VENTURA, Calif. – There aren’t too many better ways for a champion to celebrate a title than in victory lane after winning the season finale.
It’s akin to a walk-off home run to win the World Series. Nothing could be finer.
Tyler Courtney has already wrapped up the 2019 NOS Energy Drink USAC National Midget Series title. A cherry on top, in more ways than one, would be a win in Thursday night’s Turkey Night Grand Prix at California’s Ventura Raceway.
Firstly, he’d win the Turkey Night Grand Prix, the premier midget event on the west coast and the longest, most tradition-race in the sport which dates to the infancy of midget racing in 1934.
Secondly, it would put the 18-time USAC feature winner this year into another exclusive category of drivers, those who have won the season finale and the title in the same season.
To date, it’s occurred five times over the course of the past six decades, with Shorty Templeman as the first individual to accomplish the feat in 1957, walking out of Bonelli Stadium in Saugus, Calif., with multiple pieces of hardware.
Templeman won for car owners Ashley and Kathryn Wright that day.
Bob Wente was the next to do so, accomplishing the feat in 1963 for Bob Higman indoors at Ohio’s Cincinnati Gardens.
In more recent years, the final sendoff to the season has been Turkey Night, though it has been held in a variety of California locations.
Jason Leffler is the lone driver to win both the season opener (Phoenix Int’l Raceway), the season finale (Irwindale Speedway) and the series championship all within the same year.
Courtney is in line to become the second to pull off the trifecta, after opening the season with a February win in the first race at Bubba Raceway Park in Ocala, Fla., and having the championship already in his possession.
An elusive Turkey Night crown, in the event he finished a career-best fifth last year, awaits.
The two most recent drivers to pull off the racing “walk off” were Bobby East in 2004 who, like Leffler, pulled off the feat in the famed Steve Lewis No. 9. The other was Bryan Clauson, who got the job done in 2010 aboard the Corey Tucker/BCI/Keith Kunz-owned No. 39.
Both East and Clauson won their closers at Irwindale, then the venue for Turkey Night.
There have been a number of drivers who have started their season on the right foot and used the early season momentum to propel them to a USAC National Midget title, however.
Courtney could become the second consecutive driver to win the season-opening race and cruise to a championship, following Logan Seavey’s title run from 2018, which started at the Southern Illinois Center in DuQuoin, Ill., during the Shamrock Classic.
Fellow drivers who have done that feat include Mel Kenyon (1968), Rich Vogler (1978) and Steve Lotshaw (1979), who all were victorious in January events at the unpredictable indoor concrete bullring of the Memorial Coliseum in Ft. Wayne, Ind.
Leffler got the job done at Phoenix Int’l Raceway in 1999, followed by Bryan Clauson at Kansas’ Dodge City Raceway Park in 2011 and Rico Abreu at Kokomo Speedway in 2014.
Championship or otherwise, it’s been nearly two decades since a driver has won both the season opener and finale within the same year.
Tony Stewart was the most recent in 2000, winning both February’s Copper World Classic at Phoenix and Turkey Night at Irwindale at November.
Parnelli Jones bookended the 1964 campaign with wins at Ascot Park. Rich Vogler won indoors to open 1984 and ended it in victory lane under the sunshine in Phoenix.
Billy Boat ramped up a spectacular year in 1996 with a February Copper World Classic triumph and wound it down with his second of three-straight Turkey Night wins at Perris, Auto Speedway. And Leffler scored both ends of the 1999 season at Phoenix and Irwindale.
Could Courtney be the next?
Find out Thursday night during the 79th running of the Turkey Night Grand Prix, going 98 laps and featuring the top midget drivers in the country. Hot laps start at 3:15 p.m. Pacific.