Did Dirt Save Turkey Night?

Kyle Larson leads Tracy Hines during the Turkey Night Grand Prix at Perris Auto Speedway last November. (Doug Allen photo)
Kyle Larson leads Tracy Hines during the Turkey Night Grand Prix at Perris Auto Speedway last November. (Doug Allen photo)
Kyle Larson leads Tracy Hines during the Turkey Night Grand Prix at Perris Auto Speedway last November. (Doug Allen photo)

Editor’s Note: Returning to dirt at Perris Auto Speedway last year was a resurrection of sorts for the annual Turkey Night Grand Prix. Here’s an excerpt of Tim Kennedy’s feature story on the event’s return to dirt that was published in the November issue of SPEED SPORT Magazine.

The annual Thanksgiving midget race, known as the Turkey Night Grand Prix, returned to a dirt track last year for the first time since 1998.

The event had been held for 13 years at the half-mile paved Irwindale Speedway near Los Angeles. But oval track racing at Irwindale temporarily ceased in 2012 when the leaseholder filed bankruptcy in February.

Agajanian Promotions found a new home for the TNGP at the half-mile clay Perris Auto Speedway in Riverside County. The 2012 TNGP on dirt was a rousing success in grandstand attendance, car count and on-track competition.
Cary Agajanian and J.C. Agajanian Jr., sons of longtime race organizer J.C. Agajanian, and PAS President Donnie Kazarian acted on the success, telling the large crowd the event would return to Perris for its 73rd running.

The Agajanian family, in cooperation with the United States Auto Club, controls placement of the TNGP in tribute to the late J.C. Agajanian, who revived the TNGP midget classic in 1955 after it was not run following the 1950 race. The flamboyant Agajanian then promoted the race every year until his death in 1984, when his sons took charge of the TNGP legacy.

The TNGP started in 1934 at Gilmore Stadium, a dirt track in Hollywood, Calif. The event has been run at nine speedways — six dirt and three paved. Gardena Stadium (1955-1959), Ascot Park (1960-1974, 1976-1990), Bakersfield (1992-1995, 1998) and Ventura Speedways (1997) and Perris (1996, 2012-present) were the other dirt tracks. Paved tracks were Speedway 605 in Irwindale (1975), Saugus Speedway (1991) and Irwindale Speedway (1999-2011).

During its 72 years, the TNGP has been contested 57 times on dirt and 15 times on pavement. After the event was moved to Irwindale, numerous dirt tack fans said they would not attend a TNGP until it returned to dirt, and they responded by showing up last year.

A review of midget car counts and spectator attendance during the final four Turkey Night events at Irwindale shows declines in both numbers. Midgets in the Irwindale pits declined from 64 in 2008 to 41 in 2009, 37 in 2010 and 35 in 2011. Midget teams came from 10 to 18 states each year. Crowd attendance declined from 5,000 in 2009 to 4,800 in 2010 and approximately 3,000 at the final Irwindale TNGP in 2011.

Last year at Perris, 60 midget teams drew qualifying numbers and 57 cars posted qualifying times. Twelve states and two foreign countries were represented in the field. TNGP attendance at PAS was close to 5,000 even though PAS received the 2012 TNGP race date in September and only had two months to promote the event.

The Agajanian family, Kazarian and USAC were pleased by the results of Turkey Night’s return to Perris. Interestingly, the 2011 Irwindale TNGP had five different chassis, led by Beast with 27 cars. The PAS dirt TNGP had 12 different chassis led by Spike with 34 cars. Esslinger was the dominant engine on pavement and dirt with 15 engines at Irwindale and 20 at PAS.

“We had 4,400 paid spectators in the grandstand and 60 midgets in the pits for the Turkey Night race last year,” Kazarian said. “We seat 5,500 persons comfortably and more than 7,000 if people sit close together.

“We’re delighted to bring Turkey Night back to dirt where it belongs,” he continued. “We tried for years to get it back on dirt and make it a midgets only race, the way it was for so long. We had 40 to 50 motorhomes in our parking lot and expect up to 100 this year. We had 60 midgets last year and expect 80 for the Thanksgiving midget race on Nov. 28.”

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