PHOENIX — Setting foot this week on the concourses at Phoenix’s Sky Harbor Airport, travelers to the desert capital city couldn’t miss the full-court publicity blitz for NASCAR Championship Weekend. Look up, and a video display showed highlights, a schedule and ticket information. Look down, and graphics of cars placing makeshift burnouts on the terminal floors were everywhere.
Add in the stories-high building downtown wrapped with Chase Elliott’s trophy celebration from a year ago, throw in the full-sized billboards around town, and the big-event feel has grown even stronger. The Phoenix area has recently hosted the Super Bowl, the NCAA basketball Final Four and the college football championship game. This week, it’s giving big-league stock-car racing the same treatment.
All those plans, though, were deferred dreams. Phoenix Raceway was announced as the championship site for the 2020 season all the way back in March 2019. Track president Julie Giese said that the buildup for that event started from that day on, but the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic one year later forced necessary adjustments for Phoenix’s debut as title-race host.
“We tried really hard to still capture that championship moment because for a lot of fans who could still attend, our season ticket holders, it was their first championship,” Giese said as part of a kick-off ceremony Thursday morning at the Arizona Capitol Building. “So we wanted to make sure we could make it as special as possible, given the restrictions and protocols that were in place. We learned a lot, honestly, and it helped us understand some different ways that we could celebrate.
“So for us now, this event that we’re having this weekend, we started planning that in March of ’19. We’re able to take a lot of those ideas and now finally bring them to life.”
NASCAR will crown three national-series champions this weekend, culminating with Sunday’s Cup finale (3 p.m. ET, NBC/NBC Sports App, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) at the Phoenix-area oval for the second straight year. Thursday signified almost a grand reopening, with dignitaries rolling out a welcome at the capitol, a processional of the Championship 4 haulers through downtown Phoenix and one of the first in-person media days since the pandemic began.
Some of the elements that made last year’s title weekend somewhat muted — with limited fan attendance and other personnel restrictions in place — have been amended or lifted altogether. Sunday’s race is a sellout, and campgrounds and other fan amenities have been reopened.
“I’m super glad to hear that,” said Elliott, who added that he’d seen pictures of his image on the downtown building, but had yet to see it in person. “I feel like Phoenix has been a great host. I’d like to see (the finale) continue to jump around, but I appreciate everybody out here in the Phoenix area supporting us and those that have traveled in to see it, too. Been a great host, and hope it’s a good show for them.”
Elliott is back to defend his Cup Series championship, but said that he didn’t feel like the lack of fanfare in 2020 took anything away from the competition. “I think the buildup was still there,” Elliott said. “The same thing is on the line, right?” Austin Cindric also returns to try to repeat the Xfinity Series title march that he made a year ago. Should he win, a repeat of the celebration — such as it was under protocols — might also be in order.
“Not that I would say it wouldn’t happen this year, but our team celebration last year was in the parking garage of our hotel in the back of a pickup truck with a cardboard box full of beer,” Cindric said. “So, not as glamorous as you might think, but probably just as effective as a team experience.”
Glamorous and effective are certainly goals, and Phoenix is hoping to achieve both in drumming up community interest. The NASCAR logo, images of the trophy and drivers have been wallpapered around town, and Giese said plans are already stirring for next season’s championship weekend — already locked in for the Arizona track in 2022.
“I think this is something that we want to continue to grow,” Giese said. “I’ve been around this sport a long time and I want to keep raising the bar, like, I don’t want it to ever settle and I don’t want anybody to ever think, well we did this already or this looks the same as last year. Hopefully our fans will notice that when we go out to the race track. Our community notices it, so I want to grow it bigger and better.”