The Real Thanksgiving Night Grand Prix. No, not at LAX...Ventura!
Published on Fri, Nov 22, 2019
By: Doug Stokes
Only the Indianapolis 500 goes back further in American racing history than the “Thanksgiving Night Grand Prix for Midget Cars” (only ever referred to as that on paper and known world-wide simply as “Turkey Night”). Story by Doug Stokes and photos by Albert Wong
And that historic motorsports event takes place again for it’s 79th running on Thanksgiving Night, November 28th at the Ventura County Fairgrounds on a tight, feisty, often unforgiving 1/3rd-mile clay oval that offers racing drivers exactly zero opportunities to take a breath or plot any sort of long term strategy beyond simply successfully completing the next lap or two.
Turkey Night is a meeting of the faithful that defies any logic but it’s own. When I worked at Perris Auto Speedway we were selected by the event’s long-time promoters, the Agajanian family, to host the 1996 edition of the race. When I told my wife that we “had Turkey Night”, she said, “That’s great. When is it?” I said, “Thanksgiving Night”. Her (somewhat redacted) reaction was “What?!!!” Yeah, right, hold the bird and the cranberries for Friday and be at a damn race track WHEN?” Try to explain that to your wife or your Mom if they’ve never heard of the race.
In truth, being present at this annual event is more than a tradition for many, it’s a compulsion, a duty, almost a sacred trust that one attends. If you go dress warm (the track is about 200 meters from the Pacific Ocean, it’s late November, and even in California that’s a prescription for some brisk night air) and, oh, do get ready to hear some stories.
The race is a 98-lap, 32-mile affair (on a 1/3-mile clay oval) that’s been run 78 times at 9 different racing venues across Southern California (so far) and which has been won by drivers the likes of A.J.Foyt and Tony Stewart on a list that includes a few perhaps less well-known names like Warren Mockler who won at Ascot back in 1986 and “Bullet Joe Garson” who held off two-time Indy winner Roger Ward to win the 1958 race.
There’s a gap in the race record that one will find in the evening’s colorful event program. The first race was held in 1934 and there’s no races (nor race winners) listed for 1942-1944 and 1951-54. The first gap is obvious: WW2. Was the second for the Korean War maybe? Nope, the closing of Gilmore Stadium in Hollywood to make way for CBS Television City was the ax that fell that time.
The good news is that the classic event was thankfully rescued and brought back to life by legendary promoter and Indy car owner J.C. Agajanian in 1955 at Gardena Stadium, and his faithful family has promoted the race ever since, some 64 years now by my count.
Mister Agajanian’s name and memory are carried forward by a special perpetual trophy named in his honor and that carries the name of every one of the 78 Turkey Night winners riveted to it. The imposing trophy is topped by one of Agajanian’s personal trademark Stetson western hats that was bronzed and is displayed in the hung up position, an old western way of indicating that person who owned it had passed away.
Standing almost 3 feet tall and weighing-in at about 45 pounds, the trophy is something of a chore to hold aloft for any length of time (although winning this classic race always seems to provide the necessary adrenaline to hold it high for at least a few photos).
The “Aggie Trophy” as it has been lovingly nicknamed by the Agajanian family, is always put on public display on race night becoming a place for fans to stop by and read all of 78 very special names that it holds. Appropriately enough, one of the more recent Turkey Night victory circle traditions (above) is that of the race winner kissing the bronzed Stetson hat.
One more thing, if you go during a lull in the action (if there is one), turn to your nearest neighbor in the stands and ask, “by the way, what number is this one for you?”
I’ve always been very surprised by the answer when I’ve asked that question at a Turkey Night race.
Hey … What number will it be for YOU? – DS