This Was No Turkey

Eat too much turkey and turn into a couch potato on Thanksgiving Day? Thought so.

After all, you weren’t at Irwindale Speedway to witness the 64th Turkey Night Midget Grand Prix and dual support races where nary a closed wheel nor rear engine racer could be seen on the track.

There were plenty of stars on hand to contest this 100-lap Turkey Night contest from all walks of motoring sports. Some you know; some you don’t. Yeah, Tony Stewart returned to the site of his 2000 victory driving for Steve Lewis – but didn’t even qualify for the midget feature race.

Stewart was third on grid for the sprint finale but managed to pooch himself out of the race on the 19th lap, taking Josh Wise along for the ride into the turn 1-2 wall.

Tony snarled from the time practice began late Wednesday afternoon until he finally disappeared from the fast Irwindale Speedway half-mile oval, never really having got with the program.

Some of his compatriots did better: Jason Leffler, a Parnelli Jones protg qualified seventh and finished fourth; J.J. Yeley lined up tenth and battled in a tough race to take eighth.

Those were the only guys on-hand with NASCAR Nextel Cup experience, but there were some other stock car racers who graduated from the open wheel ranks in the field, notably Tracy Hines and Aaron Fike.

Stewart, who will race anywhere – just like Robby Gordon and, now Dale Earnhardt Jr. – has his own sprint and midget squads and team pilot Wise managed to do an oil-down trick shortly after the 61 midget drivers on hand undertook their first Thursday practice.

That escapade changed the character of the track until well after darkness fell. Few expected the slippery conditions to last and, of course they didn’t.

“That kid looks less like a race car driver than anybody I’ve ever seen,” remarked one anonymous wag in the paddock of Bobby East, the 19-year-old who just became 2004 USAC National Midget Series champ.

East battled all night with Aaron Fike, a 22-year-old from Galesburg, IL who has been in all kinds of race cars with engines front and rear. He gave Bobby a run for the spot on the Agajanian trophy and nearly pipped him, leading 31 mid-race laps and fighting to the checkers.

It was evident East’s test the prior Wednesday had paid off. Team owner Steve Lewis was looking for his fifth victory here and both he and his driver were confident as was East’s dad Bob, maker of the Beast chassis that so dominates this class. In addition to defending his Midget crown, Bobby East is hoping to do a half-dozen 2005 Busch races.

Fike wasn’t too pleased with being first loser and didn’t want to talk after the race. All he could muster after dropping from the lead after caution #2 was this: “Running second you can move around more,” as his disappointed voice trailed off

Here’s a guy who’s done his time in karts, midgets, sprints and even won two races driving Menards Infiniti Pro Series cars and he hasn’t gotten a call for Indy cars? Like most of his peers, Fike is ensconced in Busch, running for Curb-Agajanian Racing.

The sleeper of the night was Dave Steele, the pavement midget and sprint master looking as scraggly as ever and running under the radar. Steele, the 2003 victor qualified fourth but faded with an ill-handling car, eventually crashing with polesitter Tony Hunt and causing the final of two caution periods.

Among the interesting kids on hand were second generation driver Tom Hessert, who had come to observe testing the week before this race; he finished first in the initial qualifying race after posting the 25th quickest speed.

Cole Carter qualified ninth with dad Pancho manning the wrenches and came home seventh in a good run. Pancho Carter had his midget cars for sale here. Asked where the family would be racing once they sold, he smiled and shrugged his shoulders. The standard midget class is getting too expensive, Carter thinks.

Then there was Brad Loyet, a 16-year-old from outside St. Louis who competes in midgets. Brad had his first full-size midget test the week before Turkey Night and then went to Tucson for his first race, passing muster (and a few other drivers) under USAC’s watchful eyes. He came to Irwindale with the intent of simply making the field.

Loyet qualified 20th, won his qualifying race and ended up ninth at the checkered flags, getting plenty of attention along the way. He’s hoping to move up permanently from the Ford Focus midget series.

Midget racing is a throwback to before World War II and garners precious little attention in the media, one of the reasons Tony Stewart likes to return to his grass roots and run this race and the Chili Bowl held each January.

Midgets and sprint cars teach drivers how to race in a crowded environment and preaches car control to the uninitiated. If you can pucker the field here, you can do it anywhere.

That’s one of the reasons guys like four-time Cup champ Jeff Gordon, Stewart, Ryan Newman and Kasey Kahne are so successful with stock cars on ovals and road courses. They understand the dynamics of driving the car and working with changing track conditions and know, bluntly how to race.

It sure was cool to be at Irwindale for this historic race. It was great to see drivers like East, Fike, Yeley, Michael Lewis, Steele et al start in tight formation and run cleanly through the night for the most part. And afterwards there was plenty of camaraderie in the paddock as everyone packed up for the season.

They’ll be back again next year for #65. Turkey Night at Irwindale is the perfect cure for couch potatoes after that big meal and junkies (like me) not quite ready for a winter without racing. This was the last chance race for us all.