The changing of the leaves and cooling of the temperatures signifies the swing of the seasons through autumn and the pending close of the traditional motorsports calendar.
However, that calendar never completely runs its course until it hits the Thanksgiving holiday, which brings with it one of the most-prestigious and longest-running auto races in North America.
The Turkey Night Grand Prix, which celebrates its 79th running this month, is one of the oldest and most historic races around. First run in 1934, the event is headlined by an extra-distance midget feature that sees the best of the best in dirt open-wheel racing battle at Southern California’s Ventura Raceway.
Rooted in humble beginnings at Gilmore Stadium, Turkey Night was the brainchild of California car owner and promoter J.C. Agajanian, who sought to create a West Coast crown-jewel event for the discipline in which his racing passion was rooted.
He did exactly that, to great success, considering the history of Turkey Night has only been interrupted twice — once by World War II from 1942-’44 and a second time from 1951-’54 when Gilmore Stadium was demolished to make way for the CBS’ Television City.
Since its return in 1955, the the Turkey Night Grand Prix has run annually.
The inaugural event in 1934, won by Bob Swanson, was the beginning of a nearly century-long tradition that remains within the Agajanian family. Though it has been through several venues over its history, including the old Gardenia Stadium and Speedway 605 to more modern venues like Irwindale Speedway and Perris Auto Speedway, the Agajanian name has been the one constant of Turkey Night.
J.C. Agajanian Jr., who promotes the event, told SPEED SPORT that the family element — especially considering the holiday that accompanies the race — is one of the most important facets of the Turkey Night Grand Prix.
“This race is special for so many reasons, but one of the chief reasons is that it comes back to family,” said Agajanian. “The best race drivers in the country have been here over the years, dating back to the ’30s, but we’ve been a part of it since day one. Our family has been involved, and enjoyed being involved, since that humble beginning. I think that’s truly part of what defines it and makes this race what it is.”
Agajanian isn’t the only generational member of his family who has stayed involved in his father’s race, either. Both of his brothers — Chris and Cary — have also stayed close to the Turkey Night Grand Prix.
“My brother, Cary, he’s an attorney now, but he ran the office for us and took care of business aspects for a long time here. We all kind of rotated through different positions, though, and ended up doing so many things just to keep it all going,” said J.C. Agajanian Jr.. “It was interesting because my dad wanted his kids to work every night, and he would ask that we worked every single race. My brother Chris and I would sell programs; Cary would run the box office … and now we’re running the entire event. In honor of my dad, we’ve picked up the gauntlet and Cary and I are co-promoters now. The family line goes on.
“Regarding families, I like to say that Turkey Night is one great racing family get-together and it’s really true,” he noted. “Some of the best race drivers in the country, and some of the best racing families in the country, have all made their names at this race. The Foyts, Joneses, Bettenhausens, Andrettis and Unsers … all of those guys, all the way up to the present; you’ve seen them all here and most all of them have had success in one form or another here. It’s just a race that’s rooted in family that has seen generation after generation keep coming back, including my own family.”
Though both A.J. Foyt and the Parnelli Jones are two-time winners of the Turkey Night Grand Prix, the name most closely associated with the great race is Ron Shuman, who won the Thanksgiving classic eight times, including four straight starting in 1979.
In more modern times, three-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Tony Stewart and USAC legends Dave Darland, Jason Leffler and Bryan Clauson, among others, have all tasted victory on Thanksgiving night.
It’s a race that has attracted out the best of the best over the years because it’s a race that every driver wants to have on his or her résumé.
Stewart pointed out just how important winning Turkey Night was to him after his victory in the 2000 event at Irwindale (Calif.) Speedway.
“Tony Stewart won that one at Irwindale, climbed out of his car, grabbed the microphone in victory lane and he said, ‘Listen, this was important for me to win this Turkey Night Grand Prix because, as far as I’m concerned, my portfolio would not be complete without a Turkey Night win,’” Agajanian recalled. “When Tony Stewart, who we all know ran in the dirt sprints and midgets, ran in Indy cars, ran for years in NASCAR … when he’s out here in California saying that winning this race is as important to him as any NASCAR race he’s won, you know this is a pretty special race.”
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