By Frank Santoroski, Staff Writer
The Verizon IndyCar Series will make its return this weekend to the Valley of the Sun for the Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix.
About the Race
The race will be the second race of the sixteen-race schedule for the Verizon IndyCar Series. It will be the first oval track event of the season, in a schedule that compromises five oval races.
IndyCars will be returning to the iconic track for the first time since 2005.
Staged as a a Saturday Night event, the race will run 250 laps for a total race distance of 255.50 miles. The winner will be presented with the A.J. Foyt trophy. The trophy was named after the legendary driver recognizing him as the first ever winner at PIR back in 1964.
The weekend will also feature action from the Indy Lights Series.
About the Track
Located in Avondale, AZ, Phoenix International Raceway sits like an oasis in the desert surrounded by hillsides covered with cactus.
The track is a modified oval that features a dogleg on the backstretch. The track measures at 1.022 miles and is low banked. Turns one and two are banked at 11 degrees, as is the dogleg. Turns three and four are a bit flatter at only 8 degrees, while the front stretch is a mere 3 degrees.
Having opened in 1964, the Raceway has hosted USAC, CART, NASCAR, The IRL and Sports Cars over the years.
The track was purpose built for open-wheel racing, but began to host NASCAR lower division races in 1978. Adding the Cup Series in 1988, the track now hosts two races per year for the Sprint Cup Series.
When the CART/IRL split occurred in 1996, Phoenix was one of the few tracks that moved away from CART and went with the fledgling IRL. With dwindling attendance, as the IRL began to add road racing to its schedule, Phoenix dropped off of the open wheel calendar in 2005.
This weekend’s return has been highly anticipated, as teams, drivers and fans are pleased to be coming back to a facility with such a rich racing history.
Phoenix International has been the host of some very seminal moments in racing history.
In 1970, a young driver named Swede Savage out-dueled Al Unser and Roger McCluskey and made a last lap pass to take his first, and only, USAC win. Savage’s life would be cut short following a devastating crash at Indianapolis in 1973.
In 1987 Roberto Guerrero failed post qualifying inspection, and started at the back. During the event, he drew a stop-and-go penalty, but still managed to win the race.
In 1988, with the Winston Cup Series making its debut at Phoenix, Alan Kulwicki took his first Cup win. He proceeded to take his victory lap in the wrong direction, to be able to wave at the fans. Thus, the Polish Victory Lap was born.
In 1993, Phoenix was the site of the last win for a true racing legend, Mario Andretti. 53 years old at the time, he is the oldest winner of an IndyCar race.
In 1997, privateer Jim Guthrie mortgaged his house to keep his racing team afloat, and held off a charging Tony Stewart to take his one and only IRL win.
About the Field
The 2016 Verizon IndyCar Field represents one of the strongest, talent-packed top-to-bottom lineups we have seen in years.
22 drivers will take the green at Phoenix, comprising the 21 full time participants with the addition of Ed Carpenter, who runs an oval-only schedule.
Of those drivers, sixteen of them are IndyCar race winners, six have won championships in IndyCar or CART/Champcar, and five are Indy 500 winners.
Drivers in the series represent eleven different countries around the globe, making it a truly international field.
While Phoenix represents a new challenge for the bulk of the field, some of the old guard have raced, and won at the track.
Both Helio Castroneves and Tony Kanaan have posted victories in the desert before the track dropped off the schedule. The track is a bit different this day and age, having been reconfigured in 2011 to better suit the NASCAR cars.
Juan Pablo Montoya, having run as a NASCAR regular from 2007 through 2013, has more Phoenix experience than the rest of the field on the new configuration, albeit in a very different race car.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, we have Alexander Rossi and Luca Filippi, both of whom will be making their first oval start. Both are talented road racers and looking forward to this very unfamiliar challenge.
About the Series
The current Verizon IndyCar Series was born out of the Indy Racing League, which absorbed the rival ChampCar World Series in 2008. In the years since the reunification, the series has seen slow, but steady growth.
Over the past several seasons the racing produced by the series has been second to none, and the Championship battle has gone down to the final race.
Without the benefit of a gimmick like the Chase, the Verizon IndyCar Series has produced enough close racing and drama to satisfy the racing fan.
The positive growth in recent years bodes well for the Series that is owned by Hulman and Company. The centerpiece of the series is the Indianapolis 500, which will have its historic 100th running this coming May.
Teams in the series use a common chassis, the Dallara DW-12, named in honor of the late Dan Wheldon, who did much of the development testing of the car. The chassis has aerodynamic components that differ according to the engine manufacturer.
Chevrolet and Honda are the engine partners for the Series with each supplying a 2.2 Liter V-6 turbocharged engine to the teams that are capable of producing 700 hp at 12200 rpm. All cars in the series run Firestone Firehawk tires.
Where and When to Watch
Without a doubt, the best place to watch will be from the grandstands at the track. Phoenix Grand Prix tickets are very reasonably priced, ranging from $40-$75 for a grandstand seat. Kids under 12 are just $10.00 and all grandstand tickets also include pit access. Tickets are available here.
If you are not in the immediate area, NBC-SN will broadcast practice on Friday, April 1st at 1:00 pm Eastern time , and qualifying at 5:00 pm ET. The race will also be broadcast on NBC-SN beginning at 8:30pm ET Saturday April 2nd.
Other coverage options include Sirius XM radio (Sirius:209, XM:212). Timing and scoring can be found at www.indycar.com and fans can keep up with all of the action on the IndyCar 16 app provided by Verizon Communications.
Image: Chris Jones/INDYCAR