KENNEDY: Fans Gobble Up Turkey Night

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Famous drivers who finished in the TNGP top five but never won a “Turkey Night” GP include two-time Indy 500 winner Rodger Ward, 1969 Indy 500 winner Mario Andretti, three-time Indy 500 winner Johnny Rutherford, NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon and NASCAR Cup Series race winner Kasey Kahne. TNGP race winners include Indy 500 stars Tony Bettenhausen and his son, Gary.

Three-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Tony Stewart won the 2000 TNGP on the half-mile paved Irwindale Speedway to accomplish one of his many coveted bucket list victories. That shows how important the race is even to the current era.

Drivers from all types of racing are able to compete on “Turkey Night” because it is the final major race of the year and all other point races have concluded.

Four current NASCAR drivers — Christopher Bell, Chase Briscoe, Stewart Friesen and Kyle Larson —raced in the 2017 TNGP. Larson and Bell are two-time Turkey Night Midget GP winners.

TNGP record holder for victories is Arizonan Ron Shuman, who won the midget classic eight times from 1979 to 1993. He won four in a row at the Ascot Park half-mile clay track in Gardena. Three-time TNGP winner Billy Boat, the 1998 Indianapolis 500 pole winner for car owner A. J. Foyt, won three Turkey Night” features in a row from 1995-’97 at three different speedways — Bakersfield, Perris and Ventura. His son Chad, now races the family No. 84 midget.

The TNGP celebrates its history each year. Two pages in the printed program list the top five finishers in every TNGP.

This year at Ventura Raceway about 5,000 persons attended the 77th running of the “Turkey Night” race in warm weather. The scenic fifth-mile banked clay oval is located across the street from the Pacific Ocean. It is called “the best little dirt track in America” for a reason.

Track promoter Jim Naylor personally graded the track three times during the TNGP. During the longest track prep period, many fans got autographs from drivers seated at two long rows of tables behind the main grandstand. Drivers talked to fans and signed hero cars or printed race programs.

More than 100 drivers raced this year in two types of racing cars — midgets and sprint cars. They raced for a $60,000 purse in the midget division and $17,000 in the sprint car division. Numerous drivers raced in both types of cars.

ARP, Inc., of Ventura, posted a Lloyd’s of London insured $50,000 “ARP Challenge” cash bonus for any driver who won both the 30-lap sprint car and 98-lap midget features. Seven drivers competed in both races.

Part of the allure of the TNGP annually is the traditional trophy presentations. There is a large “Aggie” Trophy featuring a bronzed Stetson hat actually wore by legendary racing promoter and Indy car owner J. C. Agajanian. “Aggie” revived the “Turkey Night” race in 1955 at Gardena Stadium after four years without a Thanksgiving midget race. He promoted the race from 1955 until his death in 1984 and his three sons have presented the TNGP each year since then in conjunction with a track promoter.

Names of all TNGP winners are engraved on plaques at the base of the Aggie perpetual trophy, just as the Indy 500 winners each year are on the famous Borg-Warner Trophy at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Another tradition of five years is having the TNGP winner kiss the brim of the Stetson hat just as Indy winners kiss the yard of bricks at the finish line.

There is a Don Basile Rookie of the Race Trophy for the highest finishing first year driver in the TNGP. That perpetual trophy at the base also contains plaques with the names of all prior “Turkey Night” rookie award winners.

Other unique trophies make the TNGP special. There is a trophy of a metal 1930s midget replica race car (under glass) for the TNGP fastest qualifier. No. 39 was on the tail this year to honor late racing champion Bryan Clauson. This year winner Kyle Larson proudly posed with it in a photo on his Facebook page.
Ventura Raceway promoter Naylor spent several months building the one of a kind TNGP midget feature winner trophy — a colorful metal No. 98 Agajanian midget. It had an“Aggie” figure wearing a Stetson sitting in the cockpit and victory lane billboards in the background. Winner Christopher Bell took it home.

Naylor also built “Battle of the Beach” and “King of the Beach” scenic beach trophies highlighted by sand, rocks palm tree, surfboard and a tiki figure on the wooden bases. The TNGP sprint car main winner received the former trophy. The VRA/USAC 360 four-race series top driver in points received the “King” trophy.

The 2017 “Turkey Night” at Ventura became an instant classic and perhaps the best in history. Fifty midgets were present and 29 started the 98-lap feature. Keith Kunz Motorsports teammates Larson and Bell circled the track under 12 seconds during qualifying.

They started in the first two rows and waged a torrid duel throughout the race. Both drivers executed slide jobs in the turns and traded the lead twice on some laps at both ends of the track. They even bumped wheels at times but maintained speed.

Bell won his second TNGP by a one length over Larson.

Afterwards Bell and Larson both said, “That was fun.” Spectators were thrilled by the racing action and agreed it was fun for them to watch. That is why they would forego a traditional Thanksgiving turkey dinner. That also in a nutshell is why famous drivers, car owners, mechanics, and even casual fans make the “Turkey Night” Midget GP a must see event, even on Thanksgiving evening.