Irwindale "Turkey Night" preview

Turkey Night LXIV -- November 25, 2004 * One Of Car & Driver's 10 Most Important Motorsports Events (Ever) * Why People Leave Hearth, Home & Family To Be at This One in Person * Some Of The Things That USAC Open-Wheel Racers Seem To Do Quite Well...

Turkey Night LXIV -- November 25, 2004
* One Of Car & Driver's 10 Most Important Motorsports Events (Ever)
* Why People Leave Hearth, Home & Family To Be at This One in Person
* Some Of The Things That USAC Open-Wheel Racers Seem To Do Quite Well Without

Irwindale, Calif. - - TOP 10 RANKING: A number of years ago, Car & Driver Magazine, that full-color, monthly-published arbiter of all things automotive, named its all-time list of motoracing events. As has been their M.O., the Car & Driver editors chose 10 events. Among them were the 24 Hours of LeMans, the Indy 500, the Daytona 500, the Baja 1000 and (lo and behold) the Thanksgiving Night Grand Prix.

WHEN IS IT?: A few years before Irwindale Speedway was built, the PR-person at Perris Auto Speedway told his wife the great news, that the "Turkey Night" race would be staged at The PAS. "Hey, that's great," she said. "When is it?" -- When is it!? There's a good hint in he official name of the event: The "Thanksgiving Night Grand Prix for Midget Cars". Here's another hint: The first race in this legendary series was run at Gilmore Stadium at 3rd and Fairfax, just south of Hollywood, on Thursday, November 22, 1934.

OXY-MORON? AIRLINE "FOOD": So it follows that, on Tuesday, November 23, a man in his early-middle seventies (please don't tell him that we told you that) will bundle up and board an airliner to fly to Los Angeles from his comfortable home in Indianapolis. He endure all the "glamour" of today's flying (airport traffic, long lines, the mandatory shoe check, no-fly lists, a possible luggage search, being sniffed at by police dogs, crummy - if any - in-flight "food", airport traffic, finding the damn rental car, finding the damn hotel -- and so on) for one reason and one reason only. He MUST be at Irwindale Speedway on Thanksgiving for the race.

FACT: Indianapolis is roughly 2,000 miles from Irwindale. FACT: Thanksgiving is THE most universally-celebrated of all American holidays (and also THE number-one highest travel traffic weekend of them all).

John R. Cooper, who has on his resume among other interesting items, the presidency of both the Daytona International and Indianapolis Motor Speedways; is the above gentleman and he's coming to Irwindale for one thing -- The people. The other people who are just as drawn to the event. Thanksgiving Day at Irwindale Speedway is a gathering of the faithful, of the true believers, of the survivors.

Cooper told a friend that his wife had talked about spending Thanksgiving with her family in Wisconsin, to which he had replied: "Fine, we'll split the difference, you got to Wisconsin, I'll go to Irwindale!"

IF THE "SHOE" FITS: Virtually every living driver who raced in the Grand Prix comes back to be a part of the night. The adult children of the drivers that have passed on will be there. "Old Timers", as we casually call them (try calling Parnelli Jones that to his face on Thanksgiving night at Irwindale -- Then duck!).

Sure the 100-lap midget race will be a furious battle, and sure the winner will be celebrated (as have been Parnelli, Tony Stewart, Jason Leffler, Ron Shuman, AJ Foyt, Stan Fox, Mel Kenyon, Kevin Olson, Brent Kaeding, Danny "Poison" Oakes, Bill Vukovich, Tony and Gary Bettenhausen, Sammy Sessions, Dave Steele, Chuck Gurney, Tony Simon, Bubby Jones, and many other knights of the open wheel) but the real draw is the people who are in attendance at this sixty-fourth running.

20'LL GET YOU 20: Two years ago the track's PR director extended an invitation to an official of an eastern track to visit the Thanksgiving race. He had not been to the annual race for quite a few years. That meant that he had to board An assuringly de-iced commuter (one of those scary prop-jobs) airplane in almost blizzard conditions at a small upstate New York airport to fly over at least two (very cold, very deep) great lakes and into Chicago-O'Hare to be herded onto an Airbus A300 with a potentially wobbly all carbon fiber vertical tail be at the race in person. The PR guy had "bet" him that he'd meet at least 20 old friends that he had not seen in 20 years. The PR guy won the bet and that official and his wife will be back on an airliner again this year to spend Thanksgiving with their racing family on November 25 at Irwindale.

HOW MANY YEARS?: Ask historian/writer/publisher/broadcaster Harold Osmer about racing on Thanksgiving and he'll tell you that the above 1934 date was actually pretty late in the day for racing on "Turkey Night" in the LA area. In his informative and entertaining book "Where They Raced - Lap 2", Osmer talks about racing in Los Angeles on Thanksgiving Day 1920 at the "Los Angeles Speedway" (which was actually located in Beverly Hills just below Wilshire Boulevard). That venue drew huge crowds who got to the place by plane and automobile but mostly via the excellent rapid transit system that was already in place even that early in the basin. Remember this was before live sports were even broadcast on radio (let alone television) and in an era when horseless carriages were still regarded as almost magical devices.

But, on Thanksgiving Night 1934, in Los Angeles, California a new tradition was born and the world of motorsports has since honored that date as one of the most revered and respected of them all. Only the Memorial Day race at Indianapolis has a longer history in American racing.

MIDGET RACE CARS ARE REALLY SIMPLE DEVICES:

"Here's how pure the racing is: There are no pit stops. No test drivers. No mirrors. No media centers. No press officers. No fins. No wings. No clutch. No transmis sion. No starter motor. No marketing plan. No independent suspensions. No carbon fiber chassis or brakes. No push-to-pass buttons. No onboard computers. No tur bos. No pit-to-car radios. No traction con trol. No aerodynamic devices. If these cars were pared down any more, they wouldn't have wheels."

That's noted motorsports author Bob Judd talking about Midget racing in "The Edge of the Track is The Sky", an excellent article on Belleville in Road & Track Magazine for December, 2004.

At Irwindale we DO have a modest media center and we DO have a "PR-Guy" (however no one would ever dare call him a "press officer"). And, as for the lack of a marketing plan, the show sells itself on sight. But all of the above listed as not part of Midget racing is true and fans will find out what IS there on Thursday night when the best young drivers in the country strap on USAC Midget Cars and put on a 100-lap contest to see who's name goes on the Agajanian Trophy for 2004.

Bare in mind that the above first paragraph description of a Midget racing car (by a guy who has written almost exclusively about Formula One) proves once again that such simplicity is exactly what makes midget car racing so very tough. Your basic 4130 tube frame, a four cylinder motor, four fat little Hoosier slicks, solid axels all the way around, a steering wheel position that owes more to bus driving than race cars, and a gas (really methanol) pedal that one actually trods down ON to make the car go. (Hence "Stand on the Gas!"). Short wheelbases, way too much (the brave ones say "not enough") horsepower, high centers of gravity -- way too much fun!

-is-

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About this article
Series USAC
Drivers Tony Stewart , Jason Leffler , Parnelli Jones , Dave Steele , Bill Vukovich