KENNEDY: California Coast
LOS ANGELES — The 72nd running of the Turkey Night Grand Prix returned to dirt at Perris Auto Speedway Thanksgiving evening and was a rousing success from the standpoint of on-track competition, fan and racer satisfaction.
Comments on racing websites raved about the 2012 Perris TNGP and winner Kyle Larson. Grandstand attendance this year increased by at least 1,000 over the 2011 TNGP crowd at the paved, half-mile Irwindale Speedway.
This year’s race featured only the midget division and 60 midgets were in the pits for qualifying compared to 35 at Irwindale last year, 37 in 2010 and 41 in 2009. The USAC TNGP entry blank showed the purse as $31,245 with more than $29,000 allocated to the 98-lap feature.
Fifteen midget drivers who raced in the 2011 TNGP feature were not in the 2012 Perris TNGP field. They were Chris Windom, Kody and Tanner Swanson, Dakoda Armstrong, Chad Nichols, Bobby Santos III, Billy Wease, Mario Clouser, Adam Kramer, Travis Berryhill, David Byrne, Kyle Hamilton, David Goodwill, Troy DeCaire and Ben Petter.
Five past TNGP winners — Jason Leffler, Bobby East, Dave Darland, Bryan Clauson and Caleb Armstrong — raced in the 2012 event. Three female TNGP drivers raced full midgets this year (up from two last year). They were Shannon McQueen, Randi Pankratz and 16-year old Taylor Ferns, who came from her home in Michigan to race in her second TNGP.
The 60 drivers who drew qualifying numbers for the 2012 TNGP came from 12 states and two foreign countries. California led with 29. Second was Indiana with 11 residents, including three who originally called California home. Ten states were represented by one driver each. Two came from Australia and one from New Zealand.
Nine of the top ten drivers in USAC National Midget point standings raced in the 2012 TNGP, only tenth place Windom was absent. Seven of the top ten USAC Western Midget drivers raced.
Three drivers made the TNGP feature top five finishers for the first time; their names will be shown in the TNGP program each year on the two pages that list top five finishers for every TNGP—1934 to present. They are third-place Ryan Bernal, fourth-place Nic Faas and fifth-place Shane Golobic.
There were 12 different chassis manufacturers in the 2012 TNGP. Spike led with 34. Second place was a three-way tie at four cars each from Beast, Edmunds and Stealth. Bullet and TCR had three cars each. DRC and Ellis each had two cars. Single cars came from Bondio, Cobra, Eagle and Stewart.
This year had 11 different engines. Esslinger led with 20. Next were Toyota (10), Fontana (9), Van Dyne (8), Chevy (4), Mopar (3), Honda (2) and one each from Barnes, Gaerte, VDS and VW.
Dave Thurston’s No. 11x Spike/Esslinger BCRA car entered for Greg Bragg was not present for Wednesday practice or race day. Bragg’s wife Lori injured her back during the 45th annual Baja 1,000. She was flown from Mexico to California and hospitalized in San Diego, so Greg remained with her. USAC-CRA drivers Cory Kruseman and Rickie Gaunt drove the No. 149 car in their first Baja 1,000.
Veteran USAC driver Danny Ebberts was entered in the TNGP, but received second-degree burns to his hands, face and about 20-percent of his body during a refueling stop during the Baja 1000. He was taken to a hospital in Loreto and later airlifted to San Diego with his eyes swollen shut.
USAC-CRA 2008-2012 champion Mike Spencer was in the pits for Wednesday practice in Bill Ecker’s POWRI No. 57s backup Spike/Fontana for Andrew Felker, a 20-year old midget driver from Missouri. The 57s car dropped a valve pushing off for practice. Arizonan Bobby Martin offered Mike a ride in R. J. Johnson’s backup No. 51 Spike and it became No. 51s for Spencer
Two-time (1975-76) USAC National Midget and seven-time USAC Western Midget Series champion Ron “Sleepy” Tripp was severely injured in a highway motorcycle crash several months ago. His wife Erin has been at his hospital bedside for six weeks. With Sleepy and their daughter Shay watching NFL football on TV Thanksgiving, she decided to come to Perris for the TNGP.
Erin was interviewed on the track PA and gave Sleepy’s medical update to his many fans. On Nov. 19 he had his final surgery on his right elbow that took the brunt of the crash. Then they started rehabilitation On Nov. 21 Sleepy was removed from a ventilator and moved out of ICU to his own room. Erin received a huge get-well card that circulated in the pits. She thanked everyone for all the well wishes extended to Sleepy since his crash. Erin said she stayed late but enjoyed visiting racers again. The next day Sleepy called early and asked her to come and tell him all about Turkey Night racing.
On Nov. 25 Sleepy had his tracheotomy capped and is breathing on his own. They have no idea how long he will be hospitalized. It all depends upon how rehabilitation progresses.
Larson’s parents and 24-year old sister were present at Perris to see his TNGP triumph that places his name on the list of racing greats who have won a TNGP. His family also attended the Irwindale TNGP last year to see him finish fourth and earn TNGP rookie of the race. They said he likes to stay busy racing and he plans to race in Australia during December. His versatility in midgets, 360 and 410 winged sprints and non-wing sprints plus USAC Silver Crown cars has been joined by immediate success in NASCAR stock cars and trucks.