HOUSTON — A.J. Foyt does not eat turkey at Thanksgiving or any other time of year.
However, in the 1960’s, he spent nearly every Thanksgiving trying to win the turkey as in the Turkey Night Grand Prix at Ascot Park, the now defunct half-mile dirt track in Gardena, Calif., a suburb of Los Angeles.
Foyt is a three-time winner (’60, ’61 and ’66) of the Turkey Night Grand Prix but the triumph that stood out for him was the first victory in 1960 which he won in Jack London’s No. 5 midget.
“It was nothing to have over a hundred midgets there and I think they started just 18 or 20 cars,” Foyt recalled.
His midget ride came about through Foyt’s chief mechanic George Bignotti, who in addition to fielding the Bowes Seal Fast Indy car in which Foyt won his first national championship in 1960, also worked on the midget owned by London.
“I was running up high coming from the back,” said Foyt, who had qualified 17th for the 150-lap race. “I was running up against the fence and coming off turn four, I thought my goggles were sweating up and I thought ‘What the hell is going on?’ I pulled them down a little bit and everything cleared up and then I come off turn four again and I couldn’t see anything! And it got worse and worse and finally they red-flagged it. I was thinking to myself, what the hell is wrong with my goggles because it was kind of warm and I was sweating and I thought my goggles were just fogging over. I was glad to see them stop it because you were coming off 4 and you were just blind for maybe half a second but you were running real fast up against the fence. They must have let it run like that for 10 or 15 laps—it was dangerous. Finally the fog just came down real thick and you couldn’t see nothing. That was a spooky night.”
The race was called after 122 laps with Foyt taking home the honors. As much as he enjoyed racing out there, he admitted to feeling the pressure of qualifying at the track which was one of the fastest half-miles in the country.
“Everybody wanted to run the Turkey Night race — there were a lot of great drivers and great cars that would miss that race. You were always worried about the number you drew for qualifying because the track would change a little bit before they would get down to you. It would get dry slick and then you couldn’t get the traction. It was kind of nerve-wracking.”
When asked what made racing at Ascot so challenging, Foyt said, “It was a tricky race track. Don Branson and Jud Larson were probably the greatest dirt drivers that ever were and neither one of them could get around that race track good. I couldn’t believe that. It was just a tricky race track you had to really be on your toes and watch what you were doing.
“The track would change up on you so quick,” he continued. “You’d be good for ten laps and then the tires you started the race with maybe would quit working, and that’s what made it tricky because you never knew which way the dirt was going to go. I always used to run high against the fence, not around the pole—but a lot of people would run down low. When the top groove would fade out, it really would hurt me. That was the only way I could really get around it was to run up high.”
Foyt, who raced in the Turkey Night Grand Prix from 1959 through 1968 qualified in the top-five five times, including winning the pole in 1966. He finished in the top-five five times as well, three of them victories.
This year’s Turkey Night Grand Prix will be the 79th running of the venerable midget race which has since moved to Ventura (Calif.) Raceway. Open wheel and NASCAR star Kyle Larson will try to make it three straight midget race wins in a row tomorrow night, a feat he accomplished in 2012. Billy Boat is the only other driver to achieve that goal which he did in 1995 en route to winning the USAC Western States Midget title. Two years later he was driving an Indy car for A.J. Foyt in the Indy Racing League.
As for Thanksgiving Dinner back in the ‘60s? Foyt, Bignotti and the team would go to the casino afterwards where Foyt ordered steak.
“I didn’t want turkey on Thanksgiving, I just wanted to win the Turkey!”