RACING SCENE – (TNGP Pit Notes, Part III) – By Tim Kennedy
LOS ANGELES – USAC Thanksgiving evening 98-lap Midget Grand Prix post-race driver quotes on the infield microphone came in front of about 5,000 spectators and fellow competitors still talking about the close 1-2-3 finish. Winner Christopher Bell, 22, told the crowd, “That was fun. I hope you fans enjoyed that one because I did from the seat. The track was tough. You had to hit your marks. It was a rhythm track. Come back next year.”
Winner Bell received a beautiful and unique trophy. It featured a yellow/red No. 98 Agajanian metal midget with a figure of J. C. Agajanian (wearing a Stetson hat) seated in the cockpit. The large midget took about four months for race promoter Jim Naylor to handcraft. It will be a prized trophy for Bell, who is known for his growing collection of unique trophies.
Runner-up Kyle Larson said, “Tanner (Thorson) threw a slide job a couple of times. I threw everything I had back.” He could have added a comment about his multiple lead-swapping passes, sometimes twice a lap, with winner and Keith Kunz Motor-sports teammate Bell. Larson also received the Jason Leffler Memorial fastest qualifier trophy. The distinctive 1930s replica metal midget had number 39 on the tail to honor the late Bryan Clauson.
Third place Shane Golobic, who announced his engagement to Sarah Wood, of Elk Grove, Calif., thanked his Clauson-Marshall team. “We had a great year.” he added. Fifth place Zeb Wise, 15, was named Don Basile Rookie of the Race and received $500 cash from Bob Basile. Zeb said over the mic, “I can't believe it. My teammates have been great to work with all week.”
Ronnie Gardner received recognition at the finish line also for winning his fifth consecutive USAC Western Midget Series championship in Mitchell Johnson' No. 68 Stewart/Esslinger. He had clinched the title prior to the TNGP event.
Bell also received an extra $1,000 (ten $100 bills framed and under glass). That bonus came for Bell leading lap 15, the long-time car number of three-time TNGP winning car owner John Lawson, from Fresno. Three-time TNGP winner Billy Boat was his driver during the 1990s before he launched his IRL Indy Car career.
Spencer Bayston, 19, won the 2017 USAC National Midget championship with his No. 97 Keith Kunz ride. He won three 2017 USAC National Midget features, including the midget main during the Eldora 4-Crown Nationals in September. He stated, “The track turned out to be awesome. My car did not have any DNFs (non-finishes) all season. This championship is extremely important. We will celebrate it and get back to racing at the Tulsa Chili Bowl in January.”
The two 360 sprint car beautiful beach theme trophies made by Ventura Raceway promoter Naylor also were presented during the finish line presentations. Tyler Courtney won the “Battle of the Beach” trophy for winning the Thursday 30-lap feature. Tristan Guardino received the “King of the Beach” trophy as high-point driver in the 2017 four-race USAC Western Sprints/VRA 360 sprint car series.
The table-full of large and medium-size unique TNGP trophies presented to midget and sprint car drivers was on display both nights in the pits for competitors to covet. They were on display next to the driver autograph session tables for fans to admire. The display was impressive and is a unique opportunity for TNGP fans in Ventura.
IMPRESSIVE YOUNG GUNS: You should put these rising young open-wheel drivers on your radar to watch in 2018 and beyond.
> Personable Zeb (for Zebulon) Wise is from Angola, Indiana and is not related to USAC/NASCAR driver Josh Wise. Zeb turned 15 on November 15 and made his USAC National Midget initial start November 18 in Bakersfield. His 2018 goal is to race more USAC and POWRi midget races. He also will drive the no. 5 Chase Briscoe sprint car. The ninth grader does on-line schooling. His racing goal is to compete in the Indianapolis 500 or NASCAR. He made a major step by winning the TNGP rookie of the race award over far more experienced drivers and on a track he had never seen.
> Logan Seavey, 20, from Sutter, Calif., flew to POWRi Midget Series races in the Midwest this year and drove the No. 4A Boss/Speedway Toyota to the POWRi 2017 rookie of the year and series championship. His sponsor, Rockwell Security of Kansas City and Overland Park, Kan., paid for his frequent flights. He did stay in the Midwest when races were clustered closely together but flew home to California whenever possible. A year earlier he underwent heart surgery.
> Tyler Courtney, 23, raced for the first time at Ventura and was impressive in both a 360 sprint and a midget. He made both features and won the Thursday 30-lap sprint main. Nicknamed “Sunshine” by his late mentor Bryan Clauson, Tyler was voted the 2017 USAC most improved driver. He won 2017 features in all three USAC National Series—one in Silver Crown, five in sprints and three in midgets. He has a twin brother, Taylor, who lives in Dallas and races 360 sprint cars.
> Shane Golobic, 26, from Fremont, Calif. and now from Elk Grove where his car owner Matt Wood resides. He drove one of the four Tim Clauson-Richard Marshall team of Spike/Stanton SR-11 midgets (No. 17w) and finished a close third in the 2017 TNGP. He was runner-up in the 2017 USAC National Midget Series and should be a strong contender for the 2018 USAC Midget Championship.
> Carson Macedo, 21, the impressive Californian races nationally out of Lemoore (near Hanford) and is a strong contender in whatever he drives, midgets or sprints.
> Kalib Montgomery, 17, is a high school senior from Templeton, north of Santa Maria. He races his 360 sprint at Hanford and Tulare and is in his second year racing sprint cars. The Ventura TNGP was only his second time racing a non-wing sprinter. He made the TNGP preliminary night feature with his second fastest time Wednesday.
> Tanner Carrick, 15, is an outlaw kart veteran from Lincoln, Calif. (SW of Auburn). He had midget and sprint car rides as a TNGP rookie and made both features. He drove one of seven KKM midgets (No. 71K) and his Dave Carrick-owned No. 83T GF1/Rider. He raced from 27th starting to a P. 11 finishing position in the 98-lap midget feature and was 17th in the sprint main earlier Thursday.
> Slater Helt, 17, is a high school senior in Kansas City, Kansas. His career goal is “to make a living racing.” The tall (6'3” or so) teen flew to Ventura with his parents to drive one of Steve Watts' 360 sprints in the TNGP. It was pink and black and carried No. 14 (not a usual Watt No. 81).
Watt, owner of Maxwell Industries in Ventura, put No. 14 on one of his four TNGP cars in 2017 to honor the Hagopian family of Fresno. They always used No. 14 on their USAC midget and Brent Kaeding drove their No. 14 to the 1985 TNGP 100-lap victory at Ascot. Patriarch Martin Hagopian and his son Mark both passed away within months of each other last year. Jake Hagopian, of Fresno, raced a No. 14 Spike/Esslinger at the 2016 TNGP in Ventura but he did not enter this year.
At the 2016 TNGP Watt entered five sprint cars (Maxims and one central California-built CS9 chassis). His drivers were: Brody Roa (81), Tristan Guardino (81M), Michael Pickens (81S), Dennis Rodriguez (81T), and Trey Marcham (81X). Four of the five Watt drivers made Thursday's 360 feature, with Pickens the highest finisher (P. 2). Guardino won the 20-lap Wednesday feature.
For the 2017 TNGP Watt entered four 360 sprint cars (two CS9 and two Maxim). He retained New Zealander Pickens as a driver (No. 81X) and employed three new Watt drivers and all three were TNGP rookies. They were: big block modifieds, sprint cars, NASCAR truck vet Stewart Friesen (No. 81), rookie Slater Helt (No. 14), and USAC three-national divisions star Tyler Courtney (No. 81M). Courtney drove a Maxim.
Chad Boat's TNGP ride—the No. 84 2017 Spike/Speedway Toyota—was not his Belleville (Kan.) Nationals Friday, August 4 preliminary night 25-lap main event winning car. Chad won both nights at the 2016 Belleville Nationals. He and his dad Billy field both short and long track midgets. Belleville is the fastest half-mile and the fifth-mile Ventura is among the shortest tracks they race. Chad won his first-ever USAC Western Midget Series 30-lap feature at Ventura on Saturday, September 16. He also won two USAC National Midget Series main events in Pennsylvania during August, 2017. Chad finished seventh in 2017 USAC National Midget final points.
The two midgets owned by two-time USAC Western Midget Series champion Jerome Rodela, of El Monte, were two different types of chassis at the 2017 TNGP. Courtney Crone's No. 25 was a Breka chassis from New Zealand as usual. Michael Pickens' No. 25X was a 2017 King chassis from New Zealand. It was built by New Zealander Justin Insley, who was in the Ventura pits with the Rodela team. Hoods of both midgets carried the name of sponsor Trench Shoring.
Alabama native Kevin Thomas, Jr. now races out of Avon, Indiana. He won a series high seven of the 38 completed 2017 USAC National Sprint Series features, including the Perris Oval Nationals in his own No. 9K. He was a new Ventura TNGP competitor aboard the No. 25 Stealth/Speedway Toyota owned by Scott Petry, from Greenfield, Indiana. He started and finished 13th. The team will continue their association at the 2018 Tulsa Chili Bowl (January 9-13).
DRIVER DATA: Ron Hazelton, of Chatsworth, drove his own 2013 Beast/Mopar midget this year because his driver/daughter Ashley was working in Oklahoma. He said she plans to return to So Cal soon.
Reed Broschart, 27, of Ventura, bought the Dan Tetrick PAS Senior Sprint No. 88 and races it as No. 93 in VRA events. The Schnee/BRC is called B & B Motor-sports because he pits with No. 96 owner/driver Charlie Butcher, of Santa Barbara., for mutual assistance.
Albert Pombo, 31, is a nine-year 360 sprint car veteran from Easton (near Fresno). He raced the No. 35 sprint car owned by his parent--Tony and Susan. Davey Pombo, of Kerman, is his first cousin and both are grandsons of many-times super-modified champion Al Pombo, of Fresno. He raced from the 1950s-70s in a circle 3 car at San Jose Speedway, Kearney Bowl (Fresno) and at the Clovis Fairgrounds among other speedways. Al remained a frequent racing spectator until his death from natural causes several years ago.
Jake Vermeer (No. 87jr) is a 24-year old from Bakersfield. He drove a TCR/Esslinger midget owned by his father Johnny Vermeer, also from Bakersfield. Jake's grandfather, Bob Vermeer, owned the colorful No. 87 CRA sprint car in the 1970-80s. His drivers included Bob Pertusati, Tony Simon and others. Bob passed away in May 1988 according to Jake. He numbered his midget 87jr in tribute to his grandfather.
The No. 51 sprint car driver at the 2017 TNGP was Austin Ervine, of Bakersfield. He is a welding technology student at Bakersfield College. Austin is the grandson of 1960-70s ARA and CRA 410 sprint car driver Allen Ervine, of Phoenix. He drove his own No. 21 sprinter at Manzanita Speedway primarily. Allen died on January 16, 2017 from a heart attack according to his family. Allen's son Jay Ervine, (Austin's father) also raced sprint cars and midgets. The family moved from Arizona to Bakersfield three years ago.