KENNEDY: Future Is Bright For Turkey Night

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Turkey Night
Ryan Bernal (73), Robby Josett (2) and Spencer Bayston during Thursday’s Turkey Night Grand Prix at Ventura Raceway. (Rob Hargraves Photo)
Tim Kennedy
Tim Kennedy

LOS ANGELES — Any concern about the health of the annual USAC Turkey Night Midget Grand Prix were put to rest with the 76th running of the longest-running midget auto racing event.

The traditional holiday event dates back to 1934 at Gilmore Stadium in Hollywood. The midget car count for the last four TNGP events at the half-mile clay Perris Auto Speedway attracted steadily declining midget car counts of 59, 48, 34 and 22 last year. Spectator attendance dropped as well each year, leading to a major move for the event this year.

Agajanian Promotions, run by late race organizer/car owner J. C. Agajanian’s three sons (Cary, Jay and Chris), knew a change had to be made to keep the TNGP a major event. Many months ago they moved TNGP to Ventura Raceway in cooperation with longtime track promoter Jim Naylor. The now two-day Thanksgiving classic on Wednesday-Thursday Nov. 23-24 drew a strong field of 53 midgets and 43 USAC Western/VRA 360 sprint cars.

The infrequent USAC open-wheel doubleheader in Southern California was a bargain. It should grow in importance as the USAC-CRA 410 sprints and USAC Western Midgets have experienced in recent years at Calistoga Speedway half-mile in Nor Cal’s wine country on the Labor Day weekend. A pleased Jay Agajanian said, “We (Agajanian Promotions) will have to get together with Jim soon about doing this again next year.”

With 96 cars on the beach front fairgrounds property, race cars and trailers were parked in every nook and cranny available, including between fairgrounds barns and equipment buildings. The only other USAC Turkey Night Midget GP event conducted at Ventura Raceway occurred in 1997. It awarded USAC National and USAC Western States Midgets 1997 points. The track also hosted midgets on ESPN’s Thursday Night Thunder during the 1990s.

The Pacific Ocean, sandy beach, wet-suit clad surfers, boats, the Ventura pier and a frontage road are behind the track grandstand. Sunsets are spectacular. Beyond the backstretch are north/south railroad tracks with Amtrak and freight trains passing at times, U.S. 101 Freeway, and hillside Ventura homes in the distance. The track, on Ventura County Fairgrounds property, is surely one of the most scenic race track settings anywhere.

“The Best Little Dirt Track in America” is what Naylor calls his banked fifth-mile clay track. The hard-working promoter and track lessor triples as race promoter, track preparer on heavy equipment and PA announcer. He tries to give fans and competitors the best race track possible each week. The TNGP tested his experience with the huge TNGP midget/sprint car field. He prevailed.

To accomplish the feat Thursday, Naylor hired Perris Auto Speedway chief announcer Scott Daloisio to do all booth announcing. Naylor, who announced Wednesday night practice and sprint car racing, concentrated all Thursday on track preparation. The move worked fabulously. Naylor handled infield mic duties for driver interviews after both features.