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.”

Cooper solidifies PWC GT presence with Callaway Corvette

Callaway, Cooper, Gill. Photo: PWC
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Pirelli World Challenge could use a “face” of the series from a driving standpoint, and American Michael Cooper is a good candidate to fill that role for 2018.

Cooper, 27, has won PWC Touring Car, GTS and, most recently the SprintX GT titles within the series and has quickly blossomed into one of the series’ top GT stars.

It’s been a rapid rise for the Syosset, N.Y. native, entering into a world filled with series stars and champions such as Johnny O’Connell, Patrick Long, Alvaro Parente and a host of others.

But under O’Connell’s tutelage, Cooper admirably filled the rather gaping shoes vacated by Andy Pilgrim at Cadillac Racing, steering the Cadillac ATS-V.R to multiple race wins in the last two years – including a sweep of this year’s season finale weekend at Sonoma.

Cooper and Jordan Taylor were the model of consistency in SprintX this year, winning once at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park and surviving contact at Circuit of The Americas to take that title.

With Cadillac withdrawing its ATS-V.R program at the end of the year though, Cooper was left a free agent for 2018. Fortunately with one door closed another opened, in the form of the GM-blessed but full Callaway Competition USA effort with its Callaway Corvette C7 GT3-R that will come Stateside next year. Cooper and Daniel Keilwitz will be in the team’s two cars for the full season; the car was fully unveiled last week at the PRI Show in Indianapolis.

The Callaway is a proven commodity in Europe but couldn’t run in the U.S. unless the path was cleared by one of GM’s factory programs to end a direct, potential head-to-head competition.

Moving from the Cadillac to the Callaway Corvette should be a natural transition, Cooper said last week.

“It worked out incredibly well that GM decided to allow Calloway to run the car in the United States and it created an opportunity for me that wouldn’t have been there otherwise,” he told NBC Sports. “I talked to a lot of other GT teams and at the end of the day, I felt like this was the best direction for me to be competitive next year and to also continue furthering my career with General Motors.”

Indeed Cooper has graduated from the Blackdog Speed Shop Chevrolet Camaro Z/28.R in GTS to the Cadillac and now to the Callaway Corvette. Cooper hailed the Cadillac team for what they did for his career growth.

“Working with Cadillac Racing has been instrumental in developing my abilities both on and off the track,” he said. “So I’m definitely a much more well-rounded driver now and have a lot of experience in the World Challenge GT field, so I kind of know what to expect going into that first race and going into that first corner in St. Pete.”

As noted, the car’s success in Europe means it’s a well-oiled machine by the time Reeves Callaway has worked with PWC to bring it Stateside next year. And as Cooper explained, discussions had been underway for a bit of time to ensure his presence in this car and team.

“I think the car is going to be extremely capable. It’s already won championships and races in Europe. I think, in bringing it over here, we’re going to hit the ground running straight away,” he said.

“Calloway had wanted me to come drive for them in July or August. We always kept in touch since then, and there was a lot of work trying to put together a program before they decided that they were going to do a fully fledged factory program. So once they made that decision, I think the pieces were kind of in place already, and the conversations had been had to be able to say ‘You’re going to be our guy.’”

December is late for IMSA programs to get finalized, but it’s relatively early for PWC, with the season not starting until mid-March in St. Petersburg. An extensive testing program should follow, as Callaway establishes its U.S. base and infrastructure.

“It’s definitely early for a Pirelli World Challenge program to be announced in December when we start racing in March. So that’s very good,” he said. “But, the team has a lot of work ahead of them in terms of getting infrastructure set up here in the United States, because a lot of their racing program has been in Europe. So, there will be a testing program, but they have to get the infrastructure in place first. But, we’ll be well prepared for St. Pete, I’m certain of it.

“Last year was the first year when I could sit back, kick my feet up, and know what I was doing next year. So, to be able to have everything done and be able to announce it this early on makes my life less stressful and now I can just focus on preparing myself and my team for next year.”