Bobby Allison, A.J. Foyt reflect on 50 years of racing at Phoenix

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This weekend’s NASCAR activities at Phoenix International Raceway mark the beginning of the track’s 50th anniversary season.

To celebrate the occasion, PIR has brought in multiple racing luminaries that have had an impact on the track’s history, including former Sprint Cup champion Bobby Allison (a winner at PIR in 1982) and four-time Indianapolis 500 winner A.J. Foyt (who won the track’s first oval race in 1964).

Allison was a key part of NASCAR’s early history with PIR. Before the current Sprint Cup Series began racing there in 1988, the now-K&N Pro Series West staged eight races from 1977-1984; Allison himself was involved in seven of those races.

In comments made to reporters before today’s The Profit on CNBC 500, Allison said he took pride in being able to help cultivate NASCAR’s following in the Southwest.

“I did feel really good about that,” he said. “I was conscious of the crowds early on – you see, back in my early days, I bought the promoting rights to Birmingham [Ala.] International Raceway and I really learned what it meant to have people in the stands versus not having full stands.

“So it meant something to me to encourage people to come to the races [in Phoenix]. I made a lot of friends doing that, I had some success along the way, and I feel like I’ve really contributed to this.”

Foyt also talked with reporters about the impact that Phoenix had on his racing career and about claiming the facility’s first professional win 50 years ago in a USAC Champ Car race.

“In ’64, I think I won every race but one or two so we had a hell of a year going,” he said. “[George] Bignotti was my crew chief and we worked awful good together. We just came here, ran some tests, and everything just fell in line…I’ve had a lot of good times here, and Phoenix has been very good to me.”

He also took the opportunity to defend three-time Sprint Cup champion Tony Stewart’s other racing activities outside of NASCAR.

Stewart had his 2013 season end last summer when he sustained a broken leg in a sprint car crash in Iowa (he recently grumbled about being asked repeatedly about his health), but Foyt believes his good friend won’t be affected by the incident.

“Tony’s a racer and he might limp or be crippled, but hell, look at me – it never affected me when I got burned or nothin’,” he said. “So I don’t think it’s gonna affect Tony…

“A lot of people bad-mouthed him for running a sprint car race with everything he had going for him but…Life’s short and if you can’t do what you wanna do with life, what the hell’s the use for living? I respect him for racing. Just because it was a little bullring racetrack he got hurt on – a lot of people have done that before. You’ve gotta respect Tony for what he’s doing.”

IndyCar’s 2018 full-field grid nearing completion

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Following Wednesday’s confirmation of the all-Canadian tandem at Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, each of the eight full-time teams in the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season have announced at least one driver for 2018, leaving very few remaining question marks.

What stands confirmed is below:

CONFIRMED

  • Team Penske (3, Chevrolet): Josef Newgarden, Simon Pagenaud, Will Power
  • Chip Ganassi Racing (1, Honda): Scott Dixon
  • Andretti Autosport (4, Honda): Ryan Hunter-Reay, Alexander Rossi, Marco Andretti, Zach Veach
  • Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing (2, Honda): Graham Rahal, Takuma Sato
  • Schmidt Peterson Motorsports (2, Honda): James Hinchcliffe, Robert Wickens
  • Ed Carpenter Racing (2, Chevrolet): Spencer Pigot, Ed Carpenter (ovals)
  • A.J. Foyt Enterprises (1, Chevrolet): Tony Kanaan
  • Dale Coyne Racing (1, Honda): Sebastien Bourdais
  • Harding Racing (1, Chevrolet): Gabby Chaves

There are four additional drivers confirmed for selected races or an month of May program:

  • Team Penske (1, Chevrolet): Helio Castroneves
  • Andretti Autosport (1, Honda): Stefan Wilson
  • Calmels Sport with SPM (1, Honda): Tristan Gommendy
  • Team TBD (1, TBD): Kyle Kaiser

All told that’s 17 full-season driver and team combinations confirmed and four additional part-time programs, at least, that are set. Several of those driver/team combinations will have engineering and strategist changes, as well.

In a minor note since our last update at Sonoma, Marco Andretti confirmed he won’t run No. 27 next year. Of note, Bryan Herta served as Andretti’s race strategist this year, although the car he was an entrant on was Alexander Rossi’s No. 98 car. Herta will continue his relationship with Andretti Autosport again next season.

WHAT’S LEFT TO SORT? NOT MUCH

Elsewhere, there’s only a handful of remaining question marks as the series hits mid-October, a rarity from past years and an illustration of the urgency to fill seats to get as much preparation time in testing with the new 2018 Dallara universal aero kit as possible.

NBC Sports expects 2016 Indy Lights champion and 2017 IndyCar rookie-of-the-year Ed Jones to be confirmed soon as second driver in Dale Coyne Racing’s No. 19 Honda alongside Sebastien Bourdais, with team personnel and Bourdais both having indicated a preference in keeping the Dubai-based Brit for a second year.

NBC Sports also expects Jones’ successor as Indy Lights champion, Kyle Kaiser, to have his future announced shortly in terms of which team he’ll step up to IndyCar with. It would not be a surprise if Kaiser does graduate along with Juncos Racing, although Kaiser is known to have talked to multiple teams. The Mazda Motorsports scholarship nets him $1 million for a three-race program, including the 102nd Indianapolis 500, with the driver then needing to secure additional funding for further races, as Jones and Pigot both have each of the last two years.

The status of Brendon Hartley has now been thrown up as a slight question mark dependent on how his Formula 1 debut with Scuderia Toro Rosso goes at this weekend’s United States Grand Prix, and if Toro Rosso provides him a further race opportunity in one of the remaining three Grands Prix thereafter. Having been all-but-earmarked for Chip Ganassi Racing’s second seat in 2018, if an F1 offer comes, Hartley’s potential IndyCar bow could get delayed.

A McLaren-named entry competing either in the Indianapolis 500 or full-time seems further off than realistic for next year, McLaren’s Zak Brown told reporters on a teleconference this week. McLaren maintains an IndyCar technical presence though, via its McLaren Applied Technologies outfit.

What’s left then are the dominoes of whether Carlin’s IndyCar plans officially come to fruition as the team has gotten closer than it ever has to doing so, and who emerges in the second seats at A.J. Foyt Enterprises and Ed Carpenter Racing (road and street courses), respectively.

A number of young IndyCar veterans – Max Chilton, Charlie Kimball, Carlos Munoz and Conor Daly namely – are yet to land for 2018 and there’s no guarantee all four of them will be back in IndyCar next season.

There’s also a handful of young drivers, namely RC Enerson, Jack Harvey, Esteban Gutierrez, Santiago Urrutia, Zachary Claman DeMelo, Sage Karam and Matthew Brabham among others, who could well emerge in the frame for seats.

Gutierrez’s status seemed dependent on Mexico City being added to the 2018 calendar, and although the race still could be added, the fact neither is in place at this point doesn’t inspire as much confidence about his presence as a regular on the grid as it did earlier this summer.

All told, there’s not nearly that much to sort out as IndyCar’s grid for 2018 is looking very much close to set at this early stage of a long offseason.