTER KIND OF TURKEY DAY Words by Brian Kennedy Pictures by Gabriela Moya

Hey race fans - you didn't waste your Thanksgiving eating turkey at home, did you? If you live in So Cal, heck, make that no matter where you live, if you didn't make the trek out to Irwindale for Turkey Night Grand Prix on Thursday, you missed out. I mean, dinner with family is an excuse, but not a good one. The event, running for the sixty-eighth time since 1934 (do the math and you'll realize that they missed a few years due to something called WW2), wasn't, obviously, always at this track. Toyota Speedway at Irwindale hasn't been around that long. But the race was brought here in 1999, so that's getting to be enough tradition to say that it feels right that the season end in LA.

Bobby Santos This year's event started officially at 7 p.m. Thursday night, but fans had gathered at the Speedway earlier in the afternoon to tailgate and, late in the afternoon, get autographs from the drivers. Notable participants in the evening's on-track activities were Kasey Kahne, Tracy Hines, PJ Jones, and Davey Hamilton, of NASCAR and IndyCar fame, respectively by pairs. The night started with last-chance features, and next up was the first main, the USAC National Ford Focus midgets racing on the track's interior one-third mile oval. They numbered about twenty, an intrepid group which had a driver of fifteen, Alex Bowman of Tucson, and one of seventy-three, JR Williams, who drove down from Nevada City, NV. His habit, according to friendly competitor Gregg Fuette, is to haul his own rig five-hundred and fifty miles each way, alone, to race in Salt Lake City during the regular portion of the season. The race ended with young Bowman in the lead and taking his eleventh win of the year. The big boys came next, with the USAC Western Sprint Car Series fielding more than thirty-five cars on the Speedway's half-mile oval. The event was scheduled for forty laps, but it was stopped after three to clean up an accident going into turn one. After a few minutes' pause, the action resumed a single-file restart, with yellow laps not counting. Shane Hmiel and Tracy Hines were out front and side-by-side, but Hines went underneath him going into turn three on lap five.

He continued to open a lead, and behind him Mike Murgoitio and Snake Livernash were duking it out in fifth and sixth. Murgoitio then went after fourth place and got it into turn three on lap eleven. Hmiel spun into the grass on lap twelve and caused a caution. This meant that the lead that Hines had been stretching out was closed up. At this point, twenty-eight cars were running. With the restart, Davey Hamilton, Livernash, and Tanner Swanson were tight, with Livernash battling and Tony Hunt moving up. At lap twenty-one, Hines approached a huge bunch of lap cars, and Livernash was looking inside of Hamilton. They were side-by-side for fifth, and Hmiel, back in the action, used the fact that Hines was in traffic to close on him. At lap thirty, Hines was .9 second ahead. Five laps later and with five to go, Hunt dove low into turn four trying to get P6 from Murgoitio. They were fighting it out until the last lap, with Hunt trying high. As the checkered flag fell, Livernash bumped lap car Nick Green coming across the start/finish line, and in the seconds just after, Green got out of his car and tried to charge towards the #7 (very stupid move, kid - there were still cars flying by on track).

Santos (45) at speed At the end, the results showed Hines ahead of Hmiel and with Livernash fourth ahead of Hamilton and Mutgoitio in front of Hunt for sixth, which sums up the battles of the evening. Fourteen cars were on the lead lap. The last activity of the evening was the much-anticipated USAC Mopar National Midget Championship Series event, a 98-lap race, so determined in memory of JC Agajanian, Sr., long-time host of this event and a man whose team car always featured that number, 98, on its flanks. The racing started with six rookies and four former winners in the field of over thirty cars. Kasey Kahne was a dozen rows back, but Jason Leffler was in the third row. The race went yellow due to a stall early, but restarted on the fifth lap (in an event of this length, the caution laps are counted). It didn't take Leffler long to show his stuff, as he was second on lap six and looked inside of the leader on the lap to get P1 going into turn two on lap eight. The battle behind him was for P3-P5, with three cars challenging. Behind them, Darren Hagen started to press, moving into sixth by lap fourteen and staying on a low line. The first three cars began to string out at the head of the field, and Hagen had been caught by a pack for sixth a few laps later. By lap twenty-six, he had dropped to eighth or ninth, and Billy Wease was beginning to show something. Another yellow came out on lap thirty-four, erasing Leffler's three-second lead, and when it restarted on lap thirty-eight, Wease made a banzai move into turn three to settle into third place, his second time up there.

Agajanian interviews Santos But none of that mattered a whole lot, or at least it wouldn't in retrospect, because back in the pack, Bobby Santos III was plotting an attack on the lead which would eventually see him at the front. He was seventh around lap forty, and fourth on lap forty-five. That's where he stayed for the middle duration of the race, but he moved up one, to third, around lap fifty-nine. On lap sixty-nine, it was Hamilton, Leffler, Santos, with Hagen in fifth. Hagen wasn't happy being fifth, though, and he jumped inside on turn three of lap seventy-one to get third, with Santos fourth. The top four then lined up and paraded for a while, while behind them, PJ Jones took a low line to grab fifth spot. With Hamilton leading, Leffler, Santos, and Hagen were tight for P2-P4 at lap seventy-nine, and then Santos dove inside of Leffler in turn three and got second. By lap eighty-seven, he had caught Hamilton, and two laps later, he went inside of him on the same turn, three, that he had passed on before. At the end of the lap, Santos was ahead. Even when he and the cars behind him approached traffic, normally the bane of a leader late in the race, he kept gaining on the second-place runner. Santos ended up winning with a 1.048-second margin of victory. His fastest lap had been fifty-nine, while Hagen had had his fastest later in the race, on lap seventy-four. Eighteen cars were on the lead lap at the end. The other notable name, Kahne, ended up twenty-second, and wasn't a factor all night.

The evening ended with presentation of giant trophies to cars and drivers who won and also those securing championships in the season-ending event. Of note here was that Cole Whitt, just seventeen, was crowned season champion in national midget points. This kid is likely someone you'll see mentioned again, but the next time, he's likely to be part of discussions about who will be filling seats in the national big-money series. As an IndyCar afficianado, I wouldn't mind seeing the kid racing with the open wheel guys sometime in the future, rather than heading to NASCAR. But hey, racin's racin'. So back to where I started - if you spent the evening of Thanksgiving sitting on your butt on the couch digesting turkey and yapping with your relatives about what you'd be buying on the big shopping day to come in just a few hours, then you blew it, mister (or ms.). So right now, make yourself a resolution that next year, you'll hop in the car and head to Irwindale to watch some great racing. And if that means you'll be driving a thousand miles instead of a handful, then that's OK too. You won't regret the trip, because when you get here, the weather will be eighty degrees and the beer's free. Well, that's not true, but it's what the track announcer kept saying. Truth is, the weather is more than pleasant, though - highs during the day reach into the 70s. Oh by the way, as a Canadian, I celebrate Thanksgiving in October. So you can imagine that as a former Montrealer, I was tickled pink to spend Thursday afternoon outside in my short pants grilling steaks. Then I went to the race. Could it get any better? Nope, I honestly don't think so. Next year, why not be part of it?

For more information about Irwindale Speedway events, click here. 

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