KENNEDY: The Racing Scene


LOS ANGELES — The 71st running of the USAC Turkey Night Midget Grand Prix took place on Thanksgiving at Toyota Speedway at Irwindale.

It was the 13th year in a row that the prestigious midget racing classic has called the Irwindale half-mile paved track home. The progressive banking of six, nine and 12 degrees makes passing plentiful and this year was no exception.

There have been 48 different winners of the 71 TNGP features run through 2011. Most recent winner Caleb Armstrong, whose age is 19 and three months, is the youngest TNGP winner in history. He took that distinction from Bobby East, who was 19 and 11 months when he won the 2004 TNGP. They are the two youngest winners. 1958 TNGP winner Joe Garson became the oldest at age 50. The median age of a TNGP winner is 29.

The average age of TNGP winners has been getting lower for decades. In the old days drivers had to be 21 to race. The first 15 TNGP first-time winners average age was 32.6 through A. J. Foyt in 1960. The 17 new winners during the mid years of the race (1962-1986) had an average age of 31.7. The last 15 first-time TNGP winners average age dipped to 26.7 from Chuck Gurney in 1988 through 2011 winner Caleb Armstrong.

The advent of so many youth racing circuits enabled youngsters to begin racing at 5 and continue on to faster cars as their talent develops and financial backing allows. Quarter midgets, TQs, karting, Ford Focus midgets, and sprint cars are open-wheel racing proving grounds. Drivers are racing FF midgets now at age 12.

Toyota Motorsports noted that the 2011 TNGP Midget feature had Toyota engines powering seven of the 35 participating cars. Three of the seven entries finished in the top five after the 98-lap event.

Caleb Armstrong started seventh and finished first; Kyle Larson started 6th and placed 4th and Kody Swanson started from the pole and finished in P. 5. Others (with starting/finishing positions) were Dakoda Armstrong (25/19), Dalton Armstrong (17/23), Tracy Hines (22/24) and Tanner Swanson (9/26). Final USAC National Midget Points showed Toyota drivers ranked third, fourth eighth and 10th.

The 2011 TNGP had five past winners of the event in the starting lineup — Bryan Clauson, Bobby Santos, Billy Wease, East and Jason Leffler.

There were five Midget Chassis Builders — Beast-27; Spike-5, and one each from Edmunds Autoresearch, Gerhardt and Stealth.

There were eight engine manufacturers in the field: Esslinger Ford-15; Toyota-7; Fontana-5; Mopar-4; Chevy-2, and one each from Stanton Mopar & Speedway Mopar.

There were 35 midgets compared to 37 last year, while the sprint car field dipped from 29 to 26 and there were 25 Ford Focus cars after 33 in 2010.

Personalities present included 1963 Indy 500 winner Parnelli Jones, 78, and his ex-driver son Page, 39. The three Agajanian brothers — Cary, Jay and Chris — were present as usual with family members. Cary now has four grandchildren. … Speedway cycle promoters Jeff and daughter Madison Immediato visited the on-track autograph session. … Brothers A. J. and Aaron Fike (both USAC driving veterans) came to watch the TNGP and their former RFMS midget rides. Younger Aaron now lives in Laguna Beach, Calif., where he is working for the drug rehab center that helped him clean up completely after his suspension from NASCAR…Rick Hendrix, 58, practiced in his No. 97 sprint car Wednesday for the first time in a race car since his VRA 360 sprint car crash in March at Ventura. He felt his arm wasn’t strong enough for racing, so he called in 2008-11 USAC-CRA sprint car champion Mike Spencer to drive it. Rick said he flipped in March and his car was hit while overturned, leading to his right arm injury and bleeding in his brain. “I was in the hospital five days and the bleeding stopped on its own, so surgery was not required.” …Others present included sprint car owner Larry Woodward (CRA and WoO), author Joe Scalzo, photographer Mike Arthur, USAC-CRA racing director Steve Ostling, and owner/driver Mike Bliffin (TQ midget & VRA 360 sprints).

Following the 98-lap TNGP interviews for grandstand spectators a mishap occurred. Winner Caleb Armstrong, Jay Agajanian and track PR rep Doug Stokes were en-route in one of the two track elevators to the crowded press box for the usual post-race media interviews. They became trapped in the west-side elevator between floors. It was stuck for almost 30 minutes.

Fire department trained track firemen on the emergency crew are experienced at this type of rescue; they came with tools to rescue the trio. They never made it to the press box next to race control on the third floor.

The Turkey Night Grand Prix Rookie of the Race Award started in 1998 and NASCAR star Kasey Kahne was the first recipient of the award to the highest finishing TNGP rookie. Future TNGP winners Dave Steele and Bobby East also won it. Jerome Rodela, Kevin Swindell, Kody Swanson, Nic Faas, Levi Roberts and 16-year old Dalton Armstrong (2010) are other recent Basile Rookie of the Race Award winners.

This year with all 35 drivers starting the 98-lap GP every rookie present became eligible for the award originated by Bob Basile, of San Diego County, to honor the memory of his late father and National Sprint Car Hall of Fame inductee Don Basile. Don was the long-time right-hand man for J. C. Agajanian and later the owner/promoter of the 1970s era Speedway 117, a half-mile clay track at Otay Mesa in Chula Vista, south of San Diego. The nine TNGP rookies in 2011 (with their starting and finishing positions in parenthesis) were: Basile R of the R winner Kyle Larson (6/4), Mario Clouser (16/12), Taylor Ferns (19/16), David Prickett (33/17), David Goodwill (34/20), Troy DeCaire (26/22), Nick Chivello (29/32), Ben Petter (30/34), and Travis Berryhill (31/35).

Caleb Armstrong, the personable 2011 TNGP winner from New Castle, Ind., drove their C & A Racing team 18-wheeler containing all three team cars — 7A, 7C and 7D Beast/Toyotas — from Indiana to Irwindale via Interstates 44, 40, 15 and 210.

His dad and one crewman rode west with him. “I did almost all the driving,” he said during Wednesday practice.

Maybe as a reward for his victory he didn’t have to drive the rig most of the miles home. Caleb’s first cousins Dakoda, 20, and Dalton, 17, flew from Indiana to California for the TNGP. C & A Racing team owners are the fathers of the three racing Armstrong boys. Their dads own 7,000 acres of farmland near New Castle (east of Indianapolis). Their crops are soybeans and corn. In the past most of their corn crop went towards cattle feed. Currently, the corn crop goes primarily to production of ethanol fuel.