Phoenix International Raceway
Settled in the foothills of Arizona’s Estrella Mountains, Phoenix International Raceway is one of the most challenging ovals in America. Though originally built for open-wheel competition, over the past two decades this desert flower has become even more famous for stock car competition.
With its short front straight, low-banked corners and trademark left-hand dogleg down the backstretch, this demanding one-mile circuit has been a favorite with top driving talent since it opened for racing in 1964. That fall Mario Andretti got his big career break when he manhandled an old front-engine Offy “roadster” IndyCar around the tricky track.
Other legendary Indy shoes, including A.J. Foyt, Parnelli Jones, numerous Unsers and Michael Andretti all competed successfully at Phoenix. Not that it was easy. Before he won the first of his three Indy 500s, a young Bobby Unser speared his new rear-engine IndyCar through the track’s guardrail just about up to his nose. In 1993, Nigel Mansell, fresh off a world title in Formula One, found out just how challenging oval-track racing can be when he literally knocked a hole in the by-then concrete wall during practice for the spring IndyCar race. The reigning world champion, who ultimately captured the IndyCar crown that year, suffered a concussion and missed his scheduled oval racing debut. The IndyCar lap record is 183+ mph, set by Dutchman Arie Luyendyk. That lap took just 20 seconds to complete – so he may have just held his breath all the way around.
NASCAR’s top series first showed up in 1988, and though they lap 50 mph slower than their open-wheel counterparts, stock car drivers have found the challenge of going fast around PIR just as daunting. The list of NASCAR Sprint Cup Series winners reads like a Who’s Who of NASCAR, including Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, the father and son Earnhardts, Tony Stewart, Kurt and Kyle Busch, Bill Elliott, Kevin Harvick, Matt Kenseth, Jeff Burton and Tony Stewart.
In addition to NASCAR’s top tier, the NASCAR Nationwide Series, NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series and NASCAR Camping World West Series also compete at PIR, and each year USAC sanctions the Copper World Classic, a weekend festival of Silver Crown and Midget racing. PIR also regularly plays host to the Sports Car Club of America and other road racers on a 1.5-mile combination oval and infield road course.