KENNEDY: Fans Gobble Up Turkey Night

Tim Kennedy

LOS ANGELES — What is the attraction of an annual auto race on Thanksgiving evening that causes people to leave the comfort of their homes on a national holiday?

Thousands of people forego festive holiday meals and gatherings of family and friends to attend an outdoor midget auto race no matter what the temperature is at the race site.

People either dine early in the afternoon or skip traditional turkey and all the trimmings dinner or postpone it one day. Some people joke that their turkey dinner at the speedway is a hot dog with mustard and relish and a topping of track dust. The reason? A midget auto racing classic event that began during the Great Depression in 1934.

With cold weather and snow blanketing much of the country each year by late November, outdoor racing is not possible that late in the year. Southern California racing is possible because of the Mediterranean climate in the southern part of the Golden State. Rarely has the Thanksgiving race been delayed by adverse weather.

The first “Turkey Night” race took place at the quarter-mile clay oval Gilmore Stadium in Hollywood. The former Gilmore Oil owned property is now the site of CBS-Television City and the Farmer’s Market at 3rd St. and Fairfax Avenue.

The Thanksgiving Midget Grand Prix is the longest running event in short-track racing. The Turkey Night race has taken place in Southern California at nine speedways, five of them now closed for various reasons. Dirt and even two paved tracks have hosted from one to 30 of the TNGP events.

Midget racing and the “Turkey Night” race helped launch the “big car” careers of many Indianapolis 500 drivers in the 1930s and decades following World War II. All auto racing ceased during the war years to conserve materials for the war effort.

Midgets are open-wheel racing cars that typically use four-cylinder 166 cubic inch engines producing 375-horsepower. They typically weigh 1,035 pounds with driver and have a metal cage over the cockpit for driver protection. Wheelbase is 66-76 inches and cars use Hoosier Racing tires.

Fuel tank capacity is 18 gallons of methanol fuel encased in a flame-resistant fuel bladder in the tail tank.

“Turkey Night” winning drivers include a “who’s who” of auto racing. Indy 500 winners who also won a Thanksgiving evening midget GP were Johnnie Parsons, Bill Vukovich, A.J. Foyt, and Parnelli Jones. Some years in the 1940s through 1960s more than half the Indy 500 starting field had raced midgets earlier in their careers and credited midgets with developing their racing skills.