WS: WM: FF: Irwindale 'Turkey Night' preview

Irwindale, Calif. - - The event that many hard core open-wheel fans have been waiting for is up for this weekend on the Irwindale Speedway half mile and third mile "twin ring" circuits. We note that, for a large number of fans out there, this...

Irwindale, Calif. - - The event that many hard core open-wheel fans have been waiting for is up for this weekend on the Irwindale Speedway half mile and third mile "twin ring" circuits. We note that, for a large number of fans out there, this could be a very short press release. All that's needed to get their motors revving hard and their plans made for a Saturday night pilgrimage out to Irwindale Speedway is contained in the first and third lines of the above title.

This race, a month and a short week before the granddaddy of all Midget races, The Thanksgiving Night Grand Prix (aka "Turkey Night") becomes a critical event for those who have set their caps for the 62nd running of the 100-lap classic at Irwindale on November 28. This event, while critical in the western division points chase, is looked on by many as THE place to get their set-up checked out and their heads on straight for that all-important last Thursday night in November.

The opportunity to add one's name to the illustrious list of winners that includes A.J. Foyt, Parnelli Jones, Tony Stewart, Ronnie Shuman, Tony Bettenhausen, Gary Bettenhausen, Bubby Jones, Jay Drake, Billy Boat, Danny Oakes, Kevin Olson, Brent Kaeding, Chuck Gurney, Danny McKnight, Rick Goudy, Mel Kenyon, Stan Fox, Dave Steele and many more, is one that everyone who's ever started in a USAC Midget race would gladly give their ( ^Å you add the precious item here) for.

Of late United States Auto Club ("USAC" pronounced "U-Sack") Racing has only recently been "rediscovered" as one of country's the prime suppliers of top driving talent. The fact is that A.J., Mario, Parnelli, and Jeff Gordon all drove very successfully in the midget ranks on the way to Indy 500, NASCAR and World Championships, 24 Hours of LeMans, Daytona 500 and 24 Hour victories, and hundreds of other equally-significant motorsports contests over the past 40 years.

Add to the above that the new school of open wheel-bred driving talent like Tony Stewart, Jason Leffler, and Ryan Newman (not to mention Dave Blaney) are all adding to the legend at every NASCAR race, and you have one of the very best reasons that the very most serious of America's young drivers are cutting their racing teeth on midget and sprint car competition. And that, is as good a reason as any for racing fans to head for Irwindale Speedway on Saturday night.

What they'll see when they get there will be a wonderful card featuring the USAC Western States Midgets, Sprint Cars, the brand new and burgeoning Ford Focus Midgets, and the alky-burning Grand American Modifieds in a no-holds-barred (no claiming) open competition race that will pay its winner a nice cool $1,000.00 for their effort. Here's the engine rules: 1) Any engine, 2) Any drive train, 3) Any single 4150 carb. That's it, that's all ^Å Just fill 'er up with engine methanol at the IS pumps and, let's boogie!

The thing that really makes the Grand Am event such a watchable race on a short track are the track-specified (and checked) tires used on all four corners of these 500-horsepower bolides. Fairly narrow and of a relatively hard (long wearing) compound, the Goodyear tires make the Grand Americans "very interesting" in Irwindale's long corners. Drivers are constantly fighting the car's desire to slide out from under them any time anywhere. These sort of odd-looking semi-open wheelers are always on (and oftimes over) the ragged edge of traction.

Local driver Robby Flock will lead the USAC Midget contingent into Irwindale with a 29-point lead over young Danny Stratton (772 - 743), Jerome Rodella is in third at 719 and Irwindale's favorite son (and top driving professor) Wally Pankratz is out there and looming large in fourth place at 675.

Last year's very popular points champ for this division, Wally explained, "If we knew that I was going to be this close, we wouldn't have skipped three races early in the season; now my sponsor wants me to got for the repeat. I told him if Anaheim can beat the Yankees and the Twins, and I can get a little help from Robbie (like him not making the race), I might just be able to get on that podium (top three in points) for the year," quipped the 50+ year-old Pankratz , who is possessed of one of the best senses of humor (and reality) in motorsports.

In the USAC Sprint Car Division Chad Nicholas holds a 53 point lead over Todd Ellison (599 - 546), with Scott Hansen only three points behind him, and last year's champ Tony Hunt only a few marks back at 532.

It's been a while since these fire-breathing V-8's have been on the Irwindale asphalt, and the open wheel fans know that well. There's something special about these "throwback" racers, with their high cockpits and drivers sitting right up there in the windstream. These are what many fans consider the distilled essence of racing: four wheels, a tube chassis, a big V-8 up front, enough bodywork to just barely cover the working parts, and a green flag.

Celebrating the end of a very successful first year of operation, USAC's new feeder series, the Ford Focus Midgets, are a combination of a standard Midget chassis and a Ford Focus motor producing an entry-level division that has been turning fans into racers and racers into RACERS this past season.

Much of the new division's original testing was done at Irwindale and west coasters were very proud of their contribution when USAC recently announced that the division would be adopted as a Indiana state class for the 2003 season. Each motor is identical to the next and carries a very reasonable (for racing) price tag. The idea is to give the next generation of Lefflers, Stewarts, Newmans, and Gordons a crack at the open wheel ranks without first bankrupting them with engine bills.

The track gates open at 4PM on Saturday afternoon, with a hot local band playing live and in person, MIMI the face-painting (adults too!) clown, the "party atmosphere" King Taco Autograph Session right on the race track at 6PM. Racing will start at 7PM with the singing of the national anthem.

Prizes are awarded to lucky number holders in the track's colorful and informative weekly program. Adding further to the program's worth is the fact that each program cover becomes a collectible mini-poster when opened and laid flat.

Great tickets are always available on-line at, by phone at 626-358-1100, and in person at the track's on-site box office. Discounted group rates are available for as few as 20 people.


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Drivers Jeff Gordon , Tony Stewart , Jason Leffler , Ryan Newman , Parnelli Jones , Dave Steele , Jay Drake , Wally Pankratz , Robby Flock , Tony Bettenhausen , A.J. Foyt , Tony Hunt , Danny Stratton , Scott Hansen