Past winners of the USAC Turkey Night Midget Grand Prix in attendance Thanksgiving evening were Tony Simon (1972 winner) Bubby Jones ('76), Chuck Gurney ('88-89) and Billy Boat ('95-96-97). The NASCAR Winston Cup make-up date of Friday, November...
Past winners of the USAC Turkey Night Midget Grand Prix in attendance Thanksgiving evening were Tony Simon (1972 winner) Bubby Jones ('76), Chuck Gurney ('88-89) and Billy Boat ('95-96-97).
The NASCAR Winston Cup make-up date of Friday, November 23 in Loudon, N.H. kept both Jason Leffler ('99 winner) and Tony Stewart (2000 winner) away from Irwindale Speedway this year. Both Cup drivers had intended to race in the 61st running of the prestigious Midget race. Indianapolis 500 winners Rodger Ward and Parnelli Jones attended the Turkey Night Midget event as usual. Noted author Joe Scalzo attended as well, as did CART-Bobby Rahal Miller Lite Team publicist Tom Blattler.
Racing injuries kept 1999 winner Jay Drake and USAC journeyman Tracy Hines from competing in the Thanksgiving Midget race this year. The run of second place drivers in the Turkey Night GP winning the next year ended after three years when Drake, Leffler and Stewart accomplished the feat. Kasey Kahne, the 2000 runner-up, finished third this year.
The youngest driver racing on Turkey Night this year was Bobby East, 16, and the oldest was Floyd Alvis, 67, the five-time BCRA Champion who has three feature triumphs this year. There were three sets of brothers in the 100-lap Midget GP this year. Aaron & A. J. Fike finished fifth and sixth; Dane and Cole Carter finished eighth and 20th, while Drew and Aaron Pollock placed 15th and 24th.
The Turkey Night race program had a multi-color cover featuring shots of defending champion Stewart and the No. 19 Steve Lewis Beast/Ed Pink Ford. The 34-page program, done this year by author/historian Harold Osmer, sold out quickly. It featured traditional race history, photos, driver-profiles, Midget and Sprint Car entry rosters, drivers to watch and all pertinent point standings.
The temperature was 70 degrees under hazy, sunny conditions at 2:15 p.m when warm-ups and hot laps started for Midgets and sprinters. Midget time trials ran from 4:01 to 4:57 for the 48 cars. Sprint Car qualifying lasted from 5:01 to 5:42. Racing took place with temps in the mid-60s and it was still 57 degrees when the final checkered flag flew at 9:43 p.m.
For the first time at the Turkey Night GP an on-track fan autograph session with drivers took place. Drivers and crews stood next to their Midgets and Sprint Cars on the front straight after time trials. Drivers signed photos or programs and posed for photos as fans mingled among the competitors. Open-wheel racing fans and participants alike enjoyed the ASA-stock car popularized fan-appreciation PR technique by racers and track management. New this year was a 12:00 to 7:00 p.m. open practice session the day before Thanksgiving for Midgets and Sprint Cars. About 50 of the 85 entered Midgets and sprinters took part.
Ed Watson, of the National Midget Auto Racing Hall of Fame, was present to make a presentation to relatives of the late Midget racing great Eddie Haddad, of Gilmore Stadium post-WW II fame. Other inductees to the Hall of Fame (located at Angell Park Speedway in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin), were Tony Stewart, J. Gordon Betz and Les Scott.
ESPN2 Thunder on-air talent Bob Jenkins, Larry Rice and Ray Dunlap covered the Turkey Night GP for the second consecutive year. The network aired the race as a two-hour telecast three days later on Sunday afternoon. TV camera cars were Alex Harris' No. 54 and the borrowed No. 42 that Wally Pankratz drove Thursday after his own No. 1 Beast crashed Wednesday during the practice session. The engine of the No. 45 Pete Baraldi Midget driven by Chuck Gurney, Jr. expired during Wednesday practice. The car was a scratch for Thursday racing. Both camera cars had mishaps (Harris' engine induced spin) and Pankratz (stuck throttle caused impact with the crash-wall). Pankratz left the pits late Thursday night towing his owned wrecked No. 1 2000 W/S championship Midget and said in typical good humor, "My wife Barbara is the bravest woman in the world. She's driving home with me."
The 48 Midget drivers at the Turkey Night GP this year reside in 12 states as follows: 20-Calif., eight-Indiana, four each from Arizona. and Ohio, three-Washington, two each Illinois and North Carolina and one each from Florida, Kentucky, New Jersey Pennsylvania and Utah. Sprint Car drivers hailed from seven states: 22 California, four-Utah, three-Arizona, two each from Idaho. And Indiana, and one each from Nevada and Oregon.
An excellent Turkey Night Midget GP rookie of the race field of nine became eligible this year when they made the 100-lap feature. They all started the 32-car race between sixth and 21st on the grid. The drivers with their main event finish in parenthesis were Bobby East (10th), Teddy Beach (11th) James Chesson (13th), Drew Pollock (15th), Tony Ave (19th), Cole Carter (20th), A. J. Davis (23rd), Chris Gabehart (26th) and Travis Miniea (28th).
There were ten types of Midget chassis in the 48-car field Turkey Night. There were 24 Beasts, eight Drinans, four Stealths, three each Rick Stewarts and Larry Brown TCRs, two Autoresearch models, and one each Blue Dot, Hawk, Lightning and Tone Flow.
There were 12 different Midget engines in action Turkey Night. Ed Pink had 14 Fords and one Chevy, Esslinger had 13, Gaerte supplied six, Van Dyne had four. Brayton Ford fielded three, MOPAR had two (in winner Dave Steele's Dino Tomassi No. 29 and in the Starks No. 51). There also were solo engines by Arias, Buick, Chevy, Fontana, and Ford.
There were 11 types of Sprint Cars present in the 35-car field Turkey Night. Beast had 20 Dynamite-three, and two each from J & J and Stealth. Classic, Drinan, Gambler, Giardina, Hasal, H & M, J & B, and Rick Stewart built the remainder of the field.
Casey Mears may be the most diverse driving talent in racing. In 2001 he raced in CART for Mo Nunn, in IRL for Rick Galles, an ARCA stock car, the NASCAR Busch Grand National No. 66 Phillips 66 car for Wellover Racing and the No. 3F Ted Finkenbinder USAC 360 Chevy non-wing sprint car on pavement. He looked strong in each car and mastered the difference in the wide variety of racing cars mentioned. The 23-year old son of Roger Mears has accepted a full-season NASCAR BGN ride with Wellover for 2002 and will be moving soon from his native Bakersfield, Calif. residence to new digs in the South.
Chuck Gurney, Jr., 18, raced the second Bob Consani-owned Beast/Chevy 360 sprinter (No. 04) at Irwindale as a teammate of fellow third generation driver and northern Californian Bud Kaeding, who drove No. 4. The sprinter was sponsored by long-time sponsors of Chuck Gurney, Sr.--Red Line Oil, Junior Kurtz Plastic Express and Steve Harris Racing. Chuck, Sr. also raced for Consani, a Santa Rosa, California-based Midget, Sprint and Silver Crown car owner for decades. Chuck, Jr. had the ride only for Turkey Night because the No. 04 car was sold for a new driver, Brian McLish, to race at Las Vegas November 24 and during 2002.
Billy Boat, the 1998 Indy 500 pole-sitter and an IRL race winner at Texas Motor Speedway, flew from Phoenix to Ontario, California Wednesday for the open practice session at Irwindale. He arrived in the pits about 4:30 and practiced in John Lawson's Drinan/Gaerte Midget. It was his first time ever on Irwindale's track and first time in a Midget in several years.