Midget racer Christopher Bell added his name to a long and illustrious list of great American racers who have spent their Thanksgivings chasing one another around Southern California ovals in the annual Turkey Night Grand Prix. Yes, rather than sit at home watching football on TV and arguing politics and religion with seldom-seen inlaws, for the last 80 years racers and race fans in Southern California have gathered together to celebrate their sport, turkeys be damned.
The tracks that have hosted the race are as storied as the racers who have participated: Gilmore Stadium, Gardena and Ascot hosted the event before more locally-known venues like Saugus, Ventura, Bakersfield and Irwindale Speedway set the scene. Since 2012 Turkey Night has been run on the half-mile banked clay of Perris Auto Speedway.
The list of drivers who have run here is more impressive, old school names who all cut their gear teeth racing on dirt ovals: Gary and Tony Bettenhausen, Billy Vukovich, Johnnie Parsons, Mario Andretti, AJ Foyt, Pancho Carter, Johnny Rutherford and this year’s Grand Marshall Parnelli Jones. More modern famous Turkey Night names come mostly from NASCAR ranks: Tony Stewart, Kenny Irwin Jr., Jason Leffler, J.J. Yeley and Kasey Kahne.
“This is the second-oldest race in America, second only to the Indy 500,” said track president Don Kazarian. “It’s a nice way to end the year.”
And a nice way to launch a career. The 2012 winner Kyle Larson has since gone on to some fame in NASCAR and got special permission to return to Perris from current boss Chip Ganassi.
“I flew out to see him run,” Ganassi explained about his presence 70 miles east of LA.
About 3000 hardcore race fans braved LA’s pre-Black Friday traffic to do the same. Qualifying saw midget regulars Tanner Thorson and Bell on the front row, with Brad Sweet and Darren Hagen behind. Bell drove an amazing race, staying at or very near the front for all 98 laps, taking the high line around the tracks banking, along with the other leaders. Hagen similarly hounded the leaders throughout the caution-filled (four yellows and two red flags) long haul to take second. Larson stayed farther back for most of the night until lap 75, when he picked his way through the field, working all the way to third by the time the checkered flag flew. If the race had been another four or five laps he could have won. Who knows?
“Man, what a race,” said Hagen.
“I had a blast out there,” said Larson.
“It’s pretty special to win,” said Bell. “It’s an honor to win the race and have my name on the trophy (with past winners).”
The Turkey Night Grand Prix was also the final event in the 2014 USAC Honda Midget Series. While Ronnie Gardner had clinched the Western Midget title a week earlier at Canyon Speedway Park near Phoenix, the National Midget Series title came down to the final lap of the Turkey Night Grand Prix, when Rico Abreu clinched the series championship with a fifth-place finish and the points lead, edging out Turkey Night winner Bell.
“I’m glad I lost it (the championship) to one of my good buddies,” said Bell.
Remember all those names. Who knows where this year’s Turkey Night stars will end up?
Kyle Larson photo
NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Rookie of the Year Kyle Larson finished third.
PHOTO BY ROB HARGRAVES
74th Turkey Night Grand Prix – Results
QUALIFICATIONS: 1. Tanner Thorson, 67, Kunz/Curb-Agajanian-17.359; 2. Christopher Bell, 71, Kunz/Curb-Agajanian-17.378; 3. Brad Sweet, 67z, Kahne-17.399; 4. Darren Hagen, 56, 5IVE-6IX-17.458; 5. Chad Boat, 15x, Boat-17.494; 6. Rico Abreu, 97, Kunz/Curb-Agajanian-17.517; 7. Zach Daum, 5D, Daum-17.532; 8. Tracy Hines, 24, Parker-17.563; 9. Damion Gardner, 4, Klatt-17.598; 10. Bryan Clauson, 63, Kunz/Curb-Agajanian-17.610; 11. Kevin Thomas, 56x, 5IVE-6IX-17.648; 12. Ronnie Gardner, 68, Six8-17.650; 13. Kyle Larson, 71k, Kunz/Curb-Agajanian-17.680; 14. Trey Marcham, 73, Ford-17.714; 15. Tyler Thomas, 91T, Thomas-17.730; 16. Dave Darland, 17N, Team 17-17.807; 17. Jake Swanson, 25, Rodela-17.836; 18. Shannon McQueen, 7, McQueen-17.901; 19. Alex Schutte, 28, Schutte/McElwee-17.915; 20. Mike Spencer, 57, Ecker-18.150; 21. Ricky Shelton, 71T, Full Circle-18.212; 22. Cody Swanson, 71s, Swanson-18.232; 23. Johnathon Henry, 17, Team 17-18.235; 24. Nick Chivello, 27, Chivello-18.364; 25. Scott Pierovich, 35, Pierovich-18.400; 26. Isaac Chapple, 52, Chapple-18.406; 27. Randi Pankratz, 8, Pankratz-18.439; 28. Jarid Blondel, 98, Blondel-18.543; 29. Kyle Edwards, 39E, Mitchell-18.713; 30. Andee Beierle, 5B, Daum-18.869; 31. Terry Nichols, 1P, Nichols-19.276; 32. Tony Everhart, 55T, Everhart-19.530; 33. Doug Hunting, 2, Hunting-19.964; 34. Britton Bock, 67x, Bock-NT.
QUALIFYING RACE: (12 laps) 1. Henry, 2. Chivello, 3. C.Swanson, 4. Pierovich, 5. Shelton, 6. Pankratz, 7. Blondel, 8. Chapple, 9. Beierle, 10. Edwards, 11. Nichols, 12. Hunting, 13. Everhart. NT
FEATURE: (98 laps) 1. Christopher Bell, 2. Darren Hagen, 3. Kyle Larson, 4. Zach Daum, 5. Rico Abreu, 6. Tanner Thorson, 7. Bryan Clauson, 8. Tracy Hines, 9. Johnathon Henry, 10. Dave Darland, 11. Damion Gardner, 12. Trey Marcham, 13. Isaac Chapple, 14. Alex Schutte, 15. Jake Swanson, 16. Cody Swanson, 17. Jarid Blondel, 18. Shannon McQueen, 19. Nick Chivello, 20. Randi Pankratz, 21. Andee Beierle, 22. Kevin Thomas Jr., 23. Chad Boat, 24. Tyler Thomas, 25. Brad Sweet, 26. Ronnie Gardner, 27. Kyle Edwards, 28. Mike Spencer, 29. Ricky Shelton, 30. Scott Pierovich. NT