In Attendance - The 1999 Turkey Night Grand Prix by Harold Osmer, special to motorsport.com Southern California's longest running auto race event carved the 59th notch into its belt at Irwindale Speedway on Thanksgiving Day. Amid the clear...
In Attendance - The 1999 Turkey Night Grand Prix by Harold Osmer, special to motorsport.com
Southern California's longest running auto race event carved the 59th notch into its belt at Irwindale Speedway on Thanksgiving Day. Amid the clear blue skies and 74 degree temperatures, 50 USAC Midget drivers took to the track in an attempt to join the likes of AJ Foyt, Parnelli Jones, Bill Vukovich, and a veritable who's who of American auto racing.
The Grand Prix started in 1934 as a 75 lap season finale for the new Gilmore Stadium in West LA. Gilmore was the first facility built especially for midget race cars - which are essentially scaled down versions of, well, big cars. As time went on, the crowds expanded, the purse grew, and drivers from across the nation would make the trip west to compete at Gilmore on Thanksgiving Day. In a field of twelve, roughly half would be Indy 500 veterans.
Following Gilmore's closure in 1950, the event itself was resurrected by promoter JC Agajanian as a way of closing out the Southern California racing season. Since most US tracks were closed in late November, the top national drivers were willing to make the trip west. One other point often overlooked is that American race drivers of the 1940s, '50s, and '60s earned their credentials at the wheel of midgets and sprint cars. Going out to California provided not only a chance to make some money, but also gave drivers an opportunity to remind themselves of where they came from.
JC Agajanian took the event to Ascot Park where it traditionally closed the season. The name Turkey Night Grand Prix was adopted in 1972. When Ascot closed in 1990, Agajanian Entertainment took the show on the road to various other Southern California race venues, including Saugus, Bakersfield, Ventura, and Perris.
With the opening of Irwindale Speedway early this year, it seemed only fitting that the region's most traditional event should help close out the inaugural season of Southern California's newest race venue. Irwindale's half-mile paved surface has hosted the USAC Midgets four times in 1999 and is fast becoming a favorite for drivers and fans alike.
True to traditional form, Indy Racing League champion Tony Stewart made the trip west. He recently claimed the 1999 NASCAR Rookie of the Year award. Kenny Irwin, the 1998 NASCAR Rookie of the Year also joined in the fray as did a host of USAC division champions. When you consider that some of these drivers hadn't been in a midget for some time, were coming out to a track they hadn't driven, and racing with guys who call this place home, there was a lot at stake.
Suffice to say, the show did not disappoint. Kenny Irwin struggled early in the qualifying rounds, but recovered well enough to get himself into the main event. Tony Stewart set fast time for car owner (and former driver himself) Steve Lewis. Randi Pankratz set a new track record for qualifying in her three-quarter midget (a separate class of racer which usually appears with USAC Midgets).
Through 100 laps and six lead changes, teammates Jason Leffler of Long Beach and Tony Stewart battled wheel to wheel in heart stopping action. No particular racing line is better than any other at Irwindale, as these two guys were quick to point out. Very quick. In fact, both drivers posted faster racing laps than their qualifying efforts. After swapping the lead position back and forth for the entire distance, Stewart took the white flag with a car length advantage. But going into turn one, his engine gave up from the strain and Leffler flew by him to victory.
A third Steve Lewis entry, driven by Dave Darland, managed to close from twelfth on the grid to third at the stripe, making a one-two-three finish for the talent-laden team. At post race interviews, Leffler smiled as he acknowledged having taken the victory from an ailing car, but Stewart - still reeling from having missed the victory - was quick to point out how close he [Leffler] had been throughout and that winning a race is more than beating the driver, you have to beat the car, too.
Between the beautiful weather, fantastic facility, and ultra competitive race action, 6500 Turkey Night Grand Prix fans received a great bargain for their ticket price. Much to the delight of all in attendance, this particular aspect of Southern California automotive tradition is alive and well.