Desert Sands – A look at NASCAR racing history in Arizona
Welcome back! Thank you for the warm welcome! So you know, pictures from Phoenix International Raceway are coming this weekend, it is my first time there! I am always excited to go watch a race at a track I have never been to!
Phoenix International Raceway was built in 1964 but joined NASCAR’s schedule in 1988. At the track’s first Cup showing, Alan Kulwicki started 21st and raced his way to the front to win the season’s penultimate race of the season. People don’t tend to associate the West- California, Oregon, Utah, Nevada, Arizona and other exotic states with NASCAR’s history. Of course, the famous Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah picked up where the beaches of Daytona left off, becoming the destination for setting land speed records. But what of Arizona? There’s a big hole right in the middle of it! How many tracks can there be?
In 1951, the Grand Canyon State (or Copper State, take your pick) almost hosted NASCAR’s first Grand National Race in the West; that particular honor is held by Carrell Speedway, a half mile dirt track in Gardena, California. Regardless, the Arizona State Fairgrounds in Phoenix, a mile dirt track, (built in 1910) hosted the second NASCAR Grand National race in the west, two weeks later. Marshall Teague won both those races in hisHudson, in case you were curious.
(Image courtesy of J. Deal and BrazilBrazil.com)
The Arizona State Fairground track in Phoenix hosted three other races in the 1950’s and one last one in 1960. The track at Tucson Rodeo Grounds hosted a single race in 1955. Until 1988, NASCAR’s Cup series did not return to Arizona. That is not to say that there were no tracks in the state. In the 1950s, there were about fifteen or so active tracks at one time or another in the state. Many of them are lost or were short lived; but racing was present in the hot sands of Arizona just as it was in the red clay of the Carolinas. 1964, the year that Phoenix International Raceway opened, was a year for both tragedy and innovation within NASCAR. Fireball Roberts (a personal racing hero of mine), Joe Weatherly, and Jimmy Purdue were all lost that year. Engine power increased rapidly,and the increased engine power quickly overran tire technology and the frame construction of the cars. Richard Petty won the Championship and Chrysler made the decision to pull factory support out of racing for the 1965 season.
I’ll tell you. Not that you probably aren’t already, but you might put Jimmie Johnson on your Fantasy Team this week. In twenty-seven races at this track, five drivers have won back to back races at Phoenix International Raceway. Davey Allison started it in 1991 and 1992 and he was followed up with Jeff Burton (2000/2001), Dale Earnhardt, Jr. (2003/2004), Kevin Harvick (both races in 2006) and Jimmie Johnson in (2008).. (ok, he won three in a row, one in 2007 and two in 2008). I don’t usually do stats, unless they are historical, but that is a pretty impressive run for drivers! Plus, I think that Chad Knaus is this generation’s Smokey Yunick, but I’ll tell you all about him another day.
And look! a follow up note from last week’s column! I noticed while I was reading up on the 1964 NASCAR season in Greg Fielden’s Forty Years of Stock Car Racing v2 (my Bible of All NASCAR History) that Bowman-Gray hosted an Easter Monday race in 1964.
Someone had mentioned this little fact to me this week as well. I never knew! I suppose it is that Easter Monday is no longer a common holiday, but I am curious about how many races were held that day. I will look into it and find out for us! On that note, if you ever have a question or anything to add, do let me know! The best thing about being any kind of historian, is learning more about what you love. Send me facts, questions, trivia, whatever! I’m happy to know and share!