Goodbye, Firebird Raceway — hello, Wild Horse Motorsports Park

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Firebird International Raceway in suburban Phoenix has long been a popular venue for a variety of motorsports events, particularly NHRA drag racing on its quartermile asphalt track, drag boat competition in a man-made lake on the property, plus two road courses and an off-road track.

But Firebird is no more — at least in name, according to the Arizona Republic.

Say goodbye to Firebird and hello to Wild Horse Motorsports Park, which will reopen under its new name for the Lucas Oil Drag Boat Series event Sept. 13-15.

After a 30-year run by well known motorsports promoter and now former track president Charlie Allen, whose lease agreement with the Gila River Indian Community, which owns the land that Firebird Raceway sits upon, expired and was not renewed, a new management team (Copper Train) Development Partners LLC) has signed an agreement to operate the expansive 458-acre facility along Interstate 10 just south of Phoenix.

As is often the case, with a new name comes change. Various capital improvements are likely for the aging facility that, the Republic reported: “Gila River Indian Community has a greater financial incentive to invest in improvements for both competitors and fans, and make the races more popular and successful.”

Copper Train managing partner Paul Clayton told the Republic, “Our job is to come in and create relationships with the community, sponsorships and all sorts of events. We want families to be able to enjoy the facility, with clean bathrooms, and improve the overall fan experience.”

Other likely improvements are a new timing and scoring system for the drag strip and replacing 700 grandstand seats that had previously been removed.

In addition, the NHRA and Gila River have agreed on a contract extension to continue the track’s hosting of the Arizona Nationals — which the now former Firebird Raceway has hosted since 1985 — for at least the next five years.

The Arizona Nationals are typically held in late February and retaining that event was the “Number 1” priority, NHRA President Tom Compton told the Republic.

“If we weren’t in Phoenix it would be a disaster,” Compton said. “It’s the sixth-largest market in the country and it is diverse. NHRA has an element of diversity (female and minority drivers) that is unmatched by any other motorsport in the country that I’m aware of. It reflects our fan base very well. … I think there’s a tremendous opportunity to take Wild Horse to a new level.”

Jimmie Johnson won’t race full time in 2023; leaves open possibility of returning at Ganassi

Jimmie Johnson race 2023
Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images
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Though he remains uncertain of his plans for next year, Jimmie Johnson won’t race full time in 2023, scaling back his schedule after running a full 17-race NTT IndyCar Series season.

“This was a difficult choice for me, but in my heart, I know it’s the right one,” Johnson said in a statement Monday morning. “I’m not exactly sure what the next chapter holds, but if an opportunity comes along that makes sense, I will consider it. I still have a bucket list of racing events I would like to take part in. Competing at this level in IndyCar has been such a great experience.

“I couldn’t have asked for a better team to race for than Chip Ganassi and Chip Ganassi Racing. Everyone worked extremely hard for the last two seasons, pushing to get the best performances out of me every single week. The support from my crew and teammates Dario (Franchitti), Scott (Dixon), Tony (Kanaan), Marcus (Ericsson) and Alex (Palou) went above and beyond anything I could have ever asked for.”

WHAT’S NEXT FOR JIMMIE JOHNSON: An analysis of his racing options for the 2023 season

Driving the No. 48 Dallara-Honda for Chip Ganassi Racing, Johnson ranked 21st in the 2022 points standings with a career-best fifth place July 24 at Iowa Speedway.

After running only road and street courses for Ganassi in 2021, the seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion added ovals this year. In his Indy 500 debut, he qualified 12th and finished 28th after a late crash.

“I do have a desire to go back (to IndyCar), it’s just at this point, I know what’s required to do a full schedule, and I don’t have that in me,” Johnson told AP. “I don’t have that passion that I need for myself to commit myself to a full season.”

That leaves open the concept of Johnson returning part time with Ganassi, perhaps exclusively on ovals.

“We are fully supportive of Jimmie,” team owner Chip Ganassi said in a statement. “He has been a valued member of our team and if we can find a way to continue working together, we would like to do so.”

During IndyCar’s season finale race weekend, Johnson told reporters Sept. 9 that he planned to explore his options with wife Chandra and daughters Evie and Lydia. Johnson told the Associated Press that his family is considering living abroad for a year or two, and he has toyed with the idea of running in the World Endurance Championship sports car series because of its international locales.

Johnson hasn’t ruled out IndyCar, IMSA sports cars or even a cameo in NASCAR next year. Since retiring from full-time NASCAR after the 2020 season, he has entered the endurance races of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship in the No. 48 Ally Cadillac (including Saturday’s Petit Le Mans season finale). Johnson also wants to race in the 24 Hours of Le Mans and is a prime candidate for the Garage 56 entry (a joint project of NASCAR and Hendrick Motorsports).

Johnson told the AP he is interested in becoming the latest driver to try “The Double” and run both the Coca-Cola 600 and Indy 500 on the same day (the most recent was Kurt Busch in 2014).

“You know me and endurance sports, and ‘The Double’ sounds awesome,” Johnson, a four-time Coke 600 winner, told AP. “I’ve always had this respect for the guys who have done ‘The Double.’ I would say it is more of a respect thing than a bucket-list item, and I’d love to put some energy into that idea and see if I can pull it off.”

It is less likely that he would return to IMSA’s endurance events because its top prototype series is being overhauled, limiting the amount of inventory available for the new LMDh cars in the rebranded GTP division.

Johnson has confirmed that he would retain primary sponsor Carvana, which has backed him in IndyCar the past two years. He revealed his decision Monday during the last episode of “Reinventing the Wheel,” Carvana Racing’s eight-part docuseries about his 2023 season.

“I’m thankful for the partnership with a company like Carvana for allowing me to take this journey in IndyCar, for seeing the value in our partnership and being open to future opportunities together,” Johnson said. “They have truly showed me that there are no finish lines in life. Along with Carvana, The American Legion, Ally, cbdMD and Frank August were there every step of the way, and I couldn’t have done it without all of them. Most importantly — and the true rockstars in all of this –my family, Chani, Evie and Lydia. They have always allowed me to chase my dreams, and we are all just really excited about what the future holds for all of us. I have enjoyed every minute of these last two years.”

Said Carvana co-founder Ryan Keeton: “During the past two years, Jimmie Johnson has been so amazing to collaborate with. Our team admires his passion, hard work and commitment to continuous improvement while also having fun, and we look forward to continuing to support him next year in this new chapter.”