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Turkey Night midget race lives up to billing

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There is no midget race in the nation with a richer history than that enjoyed by the Turkey Night Grand Prix.

In the 1930s, midget racing was very popular; and when this popularity met a natural promoter like J.C. Agajanian, the success of the Turkey Night Grand Prix was nearly guaranteed.

Agajanian was a successful businessman; however, his business endeavors served primarily to finance his true love, auto racing. Aggie was born in San Pedro, Calif., just six months after his Armenian family arrived in the United States. His father built a business empire around garbage collection and hog farming.

By the time he was 18, Agajanian had saved enough money to buy a racecar. However, when he told his father that he wanted to be a race driver, he was told that he would have to find a new place to live. A compromise with his father ended his driving career before it started. But it began his career as a car owner that would last the rest of his life.

Agajanian first promoted Turkey Night in 1934 at Gilmore Stadium, and the event was won by Bob Swanson. Races weren’t conducted in 1942, 1943 and 1944 because of World War II.

Racing resumed in 1945, and the Turkey Night was run at Gilmore through 1950. The race was again discontinued from 1951 through 1954.

In 1955, Turkey Night returned with new digs at Gardena Stadium; and it was won by Johnnie Parsons. Wins by Edgar Elder, George Amick, Joe Garson and Tony Bettenhausen followed before the race was moved to Ascot Park.

A.J. Foyt and Agajanian came together for the 1960 Turkey Night, with Foyt driving to victory in both 1960 and 1961. Following Foyt’s wins, Bill Cantrell, Mel Kenyon, Parnelli Jones, Gary Bettenhausen, Sam Sessions, George Benson, Bill Engelhart, Tony Simon and McKnight all won races before the event moved for a single event at 605 Speedway, which was won by Mel Kenyon.

Turkey Night returned to Ascot in 1976, where it remained through 1990, which would mark the end of an era. From there the race would be run at Saugus Speedway, Bakersfield Speedway, Ventura, and Irwindale Speedway. The races from 1999 through 2011 were all run on the pavement at Irwindale. Of course, many of the fans and most of the competitors missed the dirt track at Ascot.

Ascot had lost its battle with the bulldozers. But Perris Auto Speedway had been hosting a lot of USAC sprint and midget races. It was the obvious new home for Turkey Night.

Over the past several years, Pete Willoughby and Keith Kunz have been the guys to beat in midget racing.

This year, they traveled West with midgets to be driven by Kyle Larson, Bryan Clauson and Rico Abreu. One of Willoughby and Kunz’s former drivers, 2012 USAC National Midget champion and local favorite Darren Hagen, was a heavy favorite to win.

Hagen got his evening off to a good start by setting fast time, followed by Michael Pickens, Kyle Larson in the Keith Kunz Motorsports house car, Jason Leffler, Caleb Armstrong and Chad Boat.

When the green flag fell to start the race, Hagen charged into the lead; and he was able to hold it for the first three circuits before losing it to two-time Turkey Night champion Leffler, who faded after a few laps and lost the point back to Hagen on Lap 8. During the early laps, Larson patiently worked his way to the front; and, on Lap 22 he took the lead away from Hagen and finished as the winner.

Before competing on Turkey Night, Larson had been keeping himself busy running the NASCAR Camping Center truck series; but that didn’t make Turkey Night any less important. However, anyone as serious about racing as Kyle almost always respects the importance of the races with so much history.

Following the race Larson said, “I was really trying to be patient early in the race. I was worried about blistering my tires early, so I rode the bottom a little bit early. I followed Hagen for a bit before I got by him, but I was still kinda riding. Then Bryan came and threw some sliders at me in the middle part of the race. I had to change my line up a little bit as the rubber came in, and I really did not want Tracy to beat me again this year.

“I was looking at all the people who have won this race, A.J., Parnelli, Brent Kaeding; and it’s cool to add my name to that trophy.”

Tim McKinney is an auto racing columnist for The Republic. He can be reached at 372-3936.

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