The Turkey Night Grand Prix (TNGP) is more than an annual race of midget cars. The TNGP is the second-oldest circle track race annually contested in the United States — right behind the Indianapolis 500. The California event signals the end of one racing season, and the beginning of the two most significant Midget Racing events: the Turkey Night Grand Prix itself, and the Chili Bowl Nationals.
What separates these two races from other Midget Racing events is the attraction of racers from other disciplines. The TNGP generally sees the current crop of Midgets stars pitted against renown former Midget racers — most of who have moved into different levels of auto racing — returning to do battle on Thanksgiving day.
Among those who have returned to the TNGP after achieving fame in the higher levels of motorsports are Parnelli Jones, A.J. Foyt, Bill Vukovich, Tony Stewart, Jason Leffler, Kasey Kahne, and more recently, NASCAR standout Kyle Larson.
How And When It Started
Gilmore Stadium was purpose-built to showcase a new class of race cars, midget cars, in 1934. The new brand of tiny cars with big speed became very popular, very quickly. Taking advantage of the midget’s public appeal, a race was held on Thanksgiving day with a large purse. When Gilmore Stadium closed in 1950, the race went dark for four years.
Legendary promoter J.C. Agajanian worked out a deal with Gardena Stadium to bring the TNGP back to the public. Since then, the race has taken a couple of different forms – always on (or near) Thanksgiving day – with multiple A-features on the same day or two-day events, before settling into the one major event on Thanksgiving day.
Over the years, the race consisted of 150 laps (15 times at Gilmore stadium), to as few as 75 laps (twice at Gilmore Stadium), before landing on 98 laps in honor of the late J.C. Agajanian, whose cars were most-often numbered 98. In addition to the stoppage of action from 1950 to 1954, the only other break in the continuous running of the event took place during WWII when the TNGP again fell silent from 1942 through 1944.
Turkey Night Grand Prix Fast Facts
- The race has been held 78 times total – 63 times on dirt, and 15 times on pavement.
The Turkey Night Grand Prix has been staged on nine different tracks:
- Gilmore Stadium (1934 – 1950)
- Gardena Stadium (1955 – 1959)
- Ascot Park (1960 – 1974, 1976 – 1990)
- Speedway 605 (1975)
- Saugus Speedway (1991)
- Bakersfield Speedway (1992 – 1995, 1998)
- Perris Auto Speedway (1996, 2012 – 2015)
- Ventura Raceway (1997, 2016 – 2019)
- Irwindale Speedway (1999 – 2011)
4 Drivers have won both the TNGP and the Indianapolis 500:
- Johnnie Parsons (1950 Indianapolis 500, and Turkey Night Grand Prix in 1955)
- Bill Vukovich (1948 Indianapolis 500, and 1953 & 1954 TNGP)
- A.J. Foyt (TNGP 1960 and 1961, and Indianapolis 500 in 1961, 1964, 1967, and 1977)
- Parnelli Jones (1963 Indianapolis 500, and TNGP 1964 and 1966)
- The only driver who has won the TNGP and the Daytona 500 has been A.J. Foyt (TNGP 1960 and 1961, and Daytona 500 1972).
- Ron Shuman is the driver with the most TNGP wins – 8 times (1979, 1980, 1981, 1982, 1984, 1987, 1992, and 1993).
- 52 different drivers have won the TNGP.
16 different drivers have won the Turkey Night Grand Prix more than once.
Only three drivers have won it more than two times:
- Ron Shuman won eight times (1979, 1980, 1981, 1982, 1984, 1987, 1992, and 1993)
- Billy Boat won three times (1995, 1996, 1997)
- Christopher Bell has won it three times (2014, 2017, 2018)
Multiple winners with two victories each are:
- Bob Swanson (1934, 1938)
- Roy Russing (1940, 1941)
- Perry Grimm (1946, 1949)
- A.J. Foyt (1960, 1961)
- Mel Kenyon (1973, 1975)
- Parnelli Jones (1964, 1966)
- Gary Bettenhausen (1967, 1970)
- Bill Engelhart (1971, 1973)
- Chuck Gurney (1988, 1989)
- Stan Fox (1990, 1991)
- Jason Leffler (1999, 2005)
- Dave Steele (2001, 2003)
- Kyle Larson (2012, 2016)
- Only three drivers have won it more than two times:
3 drivers have won the TNGP on dirt and pavement:
- Mel Kenyon (1963 Ascot and 1975 Speedway 605)
- Stan Fox (1990 Ascot and 1991 Saugus)
- Dave Darland (2007 Irwindale Speedway and 2013 Perris Auto Speedway)
3 drivers have won the TNGP on multiple dirt tracks:
- Billy Boat (Bakersfield Speedway, Perris Auto Speedway, Ventura Raceway)
- Ron Shuman (Ascot, Bakersfield Speedway)
- Christopher Bell (Perris Auto Speedway, Ventura Raceway)
9 drivers have back-to-back TNGP wins:
- Ronney Householder (1936, 1937)
- Roy Russing (1940, 1941)
- A.J. Foyt (1960, 1961)
- Ron Shuman (1979, 1980, 1981, 1982)
- Chuck Gurney (1988, 1989)
- Ron Shuman (1992, 1993)
- Billy Boat (1995, 1996, 1997)
- Bryan Clauson (2009, 2010)
- Christopher Bell (2017, 2018)
What We Think For This Year’s Event
Defending-champion Christopher Bell has already stated he will not enter into the 2019 Turkey Night Grand Prix. No one has been performing at a higher level than Bell in the past few years. The Oklahoma-native has dominated the biggest events in Midget auto racing since early 2017. Three consecutive years of Chili Bowl titles, and back-to-back Turkey Night Grand Prix wins is unheard of.
Then there is Kyle Larson. When you think of two-sport stars, Larson is the Bo Jackson of motorsports. He is a bonafide star in fendered cars in NASCAR’s Monster Energy Series and anything open-wheel on dirt. In the past three years at the TNGP alone, it has been Bell or Larson in victory lane. Two of the three years, they finished First and Second. The same is true of the Chili Bowl Nationals, as well, with Bell and Larson in the top two spots in 2017 and 2018.
Last week’s Hangtown 100 (November 20, 2019) at Placerville, California, showed that Larson is ready to reclaim the California dirt. The main event came down to Larson and Bell racing for the win. This time “Yung Money” took control and opened up a straightaway lead to earn the win and $32,000 prize.
With Bell out of the picture, it would seem like this is Larson’s turn to take home his third TNGP win.
Not So Fast
This year’s pre-race entry list has grown beyond 70 entrants for the event — the most since 1992. These include seven high-powered teams with multiple entries. Headlining this charge is the Kunz-Curb-Agajanian team with eight drivers (Daison Pursley, Tucker Klaasmeyer, Logan Seavey, Holley Hollan, Jesse Colwell, Tanner Carrick, Rico Abreu, and Buddy Kofoid). The TNGP is one of the few prominent open-wheel events that Abreu has not won … yet. Teammates Logan Seavey, Tucker Klaasmeyer, and Jesse Colwell are having a good year in Midgets, and likely will factor in on who wins the event.
Tucker-Boat Motorsports is also fielding four cars with up-and-coming drivers (Karsyn Elledge, Dillon Welch, Aaron Reutzel, and Gio Scelzi). Scelzi did well in the recent Hangtown 100 event and could play a significant role in this year’s TNGP. Co-Teamowner Chad Boat, son of three-time TNGP-winner Billy Boat, is not currently entered in the event. Surprising, since Boat had his best finish in the famed event last year.
The four-driver team of Clauson-Marshall Racing (Tyler Courtney, Chris Windom, Zeb Wise, and Andrew Layser) will likely challenge the Kunz-Curb-Agajanian team for supremacy. Courtney and Windom are always a threat to win in Sprint and Midget races, with Zeb Wise having another solid year in the National USAC Midget standings. Wise has three USAC National wins this year and has been competitive in many others.
Looking beyond the favored teams, there are a couple of other multi-car teams who are very interesting and could easily pull the rug out from under their competitors. The RMS Team of Michael Pickens and Thomas Meseraull combine experience and skill that is threatening, as long as they don’t get collected in someone else’s crash. Both of these drivers are opportunistic and look for holes in traffic. Big risk and big reward.
The Petry Motorsports veteran crew of Kevin Thomas, Jr. and Jerry Coons, Jr. will undoubtedly play a role. Both drivers have the mature skill and know-how to get the most from their equipment. The four-car team of Matt Wood racing features Shane Golobic, Colby Copeland, Ryan Bernal, and young Australian star, Kaidon Brown. Bernal is a local favorite, a fact that could play in his favor.
Another exciting team to watch is the four-car Keith Ford team, with local drivers Jake Swanson, Dylan Ito, and Robby Josett. Brady Bacon will drive the fourth team car and likely help with dialing-in the cars. Bacon is coming off of a great outing at the Budweiser Oval Nationals and is peaking at the right time.
The event is likely to play out much like last year. Ten drivers will advance to the finals through the qualifying round. Four drivers will progress through each heat race, and four more will advance to the end of the pack from the semi-feature. This should put around 30 drivers into the main event. These 30 drivers will likely be the usual suspects.
We expect Kyle Larson to push the action, but like many times in the past, run harder than the tires will allow or get pulled into someone else’s wreck. It would be great to see him win his third TNGP, but odds are he won’t.
Our predictions for the Don Basile Rookie of the Race will be Jesse Colwell, and the Hard Charger of the Race may go to Troy Rutherford. We are counting on home-cooking to put Rutherford into the feature.
The winner is probably going to come from one of the power teams we outlined above, and most likely a first-time winner. Going with that line of thinking, Rico Abreu would be a decent choice to bet on. Tanner Carrick or Gio Scelzi would be great longshot choices.
Let us know what your thoughts are on our predictions and leave your predictions in the comment section below.
Turkey Night Grand Prix Winners
- 1934 Bob Swanson – Gilmore Stadium
- 1935 Ted Sizemore – Gilmore Stadium
- 1936 Ronney Householder – Gilmore Stadium
- 1937 Ronney Householder – Gilmore Stadium
- 1938 Bob Swanson – Gilmore Stadium
- 1939 Mel Hansen – Gilmore Stadium
- 1940 Roy Russing – Gilmore Stadium
- 1941 Roy Russing – Gilmore Stadium
- 1942-1944 No Race Due To WWII
- 1945 Danny Oakes – Gilmore Stadium
- 1946 Perry Grimm – Gilmore Stadium
- 1947 Johnny McDowell – Gilmore Stadium
- 1948 Bill Vukovich – Gilmore Stadium
- 1949 Perry Grimm – Gilmore Stadium
- 1950 Bill Zaring – Gilmore Stadium
- 1951-1954 TNGP not held after stadium closure.
- 1955 Johnnie Parsons – Gardena Stadium
- 1956 Edgar Elder – Gardena Stadium
- 1957 George Amick – Gardena Stadium
- 1958 Joe Garson – Gardena Stadium
- 1959 Tony Bettenhausen – Gardena Stadium
- 1960 A.J. Foyt – Ascot Park
- 1961 A.J. Foyt – Ascot Park
- 1962 Bill Cantrell – Ascot Park
- 1963 Mel Kenyon – Ascot Park
- 1964 Parnelli Jones – Ascot Park
- 1965 Dick Atkins – Ascot Park
- 1966 Parnelli Jones – Ascot Park
- 1967 Gary Bettenhausen – Ascot Park
- 1968 Sam Sessions – Ascot Park
- 1969 George Benson – Ascot Park
- 1970 Gary Bettenhausen – Ascot Park
- 1971 Bill Engelhart – Ascot Park
- 1972 Tony Simon – Ascot Park
- 1973 Bill Engelhart – Ascot Park
- 1974 Danny McKnight – Ascot Park
- 1975 Mel Kenyon – Speedway 605
- 1976 Bubby Jones – Ascot Park
- 1977 Gary Patterson – Ascot Park
- 1978 Rick Goudy – Ascot Park
- 1979 Ron Shuman – Ascot Park
- 1980 Ron Shuman – Ascot Park
- 1981 Ron Shuman – Ascot Park
- 1982 Ron Shuman – Ascot Park
- 1983 Kevin Olsen – Ascot Park
- 1984 Ron Shuman – Ascot Park
- 1985 Brent Kaeding – Ascot Park
- 1986 Warren Mockler – Ascot Park
- 1987 Ron Shuman – Ascot Park
- 1988 Chuck Gurney – Ascot Park
- 1989 Chuck Gurney – Ascot Park
- 1990 Stan Fox – Ascot Park
- 1991 Stan Fox – Saugus Speedway
- 1992 Ron Shuman – Bakersfield Speedway
- 1993 Ron Shuman – Bakersfield Speedway
- 1994 Jordan Hermansador – Bakersfield Speedway
- 1995 Billy Boat – Bakersfield Speedway
- 1996 Billy Boat – Perris Auto Speedway
- 1997 Billy Boat – Ventura Raceway
- 1998 Jay Drake – Bakersfield Speedway
- 1999 Jason Leffler – Irwindale Speedway
- 2000 Tony Stewart – Irwindale Speedway
- 2001 Dave Steele – Irwindale Speedway
- 2002 Michael Lewis – Irwindale Speedway
- 2003 Dave Steele – Irwindale Speedway
- 2004 Bobby East – Irwindale Speedway
- 2005 Jason Leffler – Irwindale Speedway
- 2006 Billy Wease – Irwindale Speedway
- 2007 Dave Darland – Irwindale Speedway
- 2008 Bobby Santos III – Irwindale Speedway
- 2009 Bryan Clauson – Irwindale Speedway
- 2010 Bryan Clauson – Irwindale Speedway
- 2011 Caleb Armstrong – Irwindale Speedway
- 2012 Kyle Larson – Perris Auto Speedway’
- 2013 Dave Darland – Perris Auto Speedway
- 2014 Christopher Bell – Perris Auto Speedway
- 2015 Tanner Thorson – Perris Auto Speedway
- 2016 Kyle Larson – Ventura Raceway
- 2017 Christopher Bell – Ventura Raceway
- 2018 Christopher Bell – Ventura Raceway