VENTURA, Calif. (November 22, 2016) — Nine points separate two men from reaching the pinnacle of their sport.
Two men who’ve endured a season that’s seen its ups and its downs, but a season that can be redeemed and rewarded with one more successful performance in an event that simply oozes with history – the 76th running of the “Turkey Night Grand Prix” at California’s Ventura Raceway.
The main figures playing lead roles on the stage for this Thursday’s USAC National and Western States Midget season finale involve two Keith Kunz/Curb-Agajanian Motorsports teammates who’ve reached the top of the season standings via different avenues: Tanner Thorson and Spencer Bayston. Although, Chad Boat and Brady Bacon do remain mathematically eligible to win the title. Both stand 65 points out of the lead.
Point leader Thorson leads the series with six victories and 180 laps led in 2016 – twice as many as any other driver in both statistical categories. However, inconsistent stretches through the early to mid-point of the season left Thorson in the rearview mirror in the championship hunt. But, a late-season surge has not only thrust Thorson right back into the thick of title contention in the very race he is the defending winner of, the 20-year-old Minden, Nevada native is now in the driver’s seat.
In fact, just one and a half month ago, Thorson entered a crucial three-race stretch at Tri-City Speedway’s “Gold Crown Midget Nationals” in Granite City, Illinois fourth in the series’ standings behind Bayston, Chad Boat and Brady Bacon. By the time the checkered flag had flown on Saturday night’s finale, Thorson was second in points, just nine out of the lead, after sweeping all three nights of the “Gold Crown.”
One race later, at the “Jason Leffler Memorial” in Wayne City, Illinois, Thorson left the grounds with a second-place finish in his pocket and became the new USAC National Midget point leader heading into the final event of the season at Ventura.
On the other hand, Bayston has relied on consistency to maintain his position near the top of the standings throughout 2016. The Lebanon, Indiana driver took his sole victory of the season during “Indiana Midget Week” at Gas City I-69 Speedway in Indiana and leads the series in both top-fives and top-ten finishes.
Bayston, the 2015 USAC National Midget Rookie of the Year, jumped to the point lead in June on the final night of “Indiana Midget Week.” After losing the lead briefly in early August, the 18-year-old Bayston regained the top spot in the standings just two races later – a lead he held until the Oct. 21 race at Wayne City.
The USAC National Midget title being decided at “Turkey Night” is no new phenomenon. In fact, just one year ago, in 2015, the championship chase between Tracy Hines and Kevin Thomas, Jr. came down to the finale with Hines able to eke out an 18-point victory to complete the career USAC Triple Crown.
This year’s nine-point difference in the standings heading into the final race is the closest in the past 20 years. Over that same 20-year period since the last “Turkey Night” held at Ventura in 1997, there have been six occasions when the difference between first and second was 20 or less: Rico Abreu by 10 over Christopher Bell in 2014, Bryan Clauson by 16 over Darren Hagen in 2011, Brad Kuhn by 8 over Brad Sweet in 2009, Cole Whitt by 1 over Hines in 2008 and Jason Leffler by 11 over Jay Drake in 1998.
The unique set of circumstances presented to Thorson and Bayston on Thursday night not only pertain to the points race, but also to the fact that, at 98 laps, the race is the longest, most grueling challenge that is put forth in front of the competitors all year long. When does a driver push? When and where can a driver settle in? With so much at stake, does it alter the focus from the race to the points chase or vice versa? Thorson feels that it’ll be business as usual.
“I don’t think the points race changes my game plan at all,” Thorson said. “I’m going into Thursday night with my mindset on winning. If I give my best and give this team the best finish I possibly can, hopefully it will be enough to secure the title. I’m not going into Turkey Night to ‘points race;’ I’m there to win.”
Bayston aims to make his first visit to the one-fifth, seaside oval at Ventura as well as embarking on his initial “Turkey Night” start this Thursday as he heads up a strong crop of Don Basile Rookie of the Race candidates. The 98-lap race is outside the box of what Bayston has been accustomed to in his career, but it is a challenge he is excited to tackle head-on.
“This will be the longest race I’ve ever run,” Bayston claimed. “It will be great to be a part of and it will be something very different for me. Instead of going all-out for 30 laps, I’ll have to try to pace myself. Having never been to Ventura before, it will be very helpful to get a lot of practice laps in on Wednesday.”
“Going into the final race in the position I’m in, I must run my own race and just do the best I can,” Bayston added. “If I run the best I can, it will be up to Tanner to not make mistakes. I just need to put myself in the best position possible and leave the rest up to him. I just have to run the race as if it were any other race.”
One year ago, Thorson threw a slide job for the ages on teammate Bell to take over the lead in the final stages of his “Turkey Night” victory. This year, Thorson hopes to ink his name into the record books alongside eight other drivers who have won back-to-back “Turkey Night” titles: Ronney Householder, Roy Russing, A.J. Foyt, Ron Shuman, Chuck Gurney, Stan Fox, Billy Boat and Bryan Clauson.
“It would be awesome if I could add my name to that list with all those great names,” Thorson said. “You always want to make history every time you’re out on the track and, to do that this Thursday night, it would definitely mean a lot.”
The schedule for the 2016 “Turkey Night Grand Prix” at Ventura Raceway begins Wednesday, Nov. 23 with USAC Midget practice. On Thursday, Nov. 24, the Midgets will qualify, then run preliminary events leading into the night’s 76th edition of the 98-lap feature.
In addition to the Midgets, the USAC West Coast Sprint Cars will be competing on both Wednesday and Thursday. On Wednesday, the Sprint Cars will qualify, race heats and a 25-lap feature event. On Thursday, the Sprint Cars will return with semi-feature events and 30-lap feature.
Both Wednesday and Thursday night, the pit gates will open at noon, with the drivers meeting at 2:45pm. Cars are set to be on track at 3:30pm with racing scheduled for 5:30pm.
There will be an autograph session at the track during intermission on Wednesday night.
Advance tickets for the 76th “Turkey Night Grand Prix” are available by calling 805-648-7223.
If you can’t make it to Ventura Raceway to see “Turkey Night” in person, you can catch flag-to-flag coverage of all the racing action on both Wednesday and Thursday night on http://www.loudpedal.tv/live! There is a 100-mile broadcast blackout surrounding Ventura Raceway.