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Photo: Joe Skibinski/INDYCAR

New-look IndyCar Set to Make Oval Racing Debut at Phoenix

by Frank Santoroski           @seveng1967 

Photo: Chris Owens/INDYCAR

After a successful street course debut a few weeks ago for the Dallara IR-18, the Verizon IndyCar Series will run the new car for the first time in race conditions on an oval track at ISM Phoenix Raceway in Avondale, AZ the weekend of April 6-7.

The Desert Diamond West Valley Casino Phoenix Grand Prix will be round two of seventeen in the highly-anticipated 2018 IndyCar season. Staged as 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, named after the legendary driver who was the first ever winner at Phoenix Raceway.

When the Indy cars returned to Phoenix in 2016 after an 11 year absence, the cars, adorned in the manufacturer aero-kit trim, failed to put on an impressive show. Passing was difficult to impossible, and the 2017 event was essentially a follow-the-leader procession that led to an easy win for Simon Pagenaud in the Penske car.

Better short-track oval racing was one of the stated goals of the new universal aero-kit. Data from a late-winter test in Phoenix would seem to indicate that the lower downforce configuration should allow for closer racing, and actual passing. However, until we see an entire field of cars dicing for position next weekend, we can only speculate.

About the Event

The Desert Diamond West Valley Casino Phoenix Grand Prix will mark the 64th appearance for Indy cars at the track, dating back to 1964. The track hosted open-wheelers twice a year through 1987, when expansion in the CART series led to scaling back to one annual appearance.

The IndyCar weekend will be a two-day event with practice and qualifying on Friday, and the race Saturday night. The USAC Silver Crown Phoenix Copper Cup and the Desert Vintage Classic will be the support races.

Among the planned activities will be a celebration commemorating the 25th anniversary of Mario Andretti’s final IndyCar win that occurred in 1993 at Phoenix. The Newman/Haas Lola car that he drove to victory that day will be on display, along with three other of his Phoenix race-winning cars from 1966, 1967 and 1988.

Andretti’s grandson, Marco, will wear a special tribute helmet and sport a throwback livery on his car that is reminiscent of Mario’s 1993 ride.

A grid reunion is planned for the drivers from the 1993 CART Series. Among those confirmed to attend are Al Unser Jr., Emerson Fittipaldi, Paul Tracy, Jimmy Vasser, Lyn St. James, Bobby Rahal, and Arie Luyendyk.

About the Track

Located in Avondale, ISM Raceway sits like an oasis in the desert surrounded by cactus-covered hillsides. The track is 20 miles southwest from the heavily-populated city of Phoenix, the state capital of Arizona.

Having opened in 1964, the Raceway has hosted USAC, CART, NASCAR, The IRL and Sports Cars over the years. Owned and operated by International Speedway Corporation, the current seating capacity is 51,000.

The track is a modified oval that features a dogleg on the backstretch. Measuring at 1.022 miles, the course is relatively 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.

Over the years, several changes have been made to the layout, including a redesign of the infield road course in 1991, a redesign of Turn 2 in 2003, and lights being added in 2005. In 2010, the dogleg was reconfigured, progressive banking was added to the turns, and the pit lane was changed from asphalt to concrete. The infield road course was also sealed off and closed for good.

The IndyCar weekend will be the last race in the current configuration, as the track is in the middle of a major renovation project that will be complete when the NASCAR weekend rolls around in November. The renovation will move the start/finish line off of the current front stretch and relocate it between the current turn one, and the beginning of the dogleg.

The turns will be renumbered, and the pit lane relocated. The existing front stretch grandstands will be removed, as a new tower of stands will circle around the dogleg, which will become the new front section of the course. A fan-zone, new suites, escalators, elevators, and a solar-powered midway are among the other upgrades in progress. Once the new grandstands and suites are in place, the seating capacity will be reduced to approximately 45,000.

Event History

The track was purpose built for open-wheel racing, featuring USAC and then the CART Series from 1964-1995. Phoenix 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 Monster Energy NASCAR 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 Indy Racing League. With dwindling attendance, as the IRL began to add road racing to its schedule, Phoenix dropped off of the open-wheel calendar in 2005, although the track continued to be utilized as a test facility. The venue was welcomed back to the Verizon IndyCar Series schedule in 2016.

The list of Phoenix winners reads like a who’s-who of racing royalty with names like Foyt, Rutherford, Andretti, Ruby, Mears, Unser, Bettenhausen, Sneva, Rahal, Luyendyk, Dixon and Fittipaldi among others.

ISM Phoenix Raceway has been the host of some 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.

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 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 Series

Photo: Joe Skibinski/INDYCAR

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 steady growth in attendance and television ratings.

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 run for the 102nd time in May. Mark Miles is the Chief Executive of Hulman and Company, and Jay Frye is the President of Competition and Operations for the Verizon Indycar Series.

Teams utilize a common chassis built by Dallara. Chevrolet and Honda are the engine partners for the Series with each supplying 2.2 Liter V-6 turbocharged engines that are capable of producing over 700 hp at 12,200 rpm. All cars in the series run Firestone Firehawk tires.

There are twenty full-time drivers in the Series, and another sixteen with confirmed part-time schedules. Among the full-time entrants are seven season championship winners, and five Indy 500 winners. There will be nine rookies this year, with three of those running a full time schedule. Drivers in the series represent 12 different countries around the globe.

Where and When to Watch

Tickets for the Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix can be purchased here. Raceday Grandstand seats range from $35.00-$75.00 and kids under 17 are only $10.00. There are also a variety of two-day, pit pass, and VIP packages available

Television coverage of qualifying and the race will be provided by NBC-SN.  Race coverage will begin at 9:00 PM EDT on Saturday April 7.  Coverage can also be found streaming on the Verizon IndyCar Series You Tube Channel, Facebook Page or at http://racecontrol.indycar.com/

Other coverage options include Sirius XM radio (Sirius:209, XM:212). Fans can also keep up with all of the action on the IndyCar Mobile app provided by Verizon Communications.

 

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