Racing Roundup: How NASCAR Ruined a Perfectly Good Speedway

Only one F1 race to go (thank goodness!) and the Monster Energy Final Four mount up for Miami

By Norris McDonald Wheels.ca

Nov 12, 2018 14 min. read

Article was updated 5 years ago

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Ever since I saw Bobby Unser crash coming out of Turn 4, Johnny Rutherford spinning and crashing in Turn 1, Mario Andretti and Gary Bettenhausen getting together at the dogleg on the backstretch and on-and-on, I wanted to see the Phoenix International Raceway (now ISM Raceway) in person.

I finally made it out there in February, 1989, for the long-gone Copper World Classic, when the USAC sprints and midgets, my beloved supermodifieds and a western states NASCAR division all took part in a series of heats and features. I was in all my glory when, while waiting outside the sign-in window, I was thrilled to see in line ahead of me the great midget racer Ron (Sleepy) Tripp, in from California, and legendary USAC sprint-car team owner Louis A. (Boston Louie) Seymour, who’d hauled all the way out there from – well - Boston.

How can you beat that, I thought?

Phoenix International – or, PIR as it was known – turned out to be everything I’d imagined it would be. In those days, before they built a tunnel to the infield, you had to wait outside the fence just past Turn 2 for a break in the action. Then, a gate would be opened and cars on trailers and fans on foot could walk across the macadam into the infield.

Once inside, you would look across at the grandstands that lined the front stretch from deep in Turn 4 all the way along to Turn 1. At the start-finish line, high above the grandstand, was a large officials’ box where timing and scoring was located and TV announcers perched. In the early 2000s, between Turns 1 and 2, a large grandstand with suites was constructed.

The grounds – both inside the speedway and outside the facility - were manicured. I’ll tell you how neat everything was. The grass was clipped up to where there was a pit of crushed gravel. Get this: not a blade of grass could be found in or around the gravel. Thatshows attention to detail.

And then there was this jewel – a hill overlooking Turns 3 and 4. Cacti grew up there and – for the benefit of television when a race broadcast would go to air – a couple of people on horseback would always be at the top. Despite signs – small, but you couldn’t miss them – warning people to be on the lookout for rattlesnakes, that hill was a great place to watch the racing.

And get this (and I lifted this right out of Wikipedia, because I didn’t notice it myself): at the top of that hill is a U.S. Geological Society bench marker, known as the Gila and Salt River Meridian, which is listed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places. Long before Phoenix International Raceway existed, this spot was the original land survey point for all of what later became the state of Arizona.


I mean, the place was magnificent.

When I tuned in Saturday afternoon to watch some of the Xfinity Series race (won by Christopher Bell, with Daniel Hemrick second and Matt Tifft third (Canadians Alex Labbe and Donald Theetge were 20th and 25th, respectively); click here for details

In a playoff round that has been feast or famine for Christopher Bell, the driver of the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota Camry gorged to his heart’s content on Saturday at ISM Raceway. Starting from 38th, Bell roared through the field to win the Whelen Trusted To Perform 200 NASCAR Xfinity Series ...

I couldn’t believe my eyes. I was aware that NASCAR was spending upwards of $178 million on “improvements” at PIR but in what can only be symbolic of everything that is wrong with NASCAR these days, I can say flat out that they have, instead, completely ruined what was once a fantastic facility.

First, there was hardly anybody on the hill (as compared to previous years), which means people were discouraged from going up there. The front-stretch grandstands between Turns 4 and 1 are all gone. Torn down and carted away. The grandstands and suites encircling Turns 1 and 2  have been extended a bit of the way along the backstretch but then they just stop too. So there are no grandstands for spectators around two-thirds of the one-mile race track.

And they have moved the start-finish line from where it’s been since 1964, when the place was opened, to the middle of what used to be Turn 2. And because the flagstand was moved, Turns 3 and 4 are now Turns 1 and 2 and 1 and 2 are now 3 and 4.


What they have done with that place is an abomination. It is stupid. They have taken the character right out of the place. It is nothing like what it once was – a gem in the desert. Now it looks like a Saturday night short track that’s under construction and far from finished.


The track management had the nerve to Tweet out on Friday night – and again several times on Saturday - that the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup race Sunday afternoon was SOLD OUT! No kidding. Before they started this “renovation,” they had seating for about 76,000; now they have seating for about 45,000. When you have 30,000 fewer seats to sell, SOLD OUT! doesn’t mean all that much.

And the TV shills who masquerade as professional sports announcers – I have never been so blunt in describing those people in this way – gushed on and on about how wonderful the new Phoenix is. “It’s so fan-friendly,” said one – as if it wasn’t before? “Look at that, the spectators can stand right beside Victory Lane,” enthused another. (You wonder if they’re reading from Cue Cards . . .) And, as if on cue (and yes, they areon cue), about two dozen spectators turned around and looked at the TV cameras and waved. I guess that was their (and NASCAR’s way) of telling those of us at home how much we were missing by not being there.

Well, I have news for them: I know what I’m missing and it’s not what’s there now. It’s the old Phoenix International Raceway, before somebody decided to wreck it.

The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup race Sunday was won by Kyle Busch, with Brad Keselowski second and Kyle Larson third. Click here for full details.

Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, Martin Truex Jr. and Joey Logano are the four drivers who will now compete for the championship next Sunday afternoon at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Canadian D.J Kennington of St. Thomas, Ont., finished 27th out of the 39 drivers who started the race on Sunday.


FORMULA ONE: Before Sunday, there were two races remaining in the 2018 Formula One season. Now, thank God, there is only one.

Lewis Hamilton won the world championship two races ago so it’s frankly painful to have to watch these races. This  is like the Boston Red Sox winning the best-of-seven World Series four games to one over the Los Angeles Dodgers but then deciding, ‘Oh, what the hell, let’s play two more games anyway.’ Does that make sense? Of course not.

I know they have to hold these races. They are on the schedule. But under the circumstances, nobody should be taking them seriously. I’m reading the stories and listening to the commentary and people are writing and talking as if there was something still at stake. And please, don’t talk Inside Baseball to me and say the Constructor’s Championship was still in doubt. Nobody except Toto Wolff cares about that championship. Nobody. Simply for the record, Mercedes won it. Was there ever any doubt?

Now, although Hamilton says he’s not interested in breaking all of Michael Schumacher’s records (ho, ho, ho), he would not be interested in stepping aside because he wants all the pole positions and race wins he can get. But Sebastian Vettel’s mind is clearly elsewhere (I’m not going into the nonsense he got himself into on Saturday, except to say it’s time for him to go) and Marcus Ericsson has announced he’s leaving for IndyCar, so why not do something radical? Why not let the test drivers drive in these races? Or let Charles Leclerc start his career at Ferrari early and let Kimi go to Sauber early. It’s going to happen anyway, so why not do it now? Anything to keep people interested.

Chase Carey and the rest of the F1 braintrust should start thinking now about how to avoid this in future. NASCAR had this problem earlier in the millennium, where the championship was decided with races still to be run, so it was one of the reasons they created the playoff system. Like it or not, next weekend when the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup goes to Miami-Homestead for the final race, four drivers will be in contention to win the championship. Wouldn’t it be nice, if – when the circus moves on to Abu Dhabi for the last race – the world championship was still up for grabs?  I think so.

Lewis Hamilton (gee, what a surprise . . .) won the Grand Prix of Brazil Sunday, with Max Verstappen second and Kini Raikkonen third. Click here for a complete report.

[caption id="attachment_127738" align="alignnone" width="413"]Phoenix International Raceway Max Verstappen and Esteban Ocon collide during the Brazilian GP Sunday. Ocon was trying to unlap himself and took out  Verstappen, the leader, who was not happy and went after his rival following the race.[/caption]


NASCAR, in preparation for the sale that’s coming (and, by the way, a sale might just be what the business needs to escape the malaise it’s currently in, so I say bring it on), has offered to purchase all outstanding shares of International Speedway Corp. Although ISC is an entity separate from NASCAR, everybody knows who owns it and runs it (hint: does the name France ring a bell?)

I hate that sort of thing as much as I hate the grocery business. You know, your local supermarket is the retail side of the business and it gets its products from the wholesale side of the business, and they are both owned by the same company. So wholesale sells to retail at a markup and retail sells to you at a markup and so the company that owns everything gets not just one but two markups on the same apple. The only party in this three-way transaction who doesn’t benefit is . . . you.

Anyway, I predict the offer to purchase those shares will be successful . . . . .

Fernando Alonso and McLaren will return to the Indianapolis 500 in 2019. This, apparently, is big news. I can think of two people I would rather see back at Indy before Alonso - Allesandro Zanardi and Robert Wickens. Anyway, Alonso is going back because he thinks, as he did the first time, that it’s only a matter of time and he will be a cinch to win. We’ll see.

Austin Cindric, the 20-year-old son of Penske Racing President Tim Cindric, will drive the Team Penske No. 22 full time in next year’s Xfinity Series. Joey Logano, who has raced the car on a full-time basis in recent years, will now share a second Penske Racing car with other Penske drivers like Paul Menard and Brad Keselowski. Austin Cindric won a  NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park a couple of years ago in true NASCAR fashion: he punted the leader off the track on the last lap and went on to win.

Brett Moffitt won the Camping World Trucks Series race at Phoenix Friday night, with Noah Gragson second and Harrison Burton third. Monster Energy Cup driver Kennington was 21st and B.C. Pinty's Series driver Jason White finished 26th. Moffitt and Gragson will be joined by Justin Haley and Johnny Sauter in a four-driver showdown for the trucks title at Homestead-Miami next Friday night.

Robert Kubica has reportedly (translation: someone is floating a rumour) been offered a race seat with Williams for 2019. If true, what a shame. I am the first to feel sorry for Kubica and his bad luck seven years ago but if Williams really has a seat open, it should go to a young up-and-comer. Kubica, it is reported (there’s that word again), will think it over and advise Williams of his decision “in a few days.”

Speaking of Williams, what a mess that team is in. No money and they think a 33-year-old who hasn’t driven an F1 car in combat for seven years can get the job done. If Carey, et al, really want to build up the sport, they have to do what the NHL did in 1953 or ‘54. In that six-team league, the Chicago Black Hawks (they have since made the team name one word) were simply hopeless. They couldn’t win a game. The league governors, in the name of parity, decided to donate players to the Hawks in an effort to make them competitive. Eddie Litzenberger was a Montreal Canadien. They gave him to Chicago after he’d already started the season as a Hab. He won Rookie of the Year that season and was part of the rebuilding that took that Chicago team to the Stanley Cup final in 1961, a place they hadn’t been since 1944. So, there are ways, for the good of the sport, to help the weak teams. F1 should consider something like that for Williams.

One more thing about F1. They are going to race in Vietnam. Really. In Hanoi. I'm not so sure . . .

Some People Never Learn, Dept. Indy 500 competitor Bill Whittington, who was sent to jail in the 1980s for drug smuggling, was released in the early 2000s and vowed to go straight from then on. A few weeks ago, he was sentenced to 18 months in jail for tax evasion. I wonder what he’ll vow the next time they open the door to let him out.

From the NHRA website: For the first time in NHRA history, all four Mello Yello world champions also won the season-ending Auto Club (Pomona, Calif.) NHRA Finals. Steve Torrence completed a perfect Countdown playoff in Top Fuel and was joined in victory by J.R. Todd (Funny Car), Tanner Gray (Pro Stock), and Matt Smith (Pro Stock Motorcycle). The 2019 NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series season will kick off with the Lucas Oil NHRA Winternationals Feb. 7-10 at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona. But the U.S. Army sponsorship will be gone from the NHRA. Sunday was their last kick at the can. Whether Tony Schumacher, Antron Brown and/or Leah Pritchett (who qualified No. 1 Friday night with some amazing speed runs) will be back in 2019 remains to be seen.

[caption id="attachment_127740" align="alignnone" width="920"]Phoenix International Raceway Steve Torrence (left), J.R. Todd, Tanner Gray and Matt Smith each won NHRA championships Sunday in the season finale at Pomona, Calif.[/caption]

And, finally.

Sunday afternoon, while we were watching the Brazilian GP, my wife, who is not an auto racing fan, said: “How is Michael Schumacher?” I replied, “He’s alive but other than that, I can’t tell you anything.”

I still can’t, but by coincidence my colleague, Jeff Pappone, sent me a photo of this poster and some information about a fund-raising campaign to help raise money for charity.

ZOOM and Keep Fighting launch poster to celebrate Michael Schumacher’s career

ZOOM and the Keep Fighting Foundation launched a new poster this week celebrating the career of legendary seven-time Formula One World Champion, Michael Schumacher.
The poster depicts Schumacher on his way to victory in the 2000 world championship, his first title with Ferrari and third title overall. The image is inspired by the Art Deco posters of F1's past and is the tenth in the series, following posters featuring famous drivers and circuits such as Nigel Mansell, Circuit of the Americas, Silverstone and Monaco.

The poster was produced for ZOOM and Keep Fighting by design agency, Crooked Cartoon, and is printed at A2 size with a silk finish.

The Keep Fighting Foundation will receive a donation from the sale of each print. The non- profit organization aims to channel the positive energy received by Michael Schumacher and the Schumacher family into a global movement by developing initiatives in the five key areas of culture, education and development, science, public health, and motivation.
Sabine Kehm, on behalf of the Schumacher family, said: “We are delighted to be partnering with ZOOM to raise money for the Keep Fighting Foundation. This is a stunning way to celebrate Michael’s iconic career.”
Alex Sylt, founder of Crooked Cartoon, said: “We’re very pleased that Keep Fighting has chosen to work with ZOOM on this project. I’d like to thank the Schumacher family and Ferrari for their support for this project. Michael’s record-breaking championship run is one of my favourite F1 memories and I’m honoured to be celebrating his career through my art.”
To order the poster, please visit: Michael-Schumacher keep-fighting-poster

Phoenix International Raceway

About Keep Fighting
Launched in 2016, the non-profit Keep Fighting Initiative was originated from the desire to give something back to the people who are sending so much sympathy and positive energy to the family of seven-time Formula 1 World Champion Michael Schumacher since his accident in December 2013. The Keep Fighting Initiative is inspired by the attitudes that Michael Schumacher's fans always admired him for: to always keep fighting and never give up, even if there is only the slightest chance. Through various activities the Keep Fighting Foundation wishes to honour the support of these attitudes among fans of Michael Schumacher and at the same time continue the charitable work on his behalf.

Phoenix International Raceway

About ZOOM
ZOOM was launched in 2012 as an initiative from Money Sport Media, the publisher of Formula 1 business data guide, Formula Money. The ZOOM auction of signed photos taken by F1’s drivers and team principals has been held annually since, raising more than £100,000 for charity. In 2016, ZOOM launched its series of Art Deco posters dedicated to the great drivers and circuits of motorsport history. The ZOOM Michael Schumacher poster is the tenth in the series.

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