WS: WM: Irwindale's Turkey Night fun facts

IRWINDALE, Calif. - Ten past Thanksgiving Night Midget Grand Prix winners attended the 62nd running of the classic race this year. They were Danny Oakes (1945 winner), Parnelli Jones (1964 & 66), Tony Simon (1972), Bubby Jones (1976), Brent...

IRWINDALE, Calif. - Ten past Thanksgiving Night Midget Grand Prix winners attended the 62nd running of the classic race this year. They were Danny Oakes (1945 winner), Parnelli Jones (1964 & 66), Tony Simon (1972), Bubby Jones (1976), Brent Kaeding (1985), Jordan Hermansader (1994), Jay Drake (1998), Jason Leffler (1999), Tony Stewart (2000) and Dave Steele (2001). The last three winners also raced in the 100-lap GP this year. Having now seen all 41 races since the 1962 edition, I salute past winners for returning each year -- their presence definitely adds to the historical significance of the Turkey Night GP festivities.

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Johnny Boyd, a noted AAA/USAC Indianapolis 500 driver from the 1950s-60s, came from his home in Fresno to watch Friday practice sessions and the GP on Saturday. Retired Indy Car, Sprint and Midget driver Pancho Carter was in the pits both days helping his sons Dane and Cole with their Drinan and Beast Midgets. P.J. Jones, the second place finisher in the final GP at Ascot Park in Gardena (1990) also watched this year. He competed in a Midget last year in the third GP run at Irwindale Speedway. This year was the sixth running of the Turkey GP on pavement-one at Saugus (1991), one at Speedway 605 in Irwindale (1975) and now four at IS.

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WEATHER: The temperature at the track Thanksgiving Day was 79 degrees at 3:00 p.m. when the first of two rounds of hot laps were in progress for all three USAC divisions. Ford Focus Midget time trials ran from 4:50-5:02 p.m. The Sprint Car class qualified from 5:12-5:45 and the Midgets timed 52 of the 54 paid entries from 5:57-6:35. The temperature was still 67 degrees when racing concluded at 10:32 p.m. A brief windstorm and a few scattered raindrops visited the track about 7:00. Light rain from a passing weather front fell briefly for a few laps during the Sprint car main event, but a caution flag was not required because the track remained dry.

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Total car count at the GP this year (three USAC divisions) was a Turkey Night record 113 as follows: a season-high 17 Ford Focus Midgets (first appearance on GP night), 42 Sprint Cars (up from 35 cars last year) and 54 Midgets (up from 48 cars last year). The 2000 Midget GP at Irwindale had 52 Midgets and 20 TQs present, while 1999 had 26 Midgets and 20 TQs. The all-time Thanksgiving GP car count record was 109 Midgets at the final Ascot Park race (1990).

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Jerome Rodela, a 21-year old Midget rookie from nearby El Monte, became the fifth Don Basile Memorial Rookie of the race. Prior winners were Kasey Kahne (1998), Dave Steele (1999), Aaron Pollock (2000) and Bobby East (2001). His prize was a clock trophy and $500 cash (up from $200 last year) from the Basile family. Affable Rodela is 5'6" and 117 pounds and media members dubbed him Cristiano because of his striking resemblance to CART champion Cristiano da Matta. Rodela competed in the Beast/Ed Pink Ford raced earlier this year by Shane Scully, who was the USAC Western States point leader in August when he received serious head injuries in a crash during the Belleville (KS) Nationals. His injuries forced Scully into retirement from racing. He was present helping Rodela. During Irwindale's Friday practice sessions they allowed a Brazilian race driver named Juliano to practice in their No. 25 Midget. The Brazilian ran 18-second laps in traffic and enjoyed the experience. We could have the first Brazilian in a Midget next season.

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The official Turkey Night Midget GP race program had a colorful full front and back page cover that featured Turkey Night winners Leffler, Stewart and Steele in their Irwindale GP winning Midgets. Prophetically, program publishers Harold Osmer and Neil Nissing had the Coyote Orange No. 11 2002 Beast and driver Michael Lewis on the back cover as an example of a modern Midget and it won the 2002 Thanksgiving GP. A 1940s Kurtis Kraft No. 48 Spike Jones Offy Midget was pictured as well as an example of a vintage midget.

WRA members brought out about 15 vintage Midgets and parked them near the front entrance so fans entering the track could get a feel for the history of Midget racing. The informative GP program sold out all 1,000 copies printed again this year before 7:00 p.m the $5.00 book becoming an instant collector's item. Total pages of the program this year were 50, up from 34 pages last year, when Osmer and Nissing printed the track program for the first time. They now print a new Irwindale program every week during the 35 week racing season.

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Following time trials for all three divisions, track management invited all fans to come from the grandstand to the front straight for a 30-minute autograph session with drivers standing next to their racing cars. Winston Cup champion Tony Stewart had returned to the pits after qualifying and did not participate, disappointing fans who purchased Stewart souvenirs at novelty stands to have Stewart autograph them. A Pomona Valley Quarter Midget Racing Assn. demonstration run on the track followed. Then the California Highway Patrol precision driving team of nine uniformed CHP officers in black & white patrol cars entertained fans with their precision driving on the half-mile before racing commenced.

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ESPN Thunder on-air talent Bob Jenkins, Larry Rice, Ray Dunlap and Amy East-Cook covered the Turkey Night GP for the third consecutive year at Irwindale. The two-hour telecast aired three days later on Sunday. TV camera cars this year were Wally Pankratz (No. 8) and 19-year old Jose Wise (No. 94). Wise, the winner of the October 19 USAC Midget main event at IS, made the 100-lap GP but he did not finish because a LR suspension bolt broke and allowed the rear end to move around, slowing him and dropping him off the lead lap.

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For the second consecutive year, race teams were allowed to practice at Irwindale Speedway a day before the Thanksgiving GP. The track was open for practice runs by all three classes from 3:00 to 8:15 p.m. Some 43 Midgets, 33 Sprint Cars and five Ford Focus Midgets took part. Tony Stewart did not practice Wednesday because he was in the San Diego area. Jason Leffler hot-lapped Tony's No. 20 Sprint Car and J. J. Yeley, Tony's teammate on the five-car Steve Lewis Team ASE, ran laps in Tony's Midget. Wise also missed Wednesday's practice because he was taking a college test.

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The eight first time Turkey Night Midget GP drivers who made the 100-lap feature this year (with starting and finishing positions in parenthesis) were Jerome Rodela (12th / 9th); Johnny Rodriguez (13th / 18th), Ron Gregory (20th / 23rd), Shane Hollingsworth (26th / 24th), 16 year old Billy Wease (28th / 30th), Aaron Pierce (29th / 12th), Mike Hess (30th / 29th) and Tom Hessert (31st / 19th). Hessert was added to the GP feature as a provisional starter based upon USAC car owner points because he hadn't used all his provisionals this year.

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Steve Paden, who enjoyed a Turkey Night Midget GP career-best sixth place finish, did not appear on the track's top ten runners scoring pylon at the west end of the track between the first two turns. His electronic transponder (attached to all racing cars and used for electronically scoring each lap) was knocked off during the 100-lap race. Paden said contact from the car of one of the Carter brothers knocked the transponder off his car during close racing. Scorers recorded his laps manually and his sixth place finish was accurate.

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This year Turkey Night GP drivers came from 18 states and one Sprint Car driver came from Canada. The Ford Focus Midgets had 15 Californians, one Indianan and one Texan. The 42 Sprint Car drivers by states came from CA (20), WA (5), IN and UT (4 each), ID (2), and one each from AZ, IL, MI, NV, OR, TN and Canada. The Midget 53-driver contingent came from 13 states with CA (17) and IN (15) supplying the most drivers. WA (5), AZ (4), IL (3), N.J (2), and one each from FL, ID, NE, N.C, OH TX and WI making up the field. One car was entered only as a backup for Teddy Beach and did not see action.

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MIDGET CHASSIS/ENGINE RECAP: There were 13 different chassis in the 54 car field with 34 Beasts the most popular. Others were Stealth (4), TCR (3), two each Buzzard, Drinan and Edmunds, and one each Competition Welding, Challenger, Hawk, Keith Kunz, Mike Simpson, Rick Stewart and Tone Flow. There were 17 types of engines represented in the Midgets as follows: Ed Pink Ford (13), Esslinger (8), Mopar (7), Ed Pink Chevy and Stewart Van Dyne (5 each), Joe Fontana (3), Brayton Ford and Gaerte (2 each), and one each Brayton Buick, Brayton Chevy, Ford, HSR Ford, Pontiac, Sesco, Sesco Mopar and Sparco Chevy. The new Ford Focus Midget class had seven types of chassis and Larry Brown's Bakersfield-built TCR was the most popular with five housing the Focus engines. Beast, Dave Ellis and Stealth all had three cars in use and there was one each Edmunds Autoresearch, Walt Johnson and Rick Stewart. The 17 cars had 14 Focus engines and three Honda TQ engines (eligible for the final time).

SPRINT CAR CHASSIS/ENGINE RECAP: The 42 Sprinters used 12 chassis makers. Bob East's Beasts cornered the market with 26 cars in use. Two cars each came from Dynamite, Hassle, H & M, Stealth and TCR. One car each came from Dan Drinan, Eagle, J & J, JFC, Lejeune and Stapp/Stansberry. Owners specified 12 engine builders: Chevy (25), Gaerte (3), two each by Bailey Brothers, D-built, Cosworth and Raynor, and one each from Cooke, Hansen, Klein, Ott, Revcon/Roush and Wesmar.

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FIRST TIME DRIVERS at IRWINDALE: More than 20 drivers competed at IS for the first time November 28. They included: Canadian Chris Schmelzle, Jeff Gregory, Kevin Feeney, Blake Mallory, Mel Andrus, 2002 NAMARS champion Aaron Pierce, Robert Beck, Ryan Durst, Ron Gregory, Billy Wease, Tom Hessert, Shane Hollingsworth, 2002 WMRA champion Ken Ferris, Sondi Eden, Rob Lindsey, Mike Leslie, Murray Erickson, Darren Linder, John "Batman" Batts, Mike Hess and David Bryne.

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Teenage drivers (age 16-19) who raced Turkey Night at Irwindale included Durst, Wease, Hessert, Bryne, Wise, Gregory, Bobby East, Van Knill, Teddy Beach, Stuart Birkinbine and Garrett Hansen. Garrett is a Ford Focus driver who won a Tuesday night (Nov. 26) 50-lap slick track go-kart race in Carson that had many racers in the 57-driver field. The event, organized by driver J. J. Ercse, was in memory of J. J's late father Fred who suffered a fatal heart attack at the track during 1998. The 5th annual event raised the most money yet ($1,355) for the American Heart Association.

- Tim Kennedy -

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Series USAC
Drivers Tony Stewart , Jason Leffler , Parnelli Jones , Michael Lewis , Aaron Pollock , Dave Steele , P.J. Jones , Tom Hessert , Jay Drake , Johnny Rodriguez , Bobby East , Teddy Beach , Dan Drinan , Ron Gregory , Murray Erickson , Aaron Pierce , Pancho Carter , Blake Mallory , Steve Paden , Wally Pankratz , Ryan Durst , Billy Wease , Shane Hollingsworth , Garrett Hansen , Cristiano da Matta