Column By: REID SPENCER / NASCAR – AVONDALE, AZ – Phoenix Raceway is a major intersection in and of itself.
If that seems strange for a track located south of Phoenix—and not all that far from the Mexican border—let’s acknowledge that we’re using the term “intersection” in a figurative sense.
Opened in 1964, some 13 years after NASCAR held the first of four Cup Series races at the Arizona State Fairgrounds in Phoenix, the one-mile, irregular-shaped speedway in the Sonoran Desert has seen a confluence of just about every form of racing imaginable.
From 1976 through 2009, Phoenix Raceway hosted the Copper World Classic, which featured competition in USAC National Midgets, USAC Silver Crown and Super Modified divisions.
Though those were open-wheeled race cars, many of the successful drivers in the Copper World Classic are quite familiar to NASCAR fans—Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Jason Leffler, Kenny Irwin Jr. and J.J. Yeley, to name just a few.
During its varied history, which once included a 2.7-mile road course that meandered inside and outside the oval track, Phoenix has been home to the NASCAR Cup, Xfinity and CRAFTSMAN Truck Series; the ARCA Menards Series; and the NASCAR Mexico Series.
Other forms of racing have included AMA Supercross; Formula Atlanta Championship; Barber Pro Series; Can-Am; CART; Grand-Am Rolex Sports Car Series; IMSA GT Championship; IndyCar; Indy Lights; NASCAR AutoZone Elite Division; SCCA Formula Super Vee; Trans-Am; and U.S. F2000 National Championship.
Suffice it to say that Phoenix Raceway—and in a broader sense, the state of Arizona—has been a melting pot for racers of all varieties and a talent-rich source for car owners searching for the next superstar.
Kurt Busch, the 2004 NASCAR Cup Series champion, made his reputation in Arizona, though not at Phoenix Raceway. Racing against the likes of NASCAR Hall of Famer Ron Hornaday Jr., Greg Biffle and Kevin Harvick, Busch turned heads in the 1997 Winter Heat Series at Tucson Raceway Park.
A year later he was rookie of the year in the NASCAR AutoZone Elite Division, Southwest Series, and in 1999 he won the series championship.
The Cup Series has raced at Phoenix 53 times, including the debut event in 1988. The NASCAR Xfinity Series competed at the one-mile track for the first time in 1999, with Jeff Gordon winning the inaugural race by 1.036 seconds over Dale Earnhardt Jr.
But it’s the NASCAR CRAFTSMAN Truck Series that’s most deeply rooted in the Sonoran Desert. The series debuted in 1995 at Phoenix, with Mike Skinner winning the inaugural race on the way to the first series championship.
In fact, the first season of the Truck Series was heavily Western-centric. After Phoenix, the trucks raced at Tucson, Saugus (Calif.), Mesa Marin (Bakersfield), Portland and Evergreen Speedway (Monroe, Wash.) before heading east. The final three races of the season took place at Sonoma, Mesa Marin and Phoenix.
Though NASCAR is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year, and though many of NASCAR’s top stars raced in Arizona before they gravitated to stock cars, the state has produced only a handful of successful NASCAR drivers who were born there.
Three such drivers—Alex Bowman, Michael McDowell and Yeley—currently compete in NASCAR’s top division.
“As far as why other drivers haven’t come out of Arizona—I think there have been a lot of really talented drivers come up from there, but, yeah, it’s tough,” Bowman said. “Coming from the West Coast in particular is tougher than the East Coast.
“There’s not as many race tracks there as there used to be. Obviously, development has kind of stopped down there. But, yeah, hopefully that changes and we see more drivers come from that area soon.”
McDowell, the 2021 Daytona 500 winner, was an instructor at the Bondurant School of High Performance Driving in Goodyear, Ariz., before he became a full-time NASCAR driver. McDowell is eager to return to familiar surroundings for Sunday’s United Rentals Work United 500 (3:30 p.m. ET on FOX, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
“It’s always fun to go home,” McDowell said. “I wish we ran better at Phoenix. It’s kind of been an Achilles heel for us the last few years… But it’s just nice to see friends and family and have a hometown crowd and support. You definitely feel that on the weekend.”