Friday, April 11, 2008

NASCAR Tracks: Phoenix

Alan Kulwicki driving his first
Phoenix International Raceway (located in Avondale, Arizona, a Phoenix suburb) was constructed in 1964 and was originally designed for open-wheeled cars.  The NASCAR Cup Series didn't begin racing there until 1988. Al Unser, A. J. Foyt, Tom Sneva, Richard Petty (racing in the NASCAR Winston West Series), Ken Schrader (racing in the National Midget Series), and Steve McQueen have all been winners at PIR. This was the site of the first "Polish Victory Lap" when Alan Kulwicki recorded his first Cup victory at the track's first Cup Series race on November 6, 1988.  A second Sprint Cup race was added to the schedule in 2004.

The track, shaped around the rugged terrain of the Estrella Mountains foothills (hence the little dogleg in the back straightaway), features a one-mile tri-oval, a 2.5-mile road course, and a drag strip.  After the construction of nearby Firebird International Speedway, use of the drag strip declined dramatically.  PIR used to have an external road course before the infield course was built and replaced it.  In 2002-03, a tunnel was constructed under Turn Four for infield access.

NASCAR prefers to use the oval. The banking is not very steep -- just eleven degrees in turns 1 and 2, nine degrees in turns 3 and four and the backstretch, and an almost flat three degrees in the frontstretch. The biggest issue with the track is that the two ends of the track are so different. If a car is dialed in to handle turns 1 and 2 well, it probably won't handle well in turns 3 and 4, and vice versa. Weather is almost never a factor. Only one Cup Series race, in 1998, was shortened by rain. The track seats 76,800.

Jimmie Johnson leads all drivers with four Phoenix wins.  Ryan Newman holds the Sprint Cup qualifying record, 26.499 seconds (135.854 mph), set in 2004.

In October 2009, NASCAR and their television partners announced new uniform start times for all NASCAR Sprint Cup races with all night races starting at 7:30 p.m. ET.  To ensure that the Phoenix night race in April (which would begin at 4:30 p.m. local time) actually finishes under the lights, NASCAR decided in January 2010 to increase the race by 63 miles -- from 312 laps (500 kilometers) to 375 laps (600 kilometers).  Yes, PIR is one of the few tracks where the races are measured not in miles or laps, but in kilometers.  The Subway Fit Fresh 500 would become the Subway Fit Fresh 600.  PIR also hosts a Nationwide Series race in April.

The fall weekend in November is one of the biggest events in the state with the Sprint Cup Series, the Nationwide Series, the Camping World Truck Series and the Featherlight Southwest Series all holding races.  The Sprint Cup race, the Checker O'Reilly Auto Parts 500 presented by Pennzoil, is the ninth race in the Chase for the Sprint Cup.

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