KENNEDY: California Coast


LOS ANGELES —The 73rd Turkey Night Grand Prix kicked off with a practice session Nov. 27.

• Randi Pankratz caught the cushion in her No. 8 EdmundsAutoresearch/Fontana and flipped five times. She was unhurt, but her dad, Wally, said the frame bent four to five engines and it was a “$8,000 crash.”

Randi, 43, borrowed the 2005 Stealth/Honda from the No. 05 Van Dyne/Swanson team. She raced it as No. 8 and used a provisional berth to start 33rd in the 98-lap feature. She parked in the pits on lap two for 33rd position.

• Another practice night crash involved Kyle Smith, 22. He backed his No. 22k Agromin Soil 2000 Stealth/Chevy into the first turn wall and broke the rear end. His crew repaired the car and he raced on Thursday. Kyle, the 2012 VRA 360 sprint car champion, and his dad Mike entered the ex-Bill Camarillo midget. Bill’s racer sons, Brian and Brent, have retired from racing for business and to start families.

Kyle’s sister Courtney is engaged to ex-VRA midget/360 sprint car driver Brian Camarillo.

• Forty-eight drivers represented 13 states, while there were 12 different chassis and 12 different engine combinations.

• Nine of the top 10 in both USAC Honda National Midget and Western Midget points raced in the 2013 TNGP. Eighteen of the National Midget Driver of the Year top 30 drivers in 2013 points (kept by Bryan Gapinski, of Wisconsin) raced in the 73rd TNGP.

• Christopher Bell, of Norman, Okla., won the NMDotY 2013 championship in his first attempt. The 18-year old rising star scored 1508 points in 40 races with 10 feature victories.

• The 26-page TNGP color program by Program Guys (Harold Osmer & Neil Nissing) was another winner. It had an artsy depiction of 2012 TNGP winner Kyle Larson’s No. 71 Bullet/Toyota on the cover. Slick paper pages used color racing photos and ads on nearly every page. It had tributes to the late Jason Leffler and championship engine manufacturer Dwaine Esslinger, who died in his sleep Aug. 2 at age 79.

A full page carried questions/answers with TNGP Grand Marshal Ron “Sleepy” Tripp, 60. Sleepy, a 161-time USAC feature winner and USAC National/Western Midget multiple champion, missed the 2012 TNGP after being hospitalized following his serious highway motorcycle crash.
Sleepy never won a TNGP but finished second twice at Ascot — in 1978 to Rick Goudy and in 1987 to Ron Shuman. Arizonan Shuman won a record eight TNGP races at two tracks — Ascot (six) and Bakersfield (two).

• TNGP promoters should address the complaints of fans about the traditional TNGP format. PAS had only three TNGP races for the last two years and long delays between races. The first 2013 qualifier started at 7:20 and the second qualifier ended at 8 p.m. The feature started at 9:14 and ended at 10:24. That was 74 minutes between races to watch a 98-lap race that took 70 minutes. Fans grumbled about that in person and on Internet websites.

Irwindale had Ford Focus Midgets and 360 sprint races at each TNGP so the lack of full midget races was not noticeable. There is nothing sacred about the fastest 14 drivers in midget qualifying going directly to the feature. TNGP qualifiers 15 and slower go into two 12-lap qualifying races from which the first eight finishers in each advance to the feature in rows eight through 15. It is time to have ALL qualifiers race their way into the feature via four or five heat races.

A four car inverted starting lineup would give quickest qualifiers a solid chance to race their way into the feature and retain their qualifying times for feature starting positions.

Drivers finishing fifth back could still race into the feature through one or two B mains depending upon total car count. That format would give fans watching in person and on the Internet on Thanksgiving seven or more races.

• The youngest driver at 15 years, six months was Parker Price-Miller, from Kokomo, Ind. The oldest driver was 2013 PAS 360 Senior Sprints champion Rick Hendrix at 60. The median age of the 48 TNGP drivers this year was 27.

Dave Darland, at 47, became the third oldest winner of the 73 races to date. The oldest winner, at 50, was Joe Garson in 1958 and the next oldest at 48 was Billy Cantrell in 1962.

• Bobby East was entered to drive Terry Klatt’s No. 4 Beast/Chevy that he raced at Canyon Speedway in Peoria, Ariz. Nov. 14-16. He returned home to Indiana after the Nov. 22-23 races at Cocopaw Speedway near Yuma, Ariz., were rained out.

He had an intestinal virus and called his dad on Wednesday to see if he should fly west for the TNGP even though he did not feel well. Bob told him to stay home and he got Damion Gardner to drive the No. 4.

Gardner, who is 36 or 39 depending upon which USAC Yearbook DOB you use, came within four laps of winning his and Klatt’s first TNGP. They missed victory only because his left-rear wheel came off in turn four on lap 95 of 98.

• Last year at PAS there were 12 TNGP feature rookie candidates for the Basile award. The 2013 event again had 12 rookie contenders for the award. The 16th annual award honors J. C. Agajanian’s right hand man and later owner/promoter at Speedway 117 in Chula Vista.

Don’s son Bob commissioned the award in 1998 to honor his late father, a National Sprint Car Hall of Fame inductee. The award comes with $500 cash and a plaque. The annual winner is the highest finishing first time starter in a TNGP main event. This year it appeared at times that Andrew Felker, the lap 1-49 race leader, D. Gardner, or C. Bell would be the Basile Award winner. However, they all experienced problems and the prestigious award went to 17-year old Tanner Thorson, a Keith Kunz team driver.

William “Ricky” Shelton, 35, made his first USAC start since 2001 at the 2013 TNGP. He ran two midget races in 2009 at Ventura and Hanford. Why did he leave racing? “I made bad choices in life. I’m getting back into racing to get my life going again,” he told me in the pits. The former Huntington Beach resident was USAC 1995 TQ Midget rookie of the year and TQ 1996 champion, 1997 USAC Western Midget rookie of the year and champion, and third finisher in final 1998 USAC National Midget points when he won six of 28 USAC midget starts. He now lives in Bakersfield and works in sales for Caterpillar.

• The three car Keith Ford team used three new drivers at the 2013 TNGP. Kevin Thomas Jr. drove the No. 72 2012 Spike/Fontana to 15th in the feature. Jac Haudenschild, 55, drove the No. 73x 2011 TCR/Esslinger to 28th (DNF), and Darland drove the No. 73 2011 TCR/Fontana to victory in the 98-lap finale.

Darland used a factory-built spec 7 engine that he first used at Canyon Speedway two weeks earlier. Jac said his wife Patti’s California family — her brother Mike Sweeney and mom Sally Hogle did not make it to Perris.

Ford and his partner, former midget driver George Ito, are strawberry/raspberry farmers in Oxnard and Santa Maria. Keith’s son Josh, 31, retired from driving midgets and sprint cars two years ago after he married. Josh graduated from CSU Channel Islands in Camarillo with a Master’s degree in accounting and now is in charge of accounting for his dad’s business interests.

• The No. 56a and 56p 2009 Beast/Esslinger cars of Shane Hmiel and drivers Danny Sratton and Darren Hagen are ex-No. 4 Terry Klatt cars. Great Clips, the longtime NASCAR team backer, sponsors both midgets. No. 56 is used as a tribute to late midget driver Alex Pruett.

The popular driver died on Sept. 23, 2007 in his sleep at age 20 at home in Carefree, Ariz. Alex used No. 56 on his USAC cars. 56a is for Alex and 56p is used for Pruett. Steve Pruett, the father of Alex, is involved with the Hmiel midgets along with Great Clips, a Kahne and Leffler sponsor in NASCAR’s Nationwide Series. Stratton drove 56p at PAS after Hagen won the Friday, Nov. 15 USAC feature in it at Arizona’s Canyon Speedway. Hagen switched to the 56a car that Leffler drove in the PAS 2012 TNGP.

• Kokomo (Ind.) High School sophomore Parker Price-Miller is 15 and in his first year of midget racing. Why the hyphenated surname? His mom Kami Price and dad Jeremy Miller were teens when he was born and they never married.

His step-father Scott Ronk is his No. 9p midget car owner. Mom Kami, 33, was in the PAS pits, but his dad had to work at home. Parker has years of 600cc mini sprint racing experience. He finished 2013 as the POWRi rookie of the year.

Bernie Steubgen’s Indy Racing Parts is his sponsor, as is Magnet Marelli, an Italian firm similar to NAPA in this country. Brady Bacon raced their identical second midget (No. 11c) two weeks earlier in Arizona as No. 99P. Kevin Swindell flew to Perris and drove the 11C Spike/Esslinger as re-numbered 71x.

• Brad Sweet, from Grass Valley, Calif., now races in NASCAR out of Mooresville, N.C., He drove the Willie Kahne midget with Gary Zarounian sponsorship. No. 67z was Zarounian’s USAC number and the Z was for Gary’s surname. The Breka chassis is built in New Zealand and the TNGP was the first time it raced locally. Sweet’s Factory Kahne TNGP No. 67 in 2012 was a Stealth.

• The 17-year old Mooresville, N.C., high school student and Ford Focus midget racing veteran (including at Irwindale’s 2011 TNGP) has racing in his blood.

The 2013 TNGP was only his third full midget race. His first two outings were at Peoria, Arizona two weeks earlier. His No. 55 Spike/Esslinger has Haas Automation sponsorship from the co-owner of the Stewart-Haas Racing NASCAR team. Nick said his racing goal is NASCAR. His father is Jay Drake, now 44 and a USAC sprint car/midget/Silver Crown and Indy Lights veteran.

His mother is the former Denise Sczymczak, a front-running CLS winged mini-sprint driver in the mid-1990s .Her brother Rob Sczymczak (Nick’s uncle) was the 1996 CLS champion with many CLS races at PAS that season. Nick’s midget car owner is his step-father Troy Cline. Troy is now 44 and a past winner in SCRA 410 sprint cars and a NASCAR K&N West stock car veteran a decade ago.