By RICHIE MURRAY
VENTURA, CA – Have you heard the one about when Kyle Larson, Christopher Bell, Brad Sweet and Chase Briscoe walk into a racetrack? Well, when that happens, it’s definitely no joke.
These four may not be series regulars, but when they strap into a USAC Midget this Thursday night, Nov. 23 at Ventura Raceway for the 77th running of the “Turkey Night Grand Prix,” this “vacation” away from their regular duties becomes strictly business.
All have earned a reputation for success in a diverse set of disciplines outside wingless sprint car and midget racing, yet still dabble when their schedules allow. But, “dabble” is most certainly an understatement.
Elk Grove, California’s Larson has five career wins on the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series circuit and was a championship contender for much of his 2017 campaign. In his two USAC Midget appearances this season, he was fast qualifier in both and comes in as a two-time “Turkey Night” winner (2012 & 2016).
Less than a week ago, Christopher Bell was celebrating a NASCAR Camping World Truck Series title. This week, the Norman, Oklahoma native’s focus is set on becoming a two-time “Turkey Night” winner, duplicating his 2014 triumph.
Brad Sweet of Grass Valley, California was the runner-up behind Donny Schatz in the World of Outlaws Craftsman Sprint Car standings this season with five victories. However, he’s no outsider when it comes to midget racing as evidenced by his 11 career USAC National wins between 2008 and 2010.
Chase Briscoe was a regular on Indiana’s tough local sprint car scene in recent years, but over the past two years has made a spectacular rise through the stock car/NASCAR ranks with a 2016 ARCA title and a 2017 NASCAR Truck Series Rookie of the Year award to his name.
For some of these guys who’ve seemingly been out of the loop in midget racing, it may seem like a tall order to jump right in and be a contender, but, think again. Over the past three decades, drivers who have achieved success in a wide array of series have consistently risen to the occasion on Thanksgiving night.
Sure, Leffler was one of the most accomplished USAC Midget drivers ever with three consecutive titles between 1997 and 1999. However, by 2005, he was firmly entrenched as a regular in NASCAR’s Cup and Busch series. Yet, the Long Beach, California driver’s only USAC Midget feature start of 2005 resulted in a “Turkey Night” victory.
Same thing with Tony Stewart in 2000, who had already conquered USAC as a four-time National champ, but came back to collect one of the most-prized victories of his career at Irwindale Speedway after already establishing himself as an IndyCar champ and a NASCAR Winston Cup Rookie of the Year.
Billy Boat was a dominant force on the midget racing scene in the mid-1990s where he scored “Turkey Night” victories in 1995 and 1996. By the time of his third-straight “Turkey Night” crown in 1997, the Phoenix, Arizona driver was a veteran of the Indianapolis 500 and had a full-time ride with A.J. Foyt Enterprises in the Indy Racing League where he quickly became a pole winner and a regular front runner.
Speaking of dominance, no one has been more dominant at “Turkey Night” than Tempe, Arizona’s Ron Shuman. With eight victories in a 15-year span between 1979 and 1993, Shuman may have seemed like a “regular.” Yet, Shuman was a true outlaw and was able to adapt to any racecar he set foot into whether it was a Silver Crown car, midget, sprint car, wing or non-wing. Shuman was simply magical on Thanksgiving and his success in the race stands head and shoulders above all others.
Like Shuman, Chuck Gurney could drive the wheels off anything. But, by the late 1980s, he only made sporadic appearances in the midget, but each time, you could count on him to rise to the occasion. On the half-mile and the mile tracks, the Livermore, California driver was an untouchable force. It was the Ascot Park half where Gurney reached the pinnacle of the sport with back-to-back wins in 1988-89.
The first images of Brent Kaeding that come to mind are in a wing spring car. As the owner of 13 driving championships in both the King of the West and Northern Auto Racing Club Series, it’s easy to see why. The Campbell, California driver possesses a lengthy resume that also includes Silver Crown racing and even a brief foray into NASCAR Winston Cup. But, Kaeding will forever be known as a “Turkey Night” winner as well with his lone USAC National Midget victory coming at Ascot in 1985.
Like an all-star race or sorts, “Turkey Night” brings out the best of the best: the regulars vs. the one-offs – the guys who have no worries about points or championship races. “Turkey Night” stands as a chance for these daredevils to buckle into their seats and simply go racing, back to their roots with just a steering wheel, a gas and brake pedal and 98 laps separating them from one of racing’s greatest prizes.
“Turkey Night” begins Wednesday, Nov. 22 with a full program featuring the USAC West Coast and VRA Sprint Cars, plus an open practice for midgets. The following night, Thanksgiving Thursday, Nov. 23, will once again include the sprint cars as well as the prestigious, 98-lap midget race.