Twenty-year-old Kyle Larson conserved his tires and won the 72nd running of the Thanksgiving Night Grand Prix for USAC Midgets, adding his name to a trophy that features some of the greatest names in American racing.
Known popularly as “Turkey Night,” the Southern California racing tradition began in 1934 on the dirt track of LA's long-gone Gilmore Stadium. Bob Swanson won that first race but the names of winners and near-winners include some of the greatest of American Indy and NASCAR drivers: Parnelli Jones, AJ Foyt, Johnnie Parsons, Bill Vukovich and Danny Oakes have all won the Thursday night classic, while modern NASCAR heroes like Tony Stewart, Kasey Kahne, JJ Yeley and Jason Leffler have all raced in it. Turkey Night has gobbled up great tracks all over Southern California, too, many of them also long gone: Gilmore, Gardena, Ascot Raceway Park (where it ran from 1960 to 1990) and more recently at other tracks that have been eaten like a drumstick by land developers like Saugus and Mesa Marin. The race was held at Perris in 1996, Ventura in '97 (both still in business) and since 1990 at the half-mile paved oval of Irwindale. But with Irwindale's recent management troubles the race returned to the clay surface of Perris Auto Speedway a hundred miles inland from the ocean.
“I couldn't be more thrilled,” said promoter JC Agajanian Jr., whose famous family ran Ascot for many decades. “Turkey Night belongs on the dirt.”
And to the dirt it returned, doubling the number of entries from 30-something at the paved Irwindale to close to 70 on the Perris dirt. Perris is one of the best half-mile dirt tracks in the nation, with everything from a well-groomed clay surface to clean restrooms and Tri-Tip BBQ in the concession stands.
The field this year included entries from USAC National Midgets, USAC Western States Midgets and Western States Dirt Midgets, all of which are bound by the same rules and run the same cars but which don't always compete wheel-to-wheel during their respective seasons. All those seasons end with the Turkey Night GP and any one of the cars can win this race. Qualifying runs all afternoon Thanksgiving Day determine the first 14 cars on the grid, while two evening qualifying races of 12 laps each determine the final 16 entries.
The 2012 USAC National Midget Championship had already been won by the ever-enthusiastic points leader Darren Hagen, but he took the pole for the night's race anyway, setting a track record in the process.
The race got off to a clean start and the howling, alcohol-fueled Midgets screamed around the track counterclockwise for a full 32 laps before the first yellow. A midget race is a remarkable sight to see, the cars actually do wheelies coming out of the corners, fly down the main straights and then flip sideways into the turns. The field creates a vortex of dust, dirt and alcohol that spins above the stadium like a glorious, toxic tornado that simultaneously makes it hard to breathe and impossible to hear. Your ears will keep ringing for days. The fans love it. The drivers love it. You can see why people keep coming back. Who needs football?
Larson was at or near the front the whole race and lead most of it, a feat made all the more remarkable considering the changing track surface.
Deciding how much water to lay down on the track is always tricky.
“Too much and it gets slippery as hell, too little and it gets dry as hell,” said team owner Tom Malloy, whose father owned the old Carroll Speedway near Los Angeles.
At first the cars slid around the slippery stuff, using a high- and a low line through the corners. But as the 98-lap race progressed, the top line dried out and drove most down lower. A total of seven yellows and one red flag interrupted the flow, but Larson managed his tires and held off challenges from many of the frontrunners, all of whose tires eventually couldn't take the grippy line and who all fell back, leaving Larson at the front at the checkered flag.
“I spent the whole race trying to save my tires,” said Larson.
“When I got to the outside of ya', there wasn't nothin' I could do,” said Bryan Clausen, who challenged for the lead early on but dropped out after a rollover caused by the track surface at the top of turn 1 brought out the only red flag of the race on lap 78.
“It was kind of a race of endurance because of the tire issue,” said second-place finisher and former USAC Triple Crown winner Jerry Coons. “(The track's) really abrasive on tires so I just got really conservative. It's kind of fun when it becomes a mind race.”
Ryan Bernal finished third, Nic Faas was fourth and Shane Golobic fifth.
Now the racers get a little time off before the whole thing starts again in 2013. Make plans to bring the portable deep fryer to Perris next year and cook up your turkey right in the parking lot, as many fans did. That's a family tradition you might find you like.
Article Source : http://www.autoweek.com/article/20121123/MOTORSPORTS/121129949
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