IRWINDALE, Calif., Nov. 28 - Michael Lewis earned the biggest victory of his five-year USAC Midget racing career Thanksgiving evening when he won the 100-lap Agajanian Promotions 62nd Lucas Oil Thanksgiving Night Midget Grand Prix. The banked ...
IRWINDALE, Calif., Nov. 28 - Michael Lewis earned the biggest victory of his five-year USAC Midget racing career Thanksgiving evening when he won the 100-lap Agajanian Promotions 62nd Lucas Oil Thanksgiving Night Midget Grand Prix. The banked half-mile Irwindale Speedway staged they race for the fourth consecutive year and attracted a capacity 6,500+ spectators on a windy evening.
ESPN2 Thunder taped the race for a two-hour telecast three days later on Sunday afternoon. Lewis became the 42nd winner of the prestigious Midget classic that originated in 1934 at Gilmore Stadium in Hollywood. The list of Turkey Night GP winners includes five drivers who have won the Indianapolis 500. Lewis collected $6,000 from the $33,000 purse.
The 23-year old winner from Noblesville, Indiana started fourth in the No. 11 Phil Reed-owned Beast/Ed Pink Ford sponsored by A. J. Foyt, Electronic Chrome Grinding and Team ASE. Lewis took second position during the second lap. He became the third and final race leader on lap 18 when he cut to the inside in the fourth turn and shot past Kasey Kahne, the leader of laps 16-17. Bobby East had started second and outgunned pole starter and Steve Lewis Beast/Ed Pink Ford teammate J. J. Yeley to lead the first 15 laps.
Lewis finished fourth in the Thanksgiving Midget GP last year and also won the 2001 Copper World Classic 25-mile race on the Phoenix mile track driving a Beast for Reed. Lewis withstood intense outside passing attempts by Kahne during the final six laps by holding his inside line. He edged Kahne by a car length (0.101 seconds). Kahne, who earned $3,200 as runner-up, finished third last year and second in the 2000 GP, also in Steve Lewis Beast/Ed Pink Fords.
Dave Steele, the defending Turkey Night GP winner, started sixth as the fastest qualifier and finished third in the same Dino Tomassi Beast/Mopar he drove last year. He finished 2.851 seconds behind the winner for a $2,100 award. Steele said his team missed the set-up and didn't put enough air in a rear tire. Early leader East, a 17-year old high school student in Indiana, finished fourth for a $1,500 payday and Yeley took $1,200 for fifth in a pair of Steve Lewis owned, Bob East-built Beast/Ed Pink Fords
Steve Paden, from nearby Downey, took $1,000 for sixth place in his Beast/Esslinger. James Chesson (Beast/Mopar), 1999 GP winner Jason Leffler (Keith Kunz/Mopar), rookie Jerome Rodela (Beast/Ed Pink Ford) and A. J. Fike (Beast/Ed Pink Ford) comprised the top ten. Twenty of the 31 starters finished and 17 drivers completed all 100 laps.
Dave Darland, the USAC National Midget Series point leader, finished 11th in another Steve Lewis Beast/Ed Pink Ford and saw his point lead shrink to 65 points over Yeley with 72 points available at the final race in Las Vegas Saturday night (November 30). Danny Stratton and Robby Flock, the top two drivers in USAC Western States points, both missed the GP feature. Stratton held a ten point advantage over Flock with only the Las Vegas race remaining on the schedule.
Tony Stewart, the "Rushville Rocket" and 2002 NASCAR Winston Cup champion, was fresh from his victory in Irwindale's 40-lap USAC W/S 360 Sprint Car Series race. He started the 100-lap GP third as the fourth quickest qualifier in a 54-car field. He drove a fifth Steve Lewis entered Beast/Ed Pink Ford. It was the same 2000 Beast chassis that he drove to victory at Irwindale in the 2000 Turkey Night GP. Stewart bought the chassis from Lewis for his museum at his hometown in Indiana. Lewis had Bob East put an engine and the latest chassis updates on the car. Stewart had it in third place on lap 46 when disaster struck.
Stewart was 30 yards behind the dueling lead duo and engaged in a personal race with Steele. Suddenly, the fifth place Beast of Aaron Fike, with a stuck throttle, shot across the third turn at speed with brakes locked and passed behind Steele's fourth place car. Fike's car struck the left rear tail of Stewart's car and sent both cars hard into the outer wall between the third and fourth corners. The impact lifted both cars and flashes from wall contact were evident briefly. Fike's car stopped near the wall and Stewart's car, with heavy right front and right side damage, stopped in mid-track. Stewart sat motionless in his car for about a minute as emergency crews arrived. Both drivers were dazed when assisted from their cars. Fike sat next to the wall and then reclined on the ground. The two drivers walked to an ambulance and rode to the pits. Each driver declined transportation to a local hospital for precaution medical tests. Stewart, who will receive about $4,000,000 for his Winston Cup championship at the NASCAR banquet Friday, December 6 in New York City, complained of a sore left ankle. He departed the pits quickly. His team owners said Stewart would race in the USAC Midget/Sprint Car doubleheader Saturday in Las Vegas.
The only other mishap of note in the 41 minute race occurred on lap 80 when 14th running rookie Ron Gregory lost his brakes and hit 13th place Dane Carter, spinning both cars near the fourth turn wall. No injuries resulted and Carter resumed racing and completed 96 laps. National Midget driver of the year award contenders Mike Hess and Aaron Fike failed to finish the 100-lap race and will settle their contest in Las Vegas. National Midget rookie of the year rivals Ron Gregory and Teddy Beach also DNF Thursday and also will determine the award winner in Las Vegas.
ROOKIE OF RACE
Eight Turkey Night GP drivers were eligible for the Don Basile Memorial Rookie of the Race clock trophy and $500 cash award from the Basile family. Jerome Rodela, the leading W/S Midget Series rookie and third in W/S points, earned the prize with his drive from 12th starting position to a ninth place finish. James Chesson charged from 24th grid position to seventh place for the best passing job of the race.
Winner Lewis spoke to the media and said, "This is the best I've done here. Kasey (Kahne) likes to run the high line at most tracks. I could hear him the last ten laps, but I wasn't worried. I just ran my deal. I hit my marks every lap and we won. I run the bottom of the track and can run harder there. I watched Dave (Steele) run on the bottom and win last year, so I was committed to run there this year. My Hoosier tires were good all the way and I had no problems with lapped traffic."
Lewis, who said the Infinity Pro Series, IRL or NASCAR are his racing career goals, explained that he has raced only 12 or 13 times this year because of two crashes and has missed four and a half months. "I had a concussion early this year and a broken collarbone at Terre Haute in the June Silver Crown race," he revealed. "Running the practice session here Friday (from 3:00-8:15 p.m) helped us. I knew we had a winning car," Lewis added.
Winning car owner Mike Reed and his crew chief father, Phil, joined the winner for press box interviews. "I'm going to call A.J. Foyt (winning car sponsor) and tell him we won. He's out turkey hunting, so I'll call Jack Starne and tell him to tell A.J," said Reed. He also revealed that he worked for Foyt 15 years (1970-84) on his Indy cars as a mechanic refueling and changing tires. Phil's father said he has attended almost every Turkey Night Midget GP since the 1940s and was overjoyed upon winning the Midget GP, which Car and Driver magazine, in a story years ago, called one of World Racing's ten classic races.
A pair of 19-car, 12-lap qualifying races transferred the first eight finishers in each event to the feature. Paden led all the way from the outside front row in the first race. Darland led all the way from the pole in the second event.
The 14 fastest qualifiers during late afternoon time trials advanced directly to the main event. Steele, the 15th driver to qualify in a track record 54 Midgets field, set quick time of 16.718 (107.688 mph). Lewis, the seventh driver to race the clocks, had posted a time of 16.739 and eclipsed the 16.874 one-lap Midget track mark set by Tracy Hines on July 3, 1999. Steele said, "I wasn't surprised by the new track record because we're on softer tires this year."
- Tim Kennedy -