(Perris, CA) Southern California’s longest running racing tradition oddly falls on a holiday when most people are at home giving thanks. For thankful winner, Christopher Bell, here at the USAC Honda Midget Racing Turkey Night Grand Prix at Perris Auto Speedway, the taste of kissing the bronzed Stetson hat of J.C. Agajanian beats sweet potatoes every time. As the final race of the USAC Midget season, it also saw the crowning of a champion as Rico Abreu nipped Bell in points for the series championship with a sixth place finish.
Since 1934, some of the greatest names in circle track racing have participated—and sometimes won the fabled classic—Bill Vukovich, Parnelli Jones and Tony Stewart have all won here. It has been a benchmark for star-making too as 2012 winner Kyle Larson went on to NASCAR fame as the 2014 Rookie of the Year. His team owner Chip Ganassi, flew in for the event to watch Larson run in this year’s race.
1964 Turkey Night winner and 1963 Indy 500 Champion Parnelli Jones was on hand as the event’s Grand Marshall. The fit 82-year-old still looks like he could get in one of the machines and show them how it’s done. Longtime Vels-Parnelli crew chief Jimmy Dillamarter accompanied Jones for the evening’s activities.
Venues long gone such as Gilmore, Gardena and Ascot and modern facilities such as Irwindale, Bakersfield and Perris have hosted the race perpetually since its inception—minus the World War II years of 1942-1945. At Irwindale, they ran on the half mile paved oval—in 2000 winner Tony Stewart called it the “greatest win of my career” to that point. The rest of the tracks were dirt and clay.
Perris Auto Speedway (PAS) is a 1/2-mile banked clay oval near Riverside California. To see these cars run here is a treat. The driving style is fascinating. At 90 mph, the driver, who sits upright in the racing seat with the wheel at his belly and over his knees, pitches the car into the corner, slides it sideways, turning the wheel to opposite lock and throttles through the turn. Like the theory behind drifting, this is the fastest way around the track. On the Half-Mile, laps of 17 seconds at an average speed of nearly 115 mph will put you up front.
Midget Cars were conceived in the early 1930’s and rose to popularity through the 1940’s attracting many talented drivers to the dangerous game of high power-to-weight ratios. A current midget car has about 400 hp and weighs less than 1000 lbs. This made for exciting raving as the cars slid through the corners of dirt tracks that sprung up all over America. The sport became a proving ground for numerous notables who went on to stellar oval track racing careers. Think Mario Andretti, A.J. Foyt, Jeff Gordon, Casey Kahne, Ryan Newman, Troy Ruttman, J.J. Yelley—just to name a few—learned their oval track chops in these machines.
Like all early motorsports, midget and sprint car racing was a dangerous game—amongst the most dangerous. From the 1930’s to the 1970’s, the sport killed drivers on an almost weekly basis. Today’s safety features, including those as obvious as a harness seatbelt, have evolved into mandatory roll cages, Head and Neck Support (HANS) devices and safety retention fencing around the track as these high flyers can have spectacular end-over-end crashes. The 98-lap feature ran under yellow 5 times during this evening but the altercations thankfully produced no injuries.
The amount of dirt these rockets move would make an excavating company proud. At the two ends of the circuit, piles of dirt accumulated into a mini mountain that actually required some cleaning by track officials. The dirt coming off these tires is almost comparable to the water pumped on F1 rain tires as they fling clouds of dust on the drying, artificially watered clay oval.
For the 74th running of the famed Thanksgiving night race, NASCAR star Kyle Larson, Sprint car star Ricky Shelton and Chad Boat, son of Indy Car driver and three time winner of the Turkey Night classic Billy Boat, were amongst the hopefuls to take the checker in a field of 35 entrants. The eventual winner, Christopher Bell ran up front for the entire race.
At Four-Foot, Four Inches tall and 95 pounds, Rico Abreu looks at home in the small-high powered racers. He has a definite weight advantage—but that’s not all—the guy can drive. His abilities behind the wheel and some support from friend Kyle Larson, has landed him with the right rides. This year, Abreu clinched the USAC Honda Midget Championship. He also has a World of Outlaws victory under his belt—and at 22 years old, has proven to be a driver to watch.
Like many motorsports these days, the girls have gotten involved too. Two females took the start of this years race including veteran Shannon McQueen, who qualified 18th and finished 18th, and Andee Beierle. Beierle, a pre-med student at University of Alabama, Birmingham has been racing since she was 9, when she began her career in quarter midgets. She was not as familiar with the midget cars and track here as her regular ride is in Modifieds at Knoxville Speedway. The hard-charging 19-year-old qualified 30th but finished the night in 21st.
Since the 1950’s the Thanksgiving Night tradition was promoted by the legendary J.C. “Aggie” Agajanian, who entered numerous teams in the Indianapolis 500 and won with Troy Ruttmann in 1952 and Parnelli Jones in 1963. He was the famed promoter of Ascot Speedway and was easily recognizable by his iconic Stetson Cowboy Hat—now bronzed and the focal point of the winner’s trophy. His sons J.C. Jr.(Cary) and Chris Agajanian have perpetuated the holiday classic: “I am proud and emotional,” commented Cary, “a few people mentioned they felt Aggie was here tonight and very proud of the tradition.”
For many fans throughout the years, the tradition of Saturday Night at the Speedway is as American as Apple Pie—so a Thursday night race on the half-mile of clay at Perris is fitting as pure Americana on one of its favorite holidays.