Better know your NASCAR tracks, Part Deux

Phoenix International Raceway Grandstand

Guest Blogger Robert Bostic joins us again from our Korean Office to give you a lesson on Phoenix International Raceway. Thanks for reading and let us know if you want to hear more from him as we move throughout this NASCAR season. Be sure to check out his last post on Daytona as well!

Well, the boys are heading out to Phoenix this weekend. Well, I guess I should say the boys and Danica. Life is so complicated these days. I reckon I better get to telling you about what’s to know about this tarmac in the middle of the desert. After a whole bunch of research, I’ve got to tell you, there’s a whole lot more than what I originally thought.

Indy at Phoenix - 1965

Phoenix is a pretty old racetrack. It was built back in 1964. Much like Michigan International Speedway, it was built to showcase open wheel cars. Mainly, open wheel cars from the CART series, you know, Indy cars. And that it did. Check it out! Old school Indys! Be patient for the excitement.  At about 4:35 it gets exciting! Al Unser wasn’t too happy, as he was driving in the lead with an injury from the previous race when he was wrecked by some lapped car idiots. Basically, at 6:40 in this video, I thought I’d seen a guy die. Johnny Rutherford has won the Indy 500 3 times, and he was relatively o.k. after the crash. He’s a great driver, and this scared the hell out of me! If you keep watching you’ll see Rick Mears lose a tire after getting only right sides changed. Also, notice no pit road speed limits. The right rear tire changer probably lost his job soon after, became an alcoholic and then killed himself. Racing used to be way crazier!

Well, anyway, the place is a mile long and really flat. By flat, I mean 10-11 degrees progressive banking in turns one and two and 8-9 degrees in turns three and four. By NASCAR standards, it’s like hanging out at a gentleman’s club all year, and then visiting an Asian church choir meeting. Maybe, I’ve gone too far with such an analogy. In fact, I know I have. Sorry ladies. But I’m not even saying that it’s a bad thing. In fact, it’s the best thing about the place. Double entendre for the win?

Image of Phoenix reconfiguration plans

Let’s just let it be known that most ovals in NASCAR have more than 12 degrees of banking. Even tiny ½ mile Martinsville, at 12 degrees per corner, is steeper. The only place you can respectably compare Phoenix to is Loudon. But Loudon is a straight up oval with even less banking. I’m not a big fan of Loudon. I’m a bit confused on how it gets two race dates a year. I’m guessing the reason sounds like this, “$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$.” But anyway, let’s stop with the racial stereotyping and get back to Phoenix.

Phoenix is probably my favorite race track in NASCAR. It’s because it’s way different from the other tracks in the schedule. The only similarity it holds to any track on the rest of the schedule, short of low banking, is that each corner is different. The only other oval with similar traits is Darlington, which happens to be one of my other favorite tracks in NASCAR. You have to do a lot with your setup here to get the car to work well in both corners.

The track is really neat in that A) it doesn’t have the same banking on both of its major corners and also B) the back stretch has a kink/dog leg. That makes the track really unique. That’s something I, and any avid motorsports fan should look for in a sui generis race track (big words we just learned the meaning of together). Every track should be different and require different things from the competitors. I know a lot of people will find that crazy talk. To hell with those folks!

Daytona had the high banked tri-oval dog leg that was later copied by Talladega. Here was the thought process of designing Talladega…Oh, let’s make it .16 miles longer than Daytona with 2 more degrees of banking, leave out the lake and road course, and move the finish line somewhere else. Seriously.  I just did what a contractor made millions on in one sentence. I need to get in to track designing already!

Charlotte has the double dog leg on the front stretch that was later copied by tracks like Texas and Atlanta. Furthermore, the length of Charlotte and similar layouts were implemented by tracks like Texas, Kansas, Chicagoland, Las Vegas and Homestead. Even though Homestead is a true oval, it still follows the 1.5 mile model. I hate uncreative people. These track designers all either ripped off Charlotte or Atlanta before it’s reconfiguration in some way and now these tracks make up 11 of the 36 race schedule per year.

Be unique for God’s sake! There are a million ways to design an oval track and the only one of these that was slightly different from Charlotte was a perpetually turning backstretch at Chicagoland. And that difference isn’t even creative, it’s just annoying!

OK. I’m taking a deep breath. Woosah, as Richard used to politely say to me.

Back to the topic. Phoenix is a really cool track. It’s very unique, as I’m overstating by now, and very slippery. That probably is due to the track’s flatness as much as it is to do with it being in the middle of the desert. Hot temperatures plus the plenty of sand that gets on this place makes it that way. That certainly helps out anyone in the field with some previous dirt track experience in their driving careers. You know, people like Stewart, Edwards, Johnson, Kahne, or Gordon. Even Jr. and Harvick, unexplainably, run well here and have had a couple of Sprint Cup wins each here in the past.

Phoenix from the hills...

The track was built to be a mega sporting complex. Much like Darlingon’s layout was changed due to a fisherman’s lake, Phoenix’s layout was changed due to a drag strip. That’s why the place isn’t all pretty and symmetrical. It started out as an open wheel expo track with a road course that ran outside of the oval and then rejoined it. There’s one inside it to this day, and it sucks. That’s why there was that weird backstretch wall placement after turn 2 for all those years. If you don’t remember it, I’m sorry. If you watched that Indy car video from youtube I put up earlier, you can see it on the backstretch. There are at least two gaps in the outside wall back in those days that could have easily killed someone, if it didn’t. I just know that they reconfigured the track a little more than 10 years ago because it was so dangerous how they had laid it out for the 30+ years before.

What scared me the most about motorsports has its roots at Phoenix for me. Open wheel cars just shouldn’t be racing at ovals, well, short of Indianapolis, but that’s just for prestigious and manly purposes and I’ve made myself a fool for even making such a statement. I will be that fool, about Indianapolis at least, forever. They really probably shouldn’t even do it there. But for an Indy 500 win, I’d probably willingly risk my life too. Not to say I’d be happy dying there trying, which is the vindication that analyst give to the place if anyone is killed there. It’s sick that they even do that. Everybody always gives this b.s. argument of, “well at least they died doing what they loved” to romanticize things. Not many people die willingly. And most people don’t die before old age happily and on purpose. I’m sure that if Earnhardt had known what was going to happen, or Senna, or Bonnett, or Petty, or Ratzenberger, or Irwin, or Brayton or so many others, they would have done things differently on their days.  It’s one of the sickest cop outs in auto racing journalism. Not enough make this fact known. But moving on…

I’ll let you in on why I have such thoughts about how crazy high speed ovals are for Indy cars. I watched a race in 1994 that involved Mario Andretti’s son, Michael. This Phoenix track is super fast for open wheelers. In fact, the track record for the open wheelers is over 183 mph AVERAGE speed. The NASCAR hot lap was just over 137 mph average in qualifying trim. The Indy guys flied around this place, and it’s only a mile long. Think about it for a second. That’s faster than 1.5 mile ovals like Kansas where NASCAR runs. Those NASCAR cars at least have a windshield and roll cage. Those Indy guys were crazy!

Anyway, while watching a race at Phoenix with the Indy car drivers I saw this footage live in 1994. At ten years old, I had pretty much figured out that these guys ought not be at high speed ovals. The wheel seems to hit Michael Andretti’s head. Just think, a person with a 10 year old’s sensibility could have prevented Dan Wheldon’s death. Even Indycar agreed, and stopped racing at Phoenix in 2005. Unexplainably they kept racing at pack racing tracks such as Texas or Las Vegas. Not to mention Michigan! I guess that money talks. Rear ends and/or money in the stands are more important than drivers or spectators sometimes. And that’s a complete shame.

I know spectators have a risk at motorsports contest, as Richard will also attest to me hiding behind a grandstand while a late model car at a certain short track in Roxboro had it’s body work flapping in the wind while it was unexplainably never black flagged. There’s a clear distinction between being a bitch and being smart. That fact, I hope someone is now starting to realize. (In other words, do you get my fear of being killed by loose car parts now, Richard?)

Alan Kulwicki and his, um, team.

NASCAR didn’t start running at Phoenix until 1988. That’s 24 years after the track opened to open wheel drivers. And thank God they finally came there. For you NASCAR nuts out there, you might know who won that inaugural race. The guy’s name was Alan Kulwicki. That guy was the last owner/driver to win a NASCAR championship before “Stewart” pulled it off last year. I put Stewart in quotes because Kulwicki owned his entire team, and moved from Wisconsin with a truck, a car, and two engines to start his NASCAR career.  That same team of his won the Winston Cup Championship in 1992. He blew off offers from people like Junior Johnson, because he wanted to do it his way. If you can’t recognize the balls such a man would have via the previous sentence, read up on NASCAR a bit. He turned down a ride from the best car owner in the business at the time, just so he’d be able to say he did it all by himself. No teammates, just him.

Phoenix was the site of the first “Polish” victory lap. Have you ever wondered where that term came from for guys celebrating a win by driving backwards around the track? Kulwicki, of Polish decent, wanted the fans to remember something about his first victory. So, he drove his victory lap backwards after his first win in NASCAR at Phoenix. NASCAR was livid about it. They nearly fined him for the charade. He didn’t care, which made me like him that much more. He never did it again after a win, because of NASCAR pressure, until he won the Winston Cup Championship in 1992.

Alan was a guy who did things differently from everyone. I like people like that. If you don’t know much about him, I highly suggest watching this documentary by Speed’s “The Day” series. It’s the first NASCAR race I ever saw flag to flag, thanks to my godfather recording it on VHS. Six drivers, in the old points system entered the event with a chance to win the championship. After watching, I was perpetually hooked to NASCAR.

Young Jeff Gordon

That finale Atlanta race, in Atlanta Motor Speedway’s old configuration, was also the site of Richard Petty’s last race, Davey Allison’s tragic points loss, Kulwicki’s unbelievable underdog victory over legend Bill Elliott, the year of Ford dominating due to aerodynamic rules, and a guy with a mustache and a mullet’s (Jeff Gordon) first NASCAR start. Pretty cool.

Two amazing drivers, Kulwicki and Allison, would lose their lives in the following year after that race, in crashes unrelated to the track, which lead to a tribute from Earnhardt and Wallace after the season finale of 1993.

Skip to about 6:20 in this youtube video to see one of the most awesome tributes I’ve ever seen in motorsports. Earnhardt won the championship that year with 6 wins. Rusty had 10 wins but just wasn’t as consistent. Wallace won the race, but Earnhardt won the championship. This event further cemented my love of the sport.

Well, as usual, I hope everyone learned a bit about this week’s race track. I know the place was repaved recently, and I further hope that more than one groove comes into play. Prepare to see Danica have to deal with braking and car set ups, along with everyone else in Nationwide. I hope the best for her. This is where the season really starts. Setups are crucial and this is where real racing talent can start to be truly judged. Let’s all share in a thank God we’re not at Auto Club Speedway like we used to be in previous years. Hope the race is fun, and I hope you learned something today!

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2 thoughts on “Better know your NASCAR tracks, Part Deux

  1. Great editing, Phil. Thanks for the effort! Hope it was an enjoyable read.

  2. Pingback: NASCAR Afterthoughts: Phoenix | THE SPORTS DUMP

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