IT'S THANKSGIVING NIGHT
We’re Sitting in the Bleachers at Ventura Raceway, it’s Cold, We’re Eating Lukewarm Track Dogs and Soggy Fries, Sipping Cold Beer and Choking Down Lukewarm Coffee ... Why? ... Tim Kennedy Explains
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 Sun, Dec 3, 2017
By: The LACar Editorial Staff
It’s Thanksgiving Night ... We’re Sitting In the Bleachers at Ventura Raceway, It’s Cold, We’re Eating Lukewarm Track Dogs and Soggy Fries, Sipping Cold Beer and Choking Down Lukewarm Coffee ... Why? Guest Writer Tim Kennedy explains: Ok, so what’s the big attraction of an annual auto racing event that causes people to leave the company and comfort of their homes on Thanksgiving evening? The case in point is that every year thousands of people leave festive holiday gatherings of family and friends to attend an outdoor midget auto race somewhere in southern California no matter where that race is being held or what the temperature is at the race site. People either dine early in the afternoon or skip the traditional turkey and all the trimmings dinner or postpone the whole exercise for a day or two. Some people joke that their turkey dinner at the speedway was a hot dog with mustard and relish with a topping of track dust. And, the reason for such seasonal forbearance? An auto racing classic event that began during Great Depression in 1934 to celebrate the season conclusion of the then new sport of midget auto racing. The first “Thanksgiving Night Midget Grand Prix” race took place at the quarter-mile clay oval Gilmore Stadium in Hollywood. The Gilmore Oil-owned property is now the site of CBS-Television City and the famous Farmer’s Market at 3rd and Fairfax.* The midget racing event is now the longest running event in short track auto racing. The Turkey Night race has taken place in southern California at nine speedways, five now closed for various reasons. Those dirt (and even two paved tracks) have hosted at least one of the now 77 Grand Prix events. Midget racing and the “Turkey Night” race helped launch the “big car” careers of many Indianapolis 500 drivers in the 1930s and decades following World War II when all auto racing ended to provide needed materials for the war effort. Midgets are open-wheel racing cars. They typically use four-cylinder 375-horsepower engines, weigh about 1,035 pounds with driver, and have a metal cage over the cockpit for driver protection. The wheelbase is 66-76 inches and cars use Hoosier Racing Tires. Fuel tank capacity is 18-gallons of methanol fuel encased in a safety fuel bladder in the tail tank. “Turkey Night” Midget Grand Prix winning drivers include a “who’s who” of auto racing. Indy 500 winners who also won a Thanksgiving evening midget GP include: Johnnie Parsons, Bill Vukovich, A. J. Foyt, and Parnelli Jones. Some years in the 1940s through 1960s more than half the Indy 500 starting field had raced midgets earlier in their careers and credited midgets with developing their racing skills. (That's the late legendary promoter J.C. Agajanian and the great Parnelli Jones above ... The actual Stetson that Agajanian is wearing was bronzed and crowns the trophy that's named in his honor.) Famous drivers who finished in the TNGP top five but never won a “Turkey Night” GP include two-time Indy 500 winner Rodger Ward, 1969 Indy 500 winner Mario Andretti, three-time Indy 500 winner Johnny Rutherford, NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon, and NASCAR Cup race winner Kasey Kahne. TNGP race winners include Indy 500 stars Tony Bettenhausen and his son Gary. Three-time NASCAR Cup Champion Tony Stewart won the 2000 TNGP on the half-mile paved Irwindale Speedway to accomplish one of his many bucket list victories. That shows how important the race is even to this era. Drivers from all types of racing are able to compete on “Turkey Night” because it is the final major race of the year and all other point races have concluded. Four current NASCAR drivers in national series flew from Homestead-Miami, FL races the weekend before the 2017 TNGP to race in the 77th running of the Thanksgiving race. NASCAR Truck 2017 Miami winner Chase Briscoe, truck champion Christopher Bell, Stewart Friesen, and four-time Monster Cup 2017 race winner Kyle Larson all raced in the 2017 TNGP. Larson and Bell are Turkey Night midget GP winners. TNGP record holder for victories is Arizonan Ron Shuman, who won the midget classic eight times from 1979 to 1993. He won four in a row at the Ascot Park half-mile clay track in Gardena. Three-time TNGP winner Billy Boat, a 1990s Indianapolis 500 pole winner for car owner A. J.Foyt, won three Turkey Night” features in a row from 1995-97 at three different speedways—Bakersfield, Perris and Ventura. This year at Ventura Raceway about 5,000 persons attended the USAC-sanctioned 77th running of the affectionately called “Turkey Night” race in warm weather. The scenic fifth-mile banked clay oval is located across the street from the Pacific Ocean and surfers in wetsuits riding the waves. It’s called “The Best Little Dirt Track in America” for a reason. More than 100 drivers raced this year at Ventura in two types of racing cars—midgets and sprint cars. Competitors came from four nations (United States, Canada, New Zealand and Argentina) for a chance to win a main event in either of the two racing divisions. They raced for a $60,000 purse in the midget division and $17,000 in the sprint car division. Numerous drivers raced in both types of cars. Part of the allure of the TNGP annually is the traditional trophy presentations. There is an “Aggie” Trophy featuring a bronzed Stetson hat actually worn by legendary racing promoter and Indy car owner J. C. Agajanian. Aggie revived the “Turkey Night” race in 1955 at Gardena Stadium after four years without a Thanksgiving midget race. Aggie promoted the race from 1955 until his death in 1984 and his three sons have continued the TNGP each year since then. The names of all 76 TNGP winners are engraved on plaques at the base of the Aggie perpetual trophy just as the Indy 500 winners each year are on the famous Borg-Warner Trophy at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Another tradition of five years is having the TNGP winner kiss the brim of the Stetson hat just as Indy winners kiss the yard of bricks at the finish line. The Don Basile Memorial Rookie of the Race Trophy is presented to the highest finishing first year driver in the TNGP. That perpetual trophy at the base also contains plaques with the names of all prior “Turkey Night” rookie award winners. TNGP rookie winners also receive $500 cash, just as the Indy 500 rookie of the year receives recognition and cash bonus each year. There was also is a unique trophy of a metal 1930s midget replica race car for the TNGP fastest qualifier. Those awards make the TNGP race unique and special. The 2017 “Turkey Night” on November 23 at Ventura became an instant classic and perhaps one of the best in history. Yes, a pack of these tiny terrors really does remind one of a whole bunch of very angry caged-up animals. Harold Osmer's view from the stands. Fifty midgets were present and 29 started the 98-lap feature. Teammates Kyle Larson and Christopher Bell circled the track under 12-seconds during qualifying. They started in the first two rows and waged a torrid duel in throughout the race. Both drivers executed slide-jobs in the turns and traded the lead twice on some laps. They even bumped wheels at times but maintained speed. Three midgets fired off the final turn with the checkered flag waving and the top three drivers - Bell, Larson, and Shane Golobic - in a tight pack. Bell won his second TNGP by a single car length over Larson with Golobic one length behind Larson. 77th "Turkey Night" winner Christopher Bell all smiles in Victory Circle with event promoters J.C. Agajanian Jr. and Cary Agajanian. After the race Bell and Larson both said, “That was fun.” Fans were thrilled by the action and agreed it was exciting to watch. That’s why they annually (since 1934) have been forgoing (or rescheduling) a traditional Thanksgiving family turkey dinner. For many the event IS their Thanksgiving tradition. That’s also why famous drivers, car owners, mechanics, racing legends, and even casual fans make the “Turkey Night” Midget GP a must see event. Even on a cool Thanksgiving evening by the seashore. -TJK Guest writer and highly-respected motorsports authority Tim Kennedy admits to an unbroken record of attending 55 Thanksgiving Night GPs (of the 77 run so far) in row. (That's him, as usual taking copious notes ... Harold Osmer photo) ... Take this to the payout window: when Kennedy says that a race is a good one (as above) it’s a DAMN good one. He recalls: “The first TNGP I saw was in ‘62 at Ascot Park in Gardena. The winner was Billy Cantrell in the Jack London Offy. I’ve got complete entries in printed race programs from every one of them in boxes in my closets.” Like the Memorial Day race at Indy in May, this event’s November date is an easy one to remember, but still a bit difficult to explain to non racing fans. This unique night of competition remains one of the true racing classics and an event that everyone who loves motorsports should take in at least once. And, you are correct (sir or madam) it will be your first and very likely not your last.) –DS, Editor *Staging motorsports and other outdoor events in California was a regular part of the culture by 1934 and used by promoters to not only sell tickets to an event, but to promote the fact that California was a year-round Garden of Eden where the weather was always perfect. Motorsports historian Harold Osmer told the story in his essential book on the subject: “Where They Raced”. (All color photos by Albert Wong LACar staff photographer and Harold Osmer)