News & Media

Retro Racing: Phoenix's rich racing history dates long before PIR

November 08, 2012, Mark Aumann,

As NASCAR returns to the Valley of the Sun for the penultimate race weekend of the season, it's a good time to look back at the role the Phoenix area has played in the history of stock-car racing -- and in the racing history of two drivers named Ron Hornaday.

The old state fairgrounds dirt mile, located near the current intersection of Interstates 10 and 17, made its debut on the NASCAR circuit in 1951 -- as only the second Grand National race ever run west of the Mississippi River, two weeks after NASCAR visited California's Ascot Speedway. A portion of the original grandstands still exists, although much of the track has been paved over for use as parking lots.

Just like at Ascot, series regular Marshall Teague's Hudson was the class of the 30-car field that day, which included Tim and Fonty Flock, Herb Thomas, Indianapolis 500 winner Bill Holland and Southern 500 winner Johnny Mantz. Teague, a Daytona Beach native, led all but 22 laps -- those going to pole-sitter Fonty Flock -- and after grabbing the lead on Lap 80, was never headed.

Four years later, Phoenix was once again added to the schedule as NASCAR began to make more inroads on the West Coast. At that point, the sanctioning body was running as many as three races on the same weekend, with all points going towards a national championship.

While the majority of the 1955 field was made up of local drivers, the Flock brothers and Speedy Thompson made the tow out West. It proved quite lucrative -- relatively speaking -- for Tim Flock, who dominated from the pole, lapped the entire field and led all 100 laps to take home the $1,000 first-place purse.

Finishing 14th that day in his NASCAR debut was a young driver from San Fernando, Calif., named Ron Hornaday. He went on to run a total of 17 Cup races during the next 18 seasons, with a fourth at Sacramento in 1960 and a fifth at Ascot the following year as highlights. However, Hornaday won back-to-back Pacific Coast Late Model championships in 1963 and '64.

Buck Baker won at the fairgrounds in 1956 and Colorado native John Rostek scored his only Cup victory there in '60. Soon after that, Phoenix International Raceway was constructed southwest of town.

PIR was built to showcase open-wheel racing -- which it did for more than four decades. But even though NASCAR's premier division didn't add the flat mile oval to the schedule until 1988, many of its top stars had raced -- and won -- at Phoenix.

That's because after the Cup season ended at either Ontario or Riverside, many of the series regulars hung around one more week to run the Winston West race at PIR, since the cars had nearly identical specs. For example, Cale Yarborough, Neil Bonnett and Bobby Allison finished 1-2-3 in the 1977 Phoenix 250.

Richard Petty won three of the next four Winston West events there, sandwiched around Neil Bonnett's 1979 victory. And Allison scored a Phoenix win in 1982, the last year the Cup interlopers found it worth their time and effort.

Much has been made of Alan Kulwicki's stunning victory -- and subsequent Polish victory lap -- in the inaugural Cup race at PIR in 1988, but that was actually a companion event with Winston West. Seven of the 43 starters were Winston West regulars, including the ageless Hershel McGriff. In fact, the first nine Phoenix races paid points for both series.

Even so, Cup wasn't the first of NASCAR's national series to find a home at Phoenix. The official first race of the new SuperTruck Series was run at PIR during the Copper World Classic race weekend in February of 1995. And Mike Skinner, driving a No. 3 black-and-silver Chevrolet owned by Richard Childress, held off Terry Labonte's Hendrick-owned No. 5 in a wild side-by-side finish.

In that race, a driver out of Palmdale, Calif., by the name of Ron Hornaday Jr. finished ninth -- four spots better than his father did 40 years earlier. Hornaday Jr. went on to bigger and better things: four Truck championships, 51 wins ... and counting.