Phoenix Raceway is a 1-mile, low-banked tri-oval race track located in Avondale, Arizona, near Phoenix. The quirky oval in the foothills of the Estrella Mountains has deservedly earned its nickname 'the desert oddball', thanks to its unusual configuration with a dog leg turn and its unique surroundings.
Despite original intentions of being the 'western home of open wheel racing' and a long run of Indycar events, today it is stock car racing that is king. The track currently hosts two NASCAR race weekends annually, the second of which forms the season finale and Championship Race.
An infield and external road course which was once popular for road racing was eliminated during the 2011 remodelling but the external part remains in place as part of the road network for the parking lot.
Opened in 1964 as Phoenix International Raceway, it was originally two-courses-in-one; a 2.7-mile road course and one-mile tri-oval. The road course wound its way around the exterior, departing and rejoining the oval course after Turn One. To accommodate this, the track designers had to incorporate the unique dog-leg on the backstretch, which has become the circuit's signature feature.
Spectators could often get among the best views of oval racing while at PIR – but not from the grandstands. Instead, many flock to the hillside alongside turns 3 and 4 (known as Monument Hill) for a unique top-down perspective. Cheaper ticket prices helped ensure its popularity.
Of course, the desert location does have some drawbacks; the heat tends to make for a slippery race track, while the local wildlife is also an issue: before each race track officials send 'Snake Wranglers' to scour the speedway grounds and surrounding hills to gather up the rattlesnakes that tend to also make PIR their home.
PIR was built with the goal of being the western home of open wheel racing, acting as a replacement for the dirt oval at the Arizona State Fairgrounds. USAC began racing at the track in its first year and the venue quickly became a favourite of drivers. Over the years, Phoenix would host 58 Indycar races, with winners forming a who's who of the sport: A.J. Foyt won the first ever oval race at PIR and added another three USAC wins in later years; Mario Andretti was a four-time victor and the Unser dynasty also enjoyed much success here, with six Indycar wins for Al Sr and four for Bobby.
The road course was just as popular as the oval; indeed, it staged the the first ever events, an informal SCCA regional on January 4-5, 1964, followed by a divisional on February 15-16. Then, in April, Davey MacDonald won an open sports car race. Stock cars also were early visitors to the road course in January 1968, when a USAC event attracted the likes of Parnelli Jones, A.J. Foyt and Art Pollard. Another claim to fame came in 1970, when Hollywood actor-turned-racer Steve McQueen raced his Porsche 908 from pole position to victory in the 17 lap 'Winter Sprint' SCCA event, setting a new lap record of 1m41.9s in the process.
In 1977, the first Copper World Classic was held, a marquee event for USAC midget and Silver Crown cars, featuring two road course races and two oval races. A total purse of $30,000 was offered for the entire event.
NASCAR joins the party and soon becomes dominant
NASCAR held its first races in 1978, when Richard Petty took the first of his three NASCAR Winston West Series wins at the facility, but it was not until 1988 that the Winston Cup cars (now the Sprint Cup) paid their first visit. New owner Emmett "Buddy" Jobe, who had purchased the track for $2.75million in 1985, had been keen to secure a date for the main series and got his wish when PIR was allocated the race previously held by the defunct Riverside Raceway.
Construction of a new three-story suite building outside Turn 1 was completed in double-quick time after the original structure was burned to the ground in a lightning strike in 1987. It increased the seating area to 30,000, just in time for the November NASCAR event, where fans watched on as Alan Kulwicki took his first victory and celebrated in appropriately quirky style, running a victory lap in the reverse direction so that the driver's side was closest to the fans. He quickly dubbed it the 'Polish Victory Lap' and helped seal PIR's popularity among the fans.
At the end of the 1990 season, the oval course was resurfaced and in summer 1991 the old 2.7 miles road course was removed and replaced by a new 1.51 miles infield road course. The new road course would see PIR's first night race in 1992, a round of the IMSA Camel GT Series. Further developments came in 1996, when the grandstand capacity was increased to 65,000.
1997 saw the purchase of the facility by the International Speedway Corporation (ISC). The first significant changes under ISC began in 2003, when the outside wall at Turn 2 was moved out to increase safety. It meant that, for the first time, the perimeter was completely sealed; previously the wall came to an end where the old road course crossed the oval track. SAFER barriers were also installed around the course and a new tunnel built at Turn 4. Track lighting was installed the following year.
In 2006, the Allison Grandstand was expanded from turn 1 to turn 2, increasing the reserved seating to 76,800. Included with the expansion is "Octane", an exclusive lounge on top of the grandstands overlooking Turn 1.
The SPEED Cantina, a one-of-a-kind at-track sports bar and grill, was added in 2008 outside Turn 2. In early 2010, some of the grandstands along the backstretch were removed to allow additional room for recreational vehicles, dropping the seating capacity to around 67,000.
Circuit redevelops and loses the road course
It was NASCAR that turned around the fortunes of the circuit, particularly after the Indycar race lost much of its lustre in the early IRL years and was ultimately dropped altogether from the schedules in 2005, replaced by a second NASCAR date. Estimates suggest the pair of stock car races bring in nearly $473 million annually to the state of Arizona and, with this in mind, plans for a $100 million long-term development at PIR were announced by ISC and the Avondale City Council in 2011.
The first phase, costing $15 million, included a reconfiguration of the track, implementing variable banking between Turn 1 and Turn 2; 10-11 degree banking in the apex of the dog-leg; and 8-9 degree banking in Turn 4. In addition the dog-leg was pushed out a further 95 feet and tightened in radius from 800 to 500 feet, increasing the overall lap to just over 1.5 miles.
The changes led to the sealing off of the road course altogether, confining PIR to oval-only configuration for the first time. The reconfiguration project was completed by mid-August 2011.
The re-configured circuit welcomed the return of Indycar competition in 2016, first with a test session and then the Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix. During the test, Indycar officials measured the oval course as being 1.022 miles (1.645 km). The race would continue through to 2018 before being dropped from the schedule for 2019 following disappointing crowd figures.
Meanwhile, in January 2017, ISC announced a further major investment in the facility to cement its standing on the NASCAR schedule. The $178 million renovation called for major changes to the infield, including a new fanzone and re-configured pit lane, the demolition of the front stretch grandstands and the moving of the start/finish line to stretch between the original Turn 1 and the Dogleg. The works were complete by November 2018 and meant the facility's seating capacity was reduced to 42,000.
Later in 2017 track officials announced a new sponsorship deal with Ingenuity Sun Media (ISM Connect) to rename the track to ISM Raceway starting in 2018. However, the deal was terminated early by mutual consent and the track reverted to the Phoenix Raceway name in January 2020.