Phoenix Preview

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At long last, the Verizon IndyCar Series makes its much anticipated return to Phoenix International Raceway (PIR). The series has not raced there since 2005. That doesn’t sound that long ago until you realize what has transpired since then.

In 2005, George W. Bush was just starting his second term in the White House. Gas prices were just about where they are right now and Hurricane Katrina was still five months away from IndyCar’s last appearance in Phoenix. There were no touch-screen smart phones and the iPod had just been invented. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire and Star Wars Episode III: Return of the Sith were ruling at the box office.

Tony George was still in charge of IndyCar in 2005. Open-wheel racing was split between the IndyCar Series and the Champ Car World Series, and would not unify for another three years. The IndyCar Series ran on fourteen ovals and only three non-ovals. Tomas Scheckter won a race for Panther Racing that season, Danica Patrick was a rookie, Sam Hornish was the man to beat in IndyCar; while Dario Franchitti and Dan Wheldon had zero Indianapolis 500 wins between them. Yes, it’s safe to say that a lot has transpired in the world since IndyCar last raced at Phoenix.

But a new era begins this weekend with the Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix (would that be the DDWVPGP?). The race will be televised live tomorrow night on NBCSN, with coverage beginning at 8:30 EDT. Longtime motorsports broadcaster Rick Allen will be making his IndyCar broadcasting debut on NBCSN, as he subs for Leigh Diffey.

While most believe that PIR was built for NASCAR, that is not the case. The track was built in 1964 to be a hub for open-wheel racing in the west. The first USAC Championship race was held on March 22, 1964 and was won by AJ Foyt, one of ten races won by Foyt during that thirteen-race season. NASCAR did not race at Phoenix until 1978. The 1964 season finale also took place at Phoenix on November 22 and saw Lloyd Ruby take the win.

Sadly, just five days after that season-ending race – popular driver Bobby Marshman crashed at PIR while doing tire tests. The crash ruptured the fuel tank and Marshman suffered second and third degree burns. Although he was able to walk away from the crash initially, he succumbed to the effects of the burns on December 3, 1964.

From the track’s first season in 1964 through 1986, USAC and then CART ran twice a year at Phoenix. Beginning in 1987, CART ran the one-mile dogleg oval only once a year through 1995. Phoenix International Raceway became one of the first staples of CART to jump to the fledgling IRL in 1996, where it stayed until after the 2005 season.

Since 2005, PIR has been the domain for NASCAR, who coincidentally started racing twice a year the same season that was IndyCar’s last at Phoenix.

Finally, there is order in the universe. IndyCar belongs at Phoenix. Phoenix is almost as much a part of IndyCar lore as IMS and Milwaukee. Even though they reconfigured the track in 2011 to accommodate the heavier and less nimble stock cars of NASCAR, this has always been a track best suited for IndyCar. Comments from the drivers during the Test in the West last month, did away with any fears any of us had that the track had been ruined by the new configuration. It didn’t take long for the IndyCar record to fall as all twenty-one cars obliterated the old record of 183.599 mph set in 1996 by Arie Luyendyk.

There are still a few drivers in the field that raced at Phoenix in 2005. OK…well, four actually – Tony Kanaan, Helio Castroneves, Scott Dixon and Ed Carpenter. Kanaan has won twice (2003-04) and Helio once (2002). Of those three veterans, they all had decent times when IndyCar tested at Phoenix in February. Dixon was ninth quickest, while Kanaan was sixth fastest and Ed Carpenter was fourth quick in the combined practice times. But top honors went to Helio Castroneves, who blistered Luyendyk’s record with a lap of 190.894 mph.

To add a little drama. the transporter carrying the KVSH Racing car of Sébastien Bourdais caught fire on its way to Phoenix earlier this week. While the transporter suffered extensive damage, the two-person crew on board was safe, and the car and the equipment sustained no damage due to the quick action of the two on baord the truck. Still, something like that has to be unnerving to the team. This is not the first time a transporter has caught fire. Will Power’s did a few years ago, and it seems as if I can recall that Graham Rahal’s did as well, more recently.

So who will come away with the win on Saturday night? Normally, I tend to go with experience. The choices are wide open. Logic would say to go with a Penske, Ganassi or Andretti driver. After all, most of the Top-Ten in last month’s test came from those teams. It’s hard to pick against a two-time winner in Tony Kanaan, or a past-winner and last month’s fastest driver Helio Castroneves – but I’m going to.

My pick had a breakout season last year, but he has never won on an oval. He’s getting close, however. The last three ovals of 2015, he finished fifth, second and second respectively. He had a bad start to this season at St. Petersburg and has had three weeks to think about it. Most importantly, he and his teammate were both consistently fast at February’s test in Phoenix. Of course, I’m talking about Nashville native Josef Newgarden with Ed Carpenter Racing. If history serves as any indicator, I’ve now doomed Newgarden to a disastrously low finish at Phoenix this weekend. For his sake, let’s hope not.

George Phillips

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7 Responses to “Phoenix Preview”

  1. We continue to get the races live in the UK on BT Sport. No practice or ‘news’ shows that I can find though….

  2. tonelok Says:

    Man that is a great perspective. A lot has changed indeed since 2005 and not really for the better. It makes one realize the the rapid pace of change in our modern day. I wonder how many people that attend the race this weekend at PIR know this is an IndyCar track? I also hope they bring their Verizon app with them because at 3 laps a minute they are not going to have a clue what is going on. Get ready for some serious speed and unprecedented g-forces. I can’t wait.

  3. I remember as a kid loving the Phoenix 150 more than any other race except the Indy 500, and almost as much. Good to see Indy running at the track again. Now we have to get Milwaukee and several of the other lost tracks back.

  4. Ron Ford Says:

    No one can ever accuse you of not doing your homework George.
    Good stuff! Excitement is building in this household. A kiss of death for any driver is for me to pick them to win, so I will keep my thoughts to myself.

  5. billytheskink Says:

    I would support naming this race the Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix Bobby Ball And Jimmy Bryan Memorial (DDWVPGPBBAJBM).

    Guess who’s planning on going home for lunch to watch NBCSN’s coverage of the first practice session?

  6. Saturday is going to be fantastic. Playing some basketball, then my son’s first tee-ball practice, followed by Final Four games and of course the race. Been looking forward to this for a long time. I think we’re going to see a great crowd, and a lot more passing on track than people think.

  7. I am pretty stoked that we have Phoenix this Saturday night. I think this looks like a driver’s track. Let’s see.

    For my pick, I will go with Ed Carpenter over Josef Newgarden, however, I like Newgarden in this one a lot. I just think the track will come to these guys pretty fast.

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