When a race is celebrating its 76th running, it’s probably doing something right. That’s how many times the Turkey Night Grand Prix has been contested. It is considered by many one of the top three most prestigious Midget races in the nation, alongside the Chili Bowl and Belleville Nationals.
Long a USAC-sanctioned event with its feature on Thanksgiving night, the Turkey Night Grand Prix’s winner’s list is a who’s who of open wheel racing over the last nine decades. It includes names like Bill Vukovich, Gary and Tony Bettenhausen, A.J. Foyt, Parnelli Jones, and Tony Stewart, and more recently, Bryan Clauson and Kyle Larson.
Bob Swanson won the inaugural event in 1934. Its first 14 races were held at Gilmore Stadium in Los Angeles, now the site of CBS’ Television City. It has been held at dirt and asphalt tracks around racing-mad Southern California ever since, save for a three-year hiatus during World War II and another four years off in the early ’50s.
This year, the 98-lap event returns to the 1/5-mile Ventura Raceway. 2016 marks only the second time the race will be held at the Seaside Park clay oval on the Pacific Ocean, and the first time the event has been held there since 1997. Boat won the 1997 main event capping a three year string of victories. His previous two triumphs came at Bakersfield Speedway.
Ventura Raceway director of competition, Cliff Morgan, believes the small Ventura track is the perfect place for a prestigious Midget show.
“From the time the race starts until the race ends the drives are always battling each other, whether [it’s the] leaders or they are battling through traffic, lapping cars,” he says. “It’s a close venue for people to see. There’s no bad seats because everybody’s right around the racetrack and plus we’re at the beach, you’ve got a beautiful location.”
After several years at Perris Auto Speedway, longtime promoters the Agajnaian family approached the staff at Ventura about bringing the event back to the track.
The two-day show kicks off today and will feature top Midget drivers from around the country, as well as USAC West Coast Sprint Cars.
Morgan expects 40+ cars in each division, with Thursday’s Midget field carrying on the tradition of the days’ superstars competing alongside up-and-comers and veterans of the open wheel world. Kyle Larson, Christopher Bell, and Rico Abreu are entered in this year’s event, along with the “People’s Champ” Dave Darland, USAC Midget points leader and defending winner Tanner Thorson, and others from both the West Coast and Midwest. Turkey Night will also decide this year’s USAC Midget National Championship.
“It’s always been a race where the best of the best have competed, you can go back to A.J. Foyt, and just about anybody, Bobby Unser, Al Unser, the whole group have always competed,” Morgan says. “I think the competition’s kept people coming back.”
Watch the 1997 Turkey Night Grand Prix at Ventura Raceway:
(Main image via Ventura Raceway)