Fifty years of Phoenix racing through a fan's eyes

March 01, 2014, Pat DeCola,

Phoenix International Raceway celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2014

(All photos courtesy of Phoenix International Raceway.)

AVONDALE, Ariz. -- There are fans of racing -- and then there's Larry Ogburn.

As Phoenix International Raceway celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, the Kingman, Ariz., resident is as much a part of the history of the one-mile oval as the likes of desert heroes Alan Kulwicki and A.J. Foyt -- considering he's been here to see races in each of those fifty years.

"I've been coming here since I was 12 years old in 1964," Ogburn said. "I've come to this track for 50 straight years. It might not have always been NASCAR, it might not have been IndyCar, it might've been the road race cars, it might've been the go-karts were running out there. But if something was going on, I was there."

The parade lap before the inaugural race on March 22, 1964: A.J. Foyt, on the outside front row in the No. 1, led all 100 laps of the 1964 Phoenix 100 USAC Champ Car Series in front of 7,000 fans.

Ogburn, whose father was long ago affiliated with United States Auto Club racing, said he was 'born into racing in 1951' and spent most of his childhood attending numerous midget, sprint car and any other type of races he could find. Ogburn's first wife also happened to be the daughter of former Cup Series competitor and West Coast Stock Car Hall of Famer Jim Cook, whose 1956 Chevrolet used to be parked in his backyard.

Neil Bonnett led 99 of 156 laps, but it was Cale Yarborough who took home the trophy --  from a field that also included Bobby Allison -- in the first-ever NASCAR event held at the track, the 1977 Winston West Inaugural Phoenix 250.

When NASCAR rolled into Phoenix in 1977 in the form of what is now the K&N Pro Series West, it was eye-opening, but nothing could've prepared him for what happened in 1988, when the Cup Series came to town.

"When they first came to (Phoenix) I was like, 'Man, this is some good stuff,' " Ogburn said. "But then in 1988, when Alan Kulwicki went backwards, this place went nuts. Me included."

The late Alan Kulwicki was immortalized after he won the inaugural Cup Series race at Phoenix International Raceway, winning the 1988 Checker 500 and celebrating with the first 'Polish Victory Lap,' taking the checkered flag and running the one-mile oval clockwise.

He's referring, of course, to Kulwicki's "Polish Victory Lap," which the former Cup Rookie of the Year treated the Phoenix fans to for the first time when he won the Checker 500 and spun his victory lap clockwise.

Mike Skinner grabbed the win in the first-ever Truck Series race on Feb. 5, 1995 at Phoenix. He, Terry Labonte and Ron Hornaday Jr. combined to lead all of the race's 80 laps, with Skinner edging Labonte by a slim .09-second margin.

For a man that's seen just about every historic moment at the track, that surprisingly didn't rank as his favorite memory.

"I was a big Davey Allison fan and I don't know why, but when he won in 1991 and '92, that was some big stuff for me. But just all those guys, Darrell (Waltrip) and Dale (Earnhardt), this place is awesome. It's the world's fastest one-mile oval. Go stand next to that track, man, the wind's blowing. Somebody asked me the other day why I still enjoy it. I said, 'Just go walk out that door and you'll know.' It's just all good racing."

On April 23, 2005, Kurt Busch led a whopping 219 laps to wind up in Victory Lane in not only the first spring Cup race at Phoenix, but also the first night race for the series as well.

In terms of Sunday's Sprint Cup Series race, the heavy favorites at Phoenix are almost always Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick, but who are the dark horses? Nobody knows better than Ogburn.

"Carl Edwards is good here. I love Tony Stewart here. I like his experience here through the years, he knows this joint well. Kurt Busch, too. Do I have a favorite? I kind of like Jeff Gordon, but you know what? I like them all, man. When you're out here it's because you're good. You ain't here because you're not."