Kahne Is the Big Man in Midget Racing

Thanksgiving is a month away, but U.S. Auto Club midget car drivers will get a tuneup Saturday night at Irwindale Speedway for the annual Turkey Night Midget Grand Prix, one of midget racing’s greatest events.

Steve Lewis, Laguna Beach entrepreneur and car owner whose cars have won the last two Turkey Nights with Jason Leffler and Tony Stewart driving, will have his latest protege, Kasey Kahne, in the 30-lap main event. Kahne, from Enumclaw, Wash., finished second to Stewart last Thanksgiving night.

Leffler and Stewart will be in Phoenix for NASCAR’s Checker Auto Parts 500 Winston Cup race on Sunday.

Kahne, 21, the reigning USAC midget car champion in Lewis’ No. 91 Ford-powered Beast, is considered one of the hottest prospects in the country, having been handpicked by the Ford Motor Co. to move up the racing ladder. Besides his midget races this season, Kahne has run in Toyota Atlantic and Formula Ford 2000, and has tested one of Bobby Rahal’s CART Reynards.


“My relationship with Ford began when I first started driving for Steve Lewis and [car builder] Bob East in midgets before the 2000 season,” Kahne said. “The first time I sat down with Steve and Bob, Dan Davis [director of Ford racing technology] was also there. We got together at the [Performance Racing Industry] show toward the end of 1999 in Indianapolis and decided that part of driving for Steve and Bob would also include something with Ford.

“Things went well last year, so this year Ford started sending me to driving schools. I went to [Bob] Bondurant’s, then did some testing in a Busch [stock] car as well as Team Rahal’s champ car. I had some talks with Richard Childress and Joe Gibbs about driving in NASCAR, but after I got the champ car test, I decided it would be really good to try and run in CART.”

Until the Rahal test, Kahne had been planning to follow in the footsteps of former USAC champions Jeff Gordon and Stewart and make a run at Winston Cup.

“Why did I change my mind? It was just the way I felt in the car, and the way the power, the steering and the brakes felt, and just how quick and reactive it is when out on the track. Just getting to drive a car that handles and reacts like a champ car does for 250 miles was unbelievable. I never expected it to be like that.”

Also driving in Saturday night’s midget car race will be Tracy Hines of New Castle, Ind., 2000 USAC Silver Crown champion, and third-place finisher in last year’s Turkey Night race. He will also drive in the 40-lap sprint car feature.

Stewart, who still hopes to defend his Turkey Night Midget crown on Thanksgiving night, even though he must drive Gibbs’ Home Depot Pontiac the next day at Loudon, N.H., in a Winston Cup race postponed because of the Sept. 11 attacks, will be making his 100th NASCAR start Sunday.

It is fitting that his milestone race will be in Phoenix, since it was on the D-shaped mile oval that he scored some of his most memorable wins, one in a midget last January.

“It was pretty cool because I actually won twice that day, once as a driver and once as an owner with Jason Leffler. The midget race is the one I drove. I beat Leffler, Davey Hamilton, Ryan Newman, Dave Steele, Billy Boat, all the USAC regulars.”

Leffler won a USAC Silver Crown race the same day in a car owned by Stewart.

Stewart also won the first Winston Cup race he ran at Phoenix, a victory he credits to his background in open-wheel racing there.

“With every division of car that I’ve run there, I’ve ended up running a different line,” he said. “With that, I’ve learned a lot about where the sweet spots are on the racetrack. I know a lot about that racetrack and the different places that can make you go fast or slow. It gave me the opportunity to adapt a lot more to the car than to the racetrack.”

Stewart, who has often said he would rather drive a midget than any other car, is three for three in his most recent midget outings. After winning at Irwindale last November and at Phoenix in January, he took time off from his NASCAR duties to score a spectacular win at Big Daddy’s South Boston Speedway the night before a Winston Cup race two weeks ago in Martinsville, Va. He was trailing Bob East’s son, Bobby, at the white flag after having twice spun and dropped to the rear of the field. He passed East exiting Turn 2 to win.

“Bobby’s only 16 and he’s gonna have a lot more chances for victory in his career,” said Stewart about beating his car owner’s son. “I’m 30 and he’s got 14 years to get where I’m at and I don’t know how many more opportunities like this I’m going to get.”

Bobby East, whose father once raced California Racing Assn. sprint cars, will be in a midget Saturday and again Turkey Night at Irwindale.

Jay Drake, who won a USAC three-quarter midget race last Thanksgiving night at Irwindale, equaling the USAC record shared by A. J. Foyt and Sleepy Tripp for wins in a year with 19, had also planned to race Saturday night. He suffered serious head injuries in an accident last week in a midget car race at Terre Haute, Ind., however. The Val Verde driver’s car struck the pit-entrance barrier head-on and flipped. He also suffered a broken left arm and collarbone.

Drake’s condition is listed as good and doctors said his head injuries had “minimized” and that he should be out of intensive care today. He will remain in Indianapolis Methodist Hospital for a while.

Sprint Cars

Richard Griffin, three-time Sprint Car Racing Assn. champion, will resume his defense of the non-winged world championship this weekend at Manzanita Speedway in Phoenix. Griffin leads 1999 non-winged champion Cory Kruseman by 29 points with two races remaining at Manzanita and two more Nov. 1-3 at Perris Auto Speedway.

Kruseman clinched the 2001 SCRA crown with a seventh-place finish at Ventura Raceway last Saturday night.

“It’s a dream come true,” said Kruseman, a Ventura native. “For many years, I watched the CRA guys race and who’d ever think that I’d be champion. I’ll probably look at that list of champions and think it’s a misprint.

“We still want to win the owners’ championship for Harlan Willis. We’ve been together for eight years now, and before that he helped me in TQs.”

With 280 points available, Willis’ car holds a 141-point lead over Ron Chaffin, a six-time owners’ champion.

J.J. Yeley of Phoenix, who clinched the USAC sprint car crown last week, has entered the non-winged races at Manzanita, as have such Midwestern favorites as Tony Elliott, Bill Rose and Ed Carpenter, winner of last Sunday’s USAC race at Salem, Ind. Carpenter is the stepson of Indianapolis Motor Speedway President Tony George.

Last Laps

Alex Barron, 31, of Menifee, will replace Brazilian Max Wilson in the Arciero-Blair Racing Lola-Ford in Sunday’s Honda Indy 300 at Surfers Paradise, Australia, and the CART season finale Nov. 4 at California Speedway. It will be Barron’s first CART race since last year at California Speedway when he finished eighth in the Marlboro 500.

CART driver Dario Franchitti and his fiancee, Ashley Judd, will host the fourth Runway Madness next Friday night at the Ontario Convention Center. The benefit for Championship Auto Racing Auxiliary charities features live entertainment with CART drivers, and an auction of racing memorabilia. Details: (317) 299-2277.

Kenny Bernstein, the first drag racer to exceed 300 mph and the only driver to win both funny car and top-fuel championships, has been named No. 6 in the National Hot Rod Assn.'s list of top 50 drivers.


This Week


Checker Auto Parts 500

When: Today, qualifying (CNN/SI, 1:30 p.m.); Sunday, race (Channel 4, 11:30 a.m.)

Where: Phoenix International Raceway (tri-oval, 1 mile, 11-degree banking in turns 1-2, nine degrees in turns 3-4), Avondale, Ariz.

Race distance: 312 miles (500 kilometers), 312 laps.

Last race: Dale Earnhardt Jr. got his third victory of the season in the EA Sports 500 at Talladega Superspeedway, holding off Tony Stewart as 16 cars crashed behind them on the final lap.

2000 winner: Jeff Burton.

Next race: Pop Secret Microwave 400, Rockingham, N.C., Nov. 4.

On the net:


Outback Steakhouse 200

When: Saturday, race (TNT, noon).

Where: Phoenix International Raceway.

Race distance: 200 miles, 200 laps.

Last race: Two-time series champion Randy Lajoie won the Sam’s Town 250 on Oct. 13 in Millington, Tenn.

2000 winner: Jeff Burton.

Next race: Sam’s Club 200, Rockingham, N.C., Nov. 3.

On the net: www.nascar.com2.


Honda Indy 300

When: Today, qualifying, 8:45 p.m.; Saturday, race, 8:45 p.m. (ESPN 10 a.m.Sunday).

Where: Australian Street Circuit (road course, 2.795 miles, 12 turns), Surfers Paradise, Australia.

Race distance: 181.675 miles, 65 laps.

Last race: Max Papis won the Honda Grand Prix in Monterey after starting 25th in the 26-car field.

2000 winner: Adrian Fernandez.

Next race: Marlboro 500, Nov. 4, California Speedway, Fontana.

On the net:


ACDelco Nationals

When: Today, qualifying 1:45 p.m.; Saturday, qualifying 10:30 a.m.; Sunday, final eliminations race, 9:30 a.m. (ESPN2, 4p.m.)

Where: The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Las Vegas.

Last event: John Force won a record 11th NHRA title with a second-place finish at the O’Reilly Fall Nationals in Ennis, Texas.

2000 winners: Kenny Bernstein, top fuel; Jim Epler, funny car; Jeg Coughlin, pro stock; Angelle Savoie, pro stock motorcycle, and Bob Panella, pro stock truck.

Next race: Automobile Club Finals, Nov. 11, Pomona Raceway, Pomona.

On the net: