Coming off a rough couple of weeks in Daytona, which saw multiple wrecks and an explosion of jet fuel on the Florida track, NASCAR drivers were welcomed to Phoenix by high temps, and a shorter, calmer track experience on Sunday.
Grand Marshall and Detroit Lions lineman Ndamukong Suh ordered the drivers to start their engines on what is arguably the shortest track with the longest race name − the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series 2012 Subway Fresh Fit 500™ at Phoenix International Raceway (PIR).
When it was over Danny Hamlin held off Kevin Harvik, whose car was breathing on fumes under a hot sunny sky on the even hotter 47-year-old track. PIR’s racing surface was reconfigured since last year.
“It’s more challenging now. There’s really only one racing line on this course. I think it will widen out over time here to make the racing a little better. So far it’s a very fast surface and that’s great for the drivers to be able to go out there and show their talents,” Hamlin’s Crew Chief Darian Grubb told me. Grubb was let go by Tony Stewart’s team last year, but it was Grubb’s crew who kept Hamlin in a position to win this 312-lap race and take over the Sprint Cup series points lead.
For race fans, this is about circus food, freebies, loud noise and car wrecks. Not much different from past decades. The more NASCAR changes, including new car parts rules, the more it stays the same; except for merchandise… and nostalgia.
Darrell Waltrip was a Fox Sports commentator for the Subway 500. Who could forget Waltrip’s driving the bright orange Tide detergent car in the 1988 Pocono 500, where he finished sixth, winning $13,000? He is seen passing Bobby Hillin, Jr. in the Miller Highlife car in the attached slide show. But in the same year, as local fans reminisce, Alan Kulwicki won the Checker 500, the first NASCAR Winston Cup Series race staged at PIR. A then-record crowd of 60,000 was on hand; 76,000 came for the Subway 500. Geoff Bodine won that Pocono 500 with an average speed of 126 mph. Compare that to the pole position for the Subway 500 being won at 136.815 mph by Mark Martin, the oldest driver in the race.
Most of the fans, who paid between $15 and $107 for admission, streamed through the gates of PIR hours before the race start to buy or grab free bling − free if you register all your digits in one of the dozens of sponsor laptops.
Twenty-something Kristofer Book loved the tanning weather with friends in the tenth row, above the start/finish line of the Subway 500. “I came for the beer, friends and wrecks,” said Book, a NASCAR first-timer. Book told me the race didn’t seem all that exciting. But he did spend $300 on a ticket, hats, shorts and eats, driving two hours south from PrescottValley for the race; south past the alfalfa fields, the gurgling Gila River, and haciendas and barrios with horse privileges. The wide-open spaces of Avondale is southwest of Phoenix, in the hottest part of Arizona. At race time, it was seven degrees higher than normal.
Steve Addington crew chief for Tony Stewart’s Chevrolet told me, “This track has turned out to be real racy. They did a good job on the reconfiguration. The key to winning here is a good, balanced race car.”
The new surface is like new shoes − perfectly smooth, very slippery with the possibility of one narrow racing lane that makes drivers follow-the-leader rather than overtaking others. But some crew members said an 81-degree air temperature on Sunday, with no humidity, could make tires stick to the surface more readily. That can create two things: more traction for more lanes − or grooves − and more tire use.
“It’s evolving into a two groove race track for side-by-side racing,” said Matt Puccia, crew chief for the No. 16, 3M Ford Fusion, driven by Greg Biffle. Besides Biffle’s car, Roush-Fenway entered two other cars as well, all Fords, all from Concord, N.C.
“You can’t beat yourself here on this track,” Puccia told me, minutes before the race. “Pit strategy will hold a big place here.” Pit strategy, such as when you take your tires, or gasoline. “But none of that matters if you don’t have a good race car. It’s always interesting to see how we’re going as the day heats up.”
Susan Worthington, who was carrying a bag full of NASCAR bling in the shade behind the stands said, “I’m here to see the cars.” She and her husband Eric, thirty-somethings, came all the way from Conesville, Ohio. “We came out to visit relatives, take in a hockey game, and see a few car wrecks,” Eric said. And it didn’t take long. Someone threw off a tire on lap two which placed the drivers under a caution flag until they rounded up the wheel.
Further down food row, people were scarfing up tacos, “trackaritas,” and even a grilled cheese sandwich with tomato soup combo − comfort food, on a hot day in the desert.
Everything is about sponsorships now. Penske Racing will join Ford next year. Dodge and Sprint had the biggest giveaway booths at PIR. Fans lined up forty deep to get a free Great Clips hair cut bringing new meaning to ‘winning a race by a hair.’ Great Clips is sponsoring a “200” at PIR in November. It’s big business. Roush Fenway Racing, which fielded three cars in the Subway 500, is worth about $224 million. According to racing news reports, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. has been topping out around $30 million in yearly income, while Danica Patrick averages about $12 million, so advertising dollars mean everything.
Back in the garage, Bill Spencer and crew of the No. 22 Pennzoil-Shell Dodge, were finishing up pre-race tweaks. After a wet Daytona 500, that ended around 1 a.m. Tuesday, they had a couple concerns. “The new surface here takes a little longer to come in because it hasn’t been weathered like the other tracks, so we’re ‘chasing that’ a little bit because of the new asphalt. Our car is in good shape. We’ve got a new driver (A.J. Allmendinger), so we’re working with him, trying to figure out what he needs,” said Spencer. Although his car got bounced around, Allmendinger would go on to finish in 18th place.
NASCAR is a nostalgic sport. Royalty such as Richard Petty and Roger Penske were in attendance, sometimes giving autographs. Petty – then and now – can be seen in the attached slide show, such as the 1973 Winston Western 500 in Riverside, CA. where Petty was paid to play by STP – “the racers edge,” as the jingle implied. Bobby Allison drove for Coke. Bobby Unser drove for Pepsi. As you can see in the Western 500 slide show (attached) fan safety was relaxed because cars were far away from the crowd on the lengthy road course.
PIR started as a 2.5 mile road course. International Speedway Corporation owns PIR, and it recognized the need for a new surface for this oldest track west of the Mississippi. The one-mile Jewel in the Desert, as it is nicknamed, got a $10 million face lift last year, including several layers of asphalt, widening of the front stretch, redesign of the pit road and pit stalls, moving the dog-leg between turns two and three by 95 feet, and changing the banking in some turns.
By the way, Mark Donohue won the 1973 Winston Western 500 in an AMC Matador. And in the same year, over on the PIR track, Billy Englehart won the first United States Auto Club (USAC) Midget Series race.
Yes, this is Americana, etched into our memories and stored on our negatives long before digital. Races like these draw all nationalities, all ages, the beer bellies and the six pack abs, the Hooters and cutoffs crowd, the retired military and the tattooed ladies; shorts and skirts with cowgirl flipflops (boots).
But even nostalgic NASCAR knows it has to make some changes. Besides the obvious shapes of the cars and the added safety gear, many NASCAR changes can’t be seen by the fans. NASCAR modified the restrictor plate, which reduces power and speed − presumably to cut down on fiery crashes close to the grandstands by drivers trying to go 200 mph. But on a short one-mile course like PIR, NASCAR doesn’t want that, so they lifted the new rule changes just for Phoenix.
NASCAR made the spoilers smaller. Spoilers change the air flow over the car, but when you take too much air off of the new spoiler design you cause it to lose downward force, possibly making the car wobble.
NASCAR adjusted the radiators from five gallons to two and moved radiators closer to the bumpers in an effort to force cars to split up to keep from overheating.
NASCAR wanted to reduce two-car drafting for long periods of time. Two or more vehicles can race faster when lined up front-to-rear (drafting) than a single car can race alone.
NASCAR banned driver-to-driver communications with radios, but lifted the ban for Phoenix. Regarding the new NASCAR rules, Puccia said, “NASCAR accomplished what they wanted to do on the larger speedway tracks. They wanted more of a pack type of racing and that’s what they got. It’s good for us and it’s good for the sport.”
None of NASCAR’s major changes were in force for the Subway 500 according to Grubb. “Everything went back to how we were racing last year.” The changes will only be used on the super raceways like Daytona, which is twice as long a course as PIR and allows for mega-drafting among many cars, all in a row and side by side.
Back on the track. Lap sixty seven. Coming out of the second caution of the race, Jimmie Johnson passes Kurt Busch for the lead. But fans are still hunting down free bling in the CorporateVillage. This is the Sprint Cup, and if you walk into the enormous Sprint “booth” with your Sprint phone turned on, you’re automatically guaranteed something. The electric company offered a lasso contest. Lasso a refrigerator and get two passes to a suite for the rest of the day. Dodge may have had the largest “booth” at a hundred feet wide. Chevy and even Fiat were giving away team shirts.
Lap 132, now. Paul Menard bumps the back of A.J. Allmendinger’s car throwing it into the inside wall. NASCAR-lover Archie Crow had a good view of the crash from the 29th row, right above the start/finish line. “We come for the camaraderie,” said Crow, who grew up in Phoenix, loving slot cars. “We sit around telling stories with other fans, mostly down in the RV area.” Archie and his wife spent a week, and about $1,000 at PIR, and that included a great time in the RV camping section. “I’ve got a photo of Dale Earnhardt coming out of Turn Two many years ago,” added Crow. With the caution flag for lap 132 still out, Jimmie Johnson would go to the pit three times with tire and lug nut issues that would drop him to 24th place. He rallied and finished 4th though.
But by now race fans were overheating. Several went to the shade for lemon ice and frozen cheesecake kabobs. And there was still time to rent a chair back, head sets, or even Fanvision − the $59 video screen that can eavesdrop on eight cameras, some inside cars, while you sit in your grandstand seat with its headphone on, for complete announcer coverage.
Fifty-seven laps to go. Now under the sixth caution of the race, Carl Edwards bumps Ryan Newman in a turn − Newman! − bringing out another caution. Scalpers are still selling tickets out in the far dirt parking lots; fans are wafting into the saloons built right on the asphalt. The Trackside Club over Turn Four, was packed. It’s up high, and air-conditioned, with a tanning deck. Early March means Arizona race fans were just breaking out the short shorts and tank tops, getting their swerve on while lubing with Hawaiian Tropic grease.
Fifty-two laps to go. Danny Hamlin makes an inside pass on Brad Keselowski’s Miller Lite car for the lead. Inside the air conditioned press box, writers are jotting down the average speeds. Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth and Danny Hamlin were bunched up in first through fourth position through lap 110, with average speeds between 114 and 116 mph, when all of a sudden Casey Mears in the No.13 Geico Ford loses his brakes and hits the outside wall, spinning him around so he was facing on-coming race cars. He was taken to the first aid tent and released after a checkup. But the wreck changed the running order for the leaders.
Newman hit Carl Edwards on lap 256, bringing out a seventh caution flag, and forcing, Newman’s No. 39 car to spin out. It was getting too hot for little kids by now. A little boy wearing a Kyle shirt was eating ice cream in the shade of the stands with a little girl wearing a Danica shirt. Yes, the more NASCAR changes, the more it stays the same. GoDaddy babe Danica Patrick, who appears equally comfortable posing in swim suits and fire retardant suits, finished 21st in one of two shorter races at PIR on Saturday. She had been bounced around in three wrecks in Daytona the week before. She is weaning herself off Indy cars, where she started, and onto NASCAR.
Hamlin held off Kevin Harvick to finish first and take over the series points lead for the first time since surrendering it in the final race last year. “You are playing cat and mouse, and anytime the top two are concerned about fuel it becomes how hard do you want to push it?” Hamlin said after the race.
What Ndamukong Suh is to football cleats, race car drivers are to gas pedals.
Harvick lost fuel pressure with fewer than two laps left but had enough momentum to retain second place, 7.3 seconds behind the race winner. “For us, we were kind of in a catch-22 there, trying to race for the win and save enough gas,” Harvik told reporters after the race. Ironically, it was Hamlin who ran out of gas last year in Phoenix and finished twelfth.
Greg Biffle, who came home third, said, “I wish I would have saved some gas and caught the 29 car (Harvik). You just never know how much gas you got. The team was saying save-save-save, so I was trying to take it easy but we missed him at the line by a couple hundred feet.”
Biffle was followed by Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski. Johnson’s crew chief was suspended for six races and the team was docked 25 Sprint Cup points for failing the first inspection. Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr., Jeff Gordon, pole-sitter Mark Martin and Joey Logano completed the top 10.
The winner was modest. “We’ve still got work to do. I’m going to push for more and more and more − things within our race car – that’s the attitude you’ve got to have to stay on top, and when I come back here, it just puts 2011 to rest. That year is done. It’s a year I’d just as soon forget about, and we’re focused on winning a championship,” winner Hamlin said in front of a giant Subway wrapper at the NASCAR arranged post-race media event.
Juan Montoya in the No. 42 Chevy Target car, finished eleventh. Montoya is now famous for his side car body slam into 200 gallons of jet fuel, igniting Daytona’s largest track exlposion, never caught on video.
Phoenix’s newest resident, Hamlin, won the $238,000 first place prize and collected enough points for first place in the Sprint Cup standings − the season-long bonus cash contest. Next stop for most of the Subway 500 drivers is Las Vegas, and its 1.5 mile d-shape oval… and hot temps.