MILLER: COVID forces a pause upon a Turkey Night tradition

Parnelli Jones. Image via Robin Miller Collection

MILLER: COVID forces a pause upon a Turkey Night tradition

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MILLER: COVID forces a pause upon a Turkey Night tradition

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Since the late ‘80s the open-wheel racing season has started with the Chili Bowl and ended with the Turkey Night Grand Prix, which debuted in 1934. Other than four dark years during World War II, the Turkey Night midget race has been contested every November somewhere in California.

But because of COVID-19, USAC pulled the plug on the show that was scheduled tonight in Ventura, ending a streak of 74 consecutive years at nine different tracks. Besides missing out on watching Kyle Larson, Brady Bacon, Chris Windom, Justin Grant, Buddy Kofoid, Tanner Thorson and Tyler Courtney bang wheels and throw slide jobs, it hits the pause button on one of America’s longest-standing traditions and one of its most treasured trophies.

Along with the Hut Hundred in Terre Haute, Turkey Night has always served as a barometer for new talent and bragging rights for veterans, as it was nothing to get 75-100 cars entered for the 22 starting spots. If you won either race, you were somebody in the dirt world.

Earl Gilmore built a track in Los Angeles (where the city market sits today) that bore his name, and thus midgets at Gilmore Stadium became a staple on Thanksgiving Day in Triple A and then USAC. But Ascot Park is the place that gave this race its pizazz and credibility as J.C. Agajanian was able to get Bill Vukovich, A.J. Foyt, Parnelli Jones, Johnnie Parsons and Tony Bettenhausen to compete, even after all of them had become big stars.

Midgets and sprints were your meal ticket to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, but there was prestige in winning Turkey Night and that was hook for those established drivers.

“I had a great little midget and I loved racing at Ascot Park,” said Jones. “And it seemed like everybody ran there and wanted to win that race. I was lucky enough to do it twice.”

Yeah, right Rufus, you were lucky. In 1964, he won the pole and the 150-lap main event by a lap over Don Horvath, Mel Kenyon, Tommy Copp and Foyt (already a two-time winner of Turkey Night in 1960 and 1961). In 1966, the last year he ran midgets, Parnelli closed out his stellar short-track career with a runaway victory that saw him lap runner-up Billy Vukovich twice in 150 laps. “I drove my butt off and he lapped me twice,” recalled Vuky. “Parnelli was something else.”

The next wave of name drivers to conquer Turkey Night at Ascot included Mel Kenyon, Gary Bettenhausen, Billy Engelhart, Bubby Jones and Gary Patterson, followed by the likes of Chuck Gurney, Stan Fox, Billy Boat, Dave Darland and Tony Stewart. Larson has three wins while the late Bryan Clauson was a two-time winner along with Christopher Bell.

But Ronnie Shuman is the all-time Turkey master, with eight wins between 1979-93 – including four in a row. The Flying Shoe was also a helluva sprint-car racer, with and without wings, but the Phoenix native was magic on Ascot’s tacky half-mile.

Flo Racing was going to stream the 80th Turkey Night GP live but instead will show highlights of old races for nine hours today from 2-11 p.m.

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