WS: WM: FF: Irwindale Speedway's Turkey Night wrap-up

IRWINDALE, CA, Nov. 25 - Rising star Bobby East, 19, crowned his regal USAC-sanctioned racing season impressively Thursday in a dramatic duel with Aaron Fike on the banked, paved half-mile Irwindale Speedway before an estimated 6,000 spectators....

IRWINDALE, CA, Nov. 25 - Rising star Bobby East, 19, crowned his regal USAC-sanctioned racing season impressively Thursday in a dramatic duel with Aaron Fike on the banked, paved half-mile Irwindale Speedway before an estimated 6,000 spectators. The Brownsburg, IN driver won the 64th running of the 100-lap Thanksgiving Night Grand Prix for Midgets that dates back to 1934 at Gilmore Stadium in Los Angeles.

East, the son of Beast racing chassis builder/former sprint car driver Bob East, became the 43rd different winner of the prestigious racing classic. He also became the fifth winner of the race in six years of the TNGP at Irwindale Speedway. The winner started second in a 31-car field and drove the No. 9 Team ASE, Ford, Beast/Ed Pink Ford to his 16th USAC main event victory of the season. East also became the youngest champion of a USAC National Series.

TITLES

It was the fifth USAC Thanksgiving Night Midget Grand Prix triumph for his car owner Steve Lewis, from Laguna Beach, CA. The East-Lewis team earned Lewis his tenth USAC National Midget entrant championship and seventh in a row. East captured his first USAC National Midget title by an astounding 472 points, the largest winning margin in series history. He added the TNGP to his earlier victories in the Terre Haute, IN "Hut 100" and in the Belleville, KS Midget Nationals.

East and Lewis pocketed $6,000 from the $33,000 purse posted for the USAC National and Western States Midget Series traditional event. Irwindale Speedway and the family of the late promoter J. C. Agajanian collaborated to present the Thanksgiving classic race. East's name now will join the illustrious list of prior TNGP winners on the large Aggie Trophy, which came into being last year at the suggestion of Doug Stokes, IS Communications Director. The impressive trophy carries plaques listing all prior winners and a bronzed Stetson hat worn by the late promoter who saved the TNGP race from extinction in 1955 after a four-year absence.

CLASSIC DUEL

As eighth fastest qualifier, Galesburg, IL resident Fike started eighth in a straight-up lineup. The USAC open-wheel veteran/NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series driver waged a stirring side-by-side and lead-swapping duel with East during the final 75-laps of the century run, longest of the season. East passed quickest qualifier/pole starter Tony Hunt, the leader of the first 25 laps, on lap 26 with an inside move as a slower car temporarily blocked Hunt's Bob Rosen Beast/Ford.

Fike, who celebrated his 22nd birthday Wednesday, followed East past Hunt on lap 26 and the duo pulled away to engage in their personal battle. At mid-race (lap 50) 12 drivers remained on the lead lap as outside-running East held a ten-yard advantage over inside-running Fike. At lap 55 Fike trailed by a length. The challenger used an inside move on the backstretch and through the third and fourth turns to pass East when they overtook two slower cars. Fike held the point from lap 59 through lap 90 with East racing next to him. East took the lead briefly with a slide job entering the third turn during lap 90, but Fike used a crossing maneuver in turn four to retain the lead on lap 90. Unwilling to settle for second, East powered past Fike on lap 91 and led the final laps to the finish. Fike challenged through lap 97 when he began fading and he trailed by 35-yards (1.358 seconds) when Tony Roberts waved the checkered flag. Fike received $3,200 for his fan-pleasing effort.

CAUTIONS

The race was all-green to lap 75 when 2002 TNGP winner Michael Lewis lost his brakes and spun out entering the first turn. At the first caution flag (three-quarter mark) leaders Fike and East held a lead of 8.9 seconds, about half a lap, on third place Hunt. The only other caution flag appeared on lap 93 after top six running Hunt and Dave Steele (the 2001 and 2003 TNGP winner) tangled and both spun in the first turn. Hunt said Steele apologized for contacting his car after his brakes failed. Hunt lost three laps but restarted and finished 16th, the last car running. The top six finishers ran 100 laps. The next six drivers completed 99 laps, positions 13-15 ran 98 and Hunt 97.

Top ten finishers behind East and Fike, the younger of two racing Fike brothers, was third place Tracy Hines, NCTS second ranked rookie this season. He started sixth in the Wilke/Team Mopar Stanton/Mopar and collected $2,100. Jason Leffler, NASCAR Cup, Busch and Truck Series veteran and 1999 TNGP winner, came from seventh at the start to finish fourth in a Western Speed/Team ASE Gerhardt/Esslinger. He received $1,500. Fifth finisher Jerome Rodela, from nearby El Monte, came from 12th in his own Beast/Ed Pink Ford and banked $1,200.

Tom Hessert, an 18-year old second-generation driver from Cherry Hill, N.J, made his second consecutive TNGP feature and raced from 15th in a Beast/Mopar to sixth, 3.752 seconds in back of the winner. Completing the top ten were third generation driver Cole Carter (Pancho Carter Beast.Ford), and NASCAR Busch Series 2004 driver/2003 USAC Triple Crown Champion J. J. Yeley in the second Steve Lewis Beast/Ed Pink Ford.

ROOKIE OF RACE

A pair of 16-year old USAC rookies--Brad Loyet, from Missouri, and Kyle Nicholas, the Florida-based son of Steele's car owner--finished ninth and tenth respectively. Loyet raced a former Lewis Beast/Ed Pink Ford and Nicholas wheeled his dad's Beast/Mopar. The impressive teens were part of a seven-member TNGP rookie contingent competing for the Don Basile Memorial Race of the Race clock/pen trophy. Loyet, in just his second USAC race and second consecutive top ten finish, won the Basile Race Rookie trophy by 0.281 seconds over Nicholas, who was making his first USAC start.

Northern California driver Johnny Rodriguez, 29, clinched the 2004 W/S Midget championships as a driver and car entrant before the race started. The former winged sprint car champion at Chico, CA started 14th in his Beast/Esslinger, but he dropped out with a mechanical problem after 73 laps and finished 20th. He won his first USAC title by 126 points over Rodela. Rodriguez joined the top three finishers at start/finish after the race.

STEWART WOES

Tony Stewart, the 2002 NASCAR Nextel Cup champion and 2000 TNGP winner, entered two Stewart Racing/Vital Express Beast/Mopar midgets for himself and his season-long driver Josh Wise, from Riverside, CA. His team had a forgettable event with both cars. Wise's No. 20 blew an engine during the second and final mid-afternoon practice session. Team members changed engines in the pits and Wise, the second-ranked driver in USAC National Midget Series points, took his turn in time trials. However, the throttle stuck reportedly as Wise was coming to take his first qualifying lap and he hit the third turn crash-wall hard on the right side, damaging the car too severely to compete. Stewart, the 30th driver to qualify, turned a 17.664 on his best of two laps and was 30th quickest of 52 drivers with times. Stewart participated in the on-track 6:00 p.m autograph session for fans. He started eighth in the second qualifying race, but he pulled to the infield on the first lap with a reported ignition problem.

The 14-fastest qualifiers in the 54-car field transferred directly to the feature. A pair of 12-lap qualifying races sent the first eight finishers in each to the 30-car main with drivers from the first qualifier comprising the inside row and drivers from the second race making up the outside row. W/S driver Wally Pankratz used his second and final provisional starting berth of the year to start 31st. He parked his car with engine misfiring and settled for third place in final 2004 W/S Midget driver standings.

Both qualifying races were green-flag runs. Hessert started sixth and won the first qualifier by jumping to second on the first lap and then passing early leader Ryan Durst on lap two. Hessert won by 20-yards (0.847 seconds) over Todd Beach, with Durst third. Loyet started third and trailed front row driver Brian Gard for four laps before taking command and winning by 0.888 seconds over BillyWease, from Indiana, and Bobby Santos, from Massachusetts. Hunt, the 35th driver to qualify, turned fast time of 17.199 (104.657 mph). Second fastest qualifier East posted a best lap of 17.223 (104.511 mph).

EAST SPEAKS

TNGP winner East gave his reactions to his most significant victory to date and answered questions from the media following his victory. "This is a huge deal. It has set in. It's not like another race. This is Turkey Night. It's awesome. It was a fun race too. I was a little angry when he (Fike ) passed me. The fact is let it happen, but I persevered and never gave up. He was using lapped cars to his advantage. It was like a basketball pick. After Aaron got by me I moved up my line and it got better. Our tires were pretty used up because we ran 75 green flag laps at the start. The track was good top to bottom this year and when the track is good on the top we're good here. This car was new at the Cooper World race in Phoenix."

Asked about his racing plans for 2005 East replied, "We'll go for the USAC Triple Crown again in the same Lewis Midget, Klatt Sprint Car and the same Silver Crown car. We had no idea we would win 16 features this year. It's snowballing and we'll just try to keep it going. I'll run five or six NASCAR Busch Series races. We don't know which team it will be with, but it will be a Ford though."

USAC 360 Sprint Cars

Fastest qualifier Michael Lewis started sixth in a six-car inversion, battled fourth starter Bobby East for victory and won a 40-lap USAC Western States 360 cu. in. Sprint Car Series Casey Diemert Classic Thursday on the Irwindale Speedway banked half-mile. The Noblesville, IN driver earned $2,500 from the $16,305 purse in a race he also won last Thanksgiving. Lewis drove the No. 40 Western Speed Racing/Team ASE/Snap-on Eagle/Wesmar.

The second support series main event of the evening at the Thanksgiving Night Grand Prix preceded the featured 100-lap USAC Midget Classic.

East, in the Klatt Enterprise/Power Stroke Diesel Beast/Ford, shot from the second row and paced the first 13 circuits. Sixth quickest qualifier Kody Swanson, a 16-year old Grand American Modified driver from Kingsburg, CA, started on the pole in his sprint car debut and held second in the toughest field of the season until Lewis passed the teen during lap seven on the inside at turn four.

On lap 13 East, Lewis and Swanson ran in the first three positions. Point leader Tony Hunt (Lewis' Western Speed teammate and co-W/S Sprint Car championship contender), NASCAR Nextel Cup star Tony Stewart, Josh Wise, Destiney Hays (in her first race at Irwindale), and USAC open-wheel ace/ARCA stock car driver A. J. Fike held positions four through eight respectively.

The first caution flag flew on lap 14 after Fike's Beast/Chevy contacted Hays' car. Hays spun tail-first into the second turn crashwall, hard enough to crumple the tail of her No. 28 Beast/Chevy. She was unhurt but sidelined from the race as Fike, 23, continued. On the lap 14 restart Lewis pressed leader East and made an inside pass exiting the fourth turn. He then set the pace to the finish and beat East by a straight-away (4.081 seconds) with three lapped cars between them.

The second and final yellow flag came on lap 18 and involved NASCAR Cup driver Stewart and his Stewart Racing USAC Midget and 410 cu. in. sprint car driver Wise. Stewart, the fourth fastest qualifier in a 38-car field, and Wise, the fifth quickest qualifier in Ted Finkenbinder's Beast/Chevy, raced side-by-side for fifth position from laps 13-19. They traded fifth twice as Wise ran the inside and Stewart the outside. Their tires made contact entering the first corner on lap 19 and Stewart spun to the outside wall. Wise continued and dropped back before pitting with a problem. Stewart got a push start and drove to the pits where he parked his car with damage from the racing incident with his Mopar-contracted rising star Wise.

TOP TEN

Chris Schmelzle, from Victoria, B.C, Canada, raced his Lejeune/Montgomery sprinter from 11th to an impressive third place, 4.805 seconds in back of winner Lewis. Aaron Pierce, winner of the earlier qualifying race for time trials qualifiers outside the top 14, came from 15th to finish fourth in his Sam Pierce Racing Beast/Frampton Chevy. Local star Rick Hendrix-the 2002 W/S Sprint champion, 1998 W/S Midget champion and 1992 USAC TQ-Midget champion-came from 12th to place fifth. Rounding out the top ten were Hunt, rookie Swanson, Fike, Bobby Santos and Tracy Hines, the 21st starter in the debut of long-time dirt track sprint car owner Mark Priestley's new paved track sprint car. Fifteen of the 23 starters finished, with 12 drivers on the lead lap.

Hunt entered the race 44 points ahead of teammate Lewis and his sixth place gave the 32-year old driver from Fair Oaks, CA, the coveted 2004 W/S 360 Sprint Car Series driving title by 28 points (895-867) over race winner Lewis. Hunt, the 1998 W/S Sprint co-rookie of the year, previously won the 2001 Western Sprint Championship, the 2002 Western Regional Sprint title and the 1992 Russell Pro Series crown. Western Speed Racing, which fielded seven cars (four sprints and three midgets) Thursday, finished one-two in W/S Sprint Cars entrant final points and backed up their 2003 W/S Sprint Car owner championship.

Lewis, addressing the estimated 6,000 spectators said, "We got this new frame a couple of weeks ago. We had a great year and I gave it everything I had tonight. Stewart raced me pretty hard early. Thanks to Eagle chassis, Red Line Oil and all our sponsors." Series champion Hunt added on the PA system, "It's great to have Turkey Night racing, the Agajanians, Justice Brothers and my Western Speed Racing team. I got really tight early. I made adjustments in the cockpit, but it didn't alleviate it. I learned where the race track is and where to go in our midget."

The Last Chance W/S Sprint race had 22 starters and Indianapolis resident Pierce led all 12 laps from the outside front row starting spot. He won by half a straight (4.145 seconds) over Tim Barber, of San Francisco, and Brad Bumgarner. Twenty drivers finished and 18 ran all 12 laps in a caution-free, 3:39.489-timed run. Lewis set the fastest qualifying time of 16.487 (109.177 mph) and Midget Series fastest qualifier Hunt was second best at 16.748 (107.476 mph).

USAC Ford Focus Midgets

Bobby McGowan, an 18-year old from Ramona near San Diego, became the third and final leader of the USAC California Series Ford Focus Midget 30-lap main event Thursday night. The race on the third-mile track at Irwindale Speedway was the first support feature of the night for the traditional Thanksgiving Night Grand Prix for Midgets. All Focus cars used four-cylinder, 16-valve internally stock 2.0 liter Ford Focus Zetec engines.

It was McGowan's fourth FF feature victory of the 29 race, three-year old FF California Series, which opened this season in March at Irwindale. McGowan, who finished fourth in California FF (South) final points, won $500 from the $3,380 FF purse. He drove the Robert McGowan-owned Motive Energy Stealth in which he also won twice at Madera, CA and once at Las Vegas, NV this year.

As the fourth fastest qualifier in a California-record 32-car field, McGowan started third in the six-car inverted start. The first eight finishers in a 17-car, 12-lap qualifying race won by Steve Davis, joined the fastest 14 qualifiers in mid-afternoon time trials to comprise a 22-car starting field. Brad Loyet, a 16-year old from Missouri and the eighth quickest qualifier, did not start the 21-car race.

Chris Rahe, the 2004 California FF (South) champion and an eight-time feature winner this season, shot his Stealth into the first lap lead by passing pole starter Courtney Kirts, a 19-year old Indiana driver. The first four drivers waged a tight battle for the point for the first 12-laps. Ryan Pace, the TNGP Focus Midget race winner last year, started fourth and shot to second place on the initial lap. Pace executed an inside pass entering the first turn on lap 12 and opened a 25-yard advantage over McGowan and fastest qualifier/sixth starter Chase Barber, a 17-year old from Morgan Hill, CA who made his FF Midget debut last Thanksgiving. Both McGowan and Barber passed Rahe on lap 13 and then closed on the leader. Pace paced the equally-powered midgets as Rahe began fading to ninth-place before he dropped out on lap 27.

As Pace tried to lap 17th-running J. R. Williams on lap 23, their cars tangled briefly in the fourth turn. That was the opportunity pressing McGowan sought and he quickly darted to the inside and took command before Pace recovered and held second. McGowan checkered first, with Pace a few yards back and third place Barber five yards behind Pace. McGowan won by a mere 0.088 seconds and Barber, the nephew of past TQ Midget car owner champion Guy Barber, was 0.602 seconds in back of the winner. Beast-mounted Pace and Barber were trying to win their first FF main event this year.

Josh Lakatos, the 2003 California FF (North) champion, came from fifth to finish fourth, 0.905 seconds back. J. J. Ercse (from 21st), Kirts and Bobby Owens followed. Audra Sasselli, a 28-year old FF rookie from Fresno and winner of two FF features this year (including the last Irwindale race on October 9) started ninth and finished eighth in a Stealth owned by her mother and wrenched by her father and husband Chris. Bradley Galedrige, a five-time FF winner during his second season in the series, started 11th and finished ninth in his Al Galedrige Construction Stealth. Eric Pace, older brother of Ryan, came from 14th in his Beast chassis to earn tenth place.

Sixteen drivers received the checkered flag from USAC starter Tony Roberts and 13 drivers ran all 30 laps, with three finishers down one lap. The race had an opening lap spin, was restarted and ran 30 laps in 8:04.672 with only one caution flag on lap three for a brief incident.

At the finish line winner McGowan spoke to spectators on the track PA system and thanked "the Agajanian family and Irwindale Speedway for putting on this race, my mom and dad, my girl friend, my brother and his girl friend for all their help with my race car." He added, "Ryan (Pace) got in trouble with a lapped car and I got by him." McGowan later said he thought he would've won even without the trouble Pace experienced.

Joining the top three finishers at the finish line were FF champions Rahe (20-race CA South Series) and Galedrige (17-race CA North Series). Galedrige also won the Belleville, KS Nationals first-ever FF Midget 100-lap race this summer. Eight races awarded both North and South points. During afternoon TT for the TNGP race the 32-car field qualified in four groups "Grand Prix" style with all laps timed by electronic transponders simultaneously and the fastest lap counted as the official qualifying time. Barber's 14.507 produced fast time honors.

During 2004 there were eight different California FF winners--Lakatos, McGowan, Galedrige, Rahe, Sasselli, Greg Bragg, Bobby Michnowicz and Ashley Swanson. Sprint car veterans Bragg and Michnowicz, plus female drivers Sasselli and Swanson were first-time FF winners. Car counts ranged from a low of 11 to an all-time FF high of 38 cars at Belleville, where California, Midwest and Carolina-Virginia FF teams converged for the first time on neutral ground and points were awarded in all three series.

The 32-car count at Irwindale for the TNGP was a California FF Series all time high and topped the last TNGP car count by five cars. The scheduled 29 race California FF Series lost two events (Perris and Ventura) to rain. Eleven tracks-four paved and seven dirt-hosted 2004 CA FF racing in three states in the expanding series that is popular with both fans and competitors.

-is/tim kennedy-

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About this article
Series USAC
Drivers Tony Stewart , Jason Leffler , Michael Lewis , Tracy Hines , Dave Steele , Aaron Fike , Tom Hessert , Johnny Rodriguez , Bobby East , Tim Barber , Aaron Pierce , Pancho Carter , Josh Wise , Wally Pankratz , Cole Carter , Ryan Durst , Todd Beach , Chris Rahe , Josh Lakatos , Robert McGowan , Brad Loyet , Tony Hunt , Greg Bragg , Rick Hendrix , Bobby Michnowicz , Bobby Santos
Teams Williams