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.”

Coyne transitioning from underdog to Indy 500 threat

Photo: IndyCar
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For most of the team’s existence, Dale Coyne Racing has been the Chicago Cubs of American Open Wheel Racing – a team whose history was more defined by failures, at times comically so, than success.

The last decade, however, has seen the tide completely change. In 2007, they scored three podium finishes with Bruno Junqueira. In 2009, they won at Watkins Glen with the late Justin Wilson.

The combination won again at Texas Motor Speedway in 2012, and finished sixth in the 2013 Verizon IndyCar Series championship. That same year, Mike Conway took a shock win for them in Race 1 at the Chevrolet Dual in Detroit.

Carlos Huertas scored an upset win for them in Race 1 at the Houston double-header in 2014, and while 2015 and 2016 yielded no wins, Tristan Vautier and Conor Daly gave them several strong runs – Vautier’s best finish was fourth in Race 2 at Detroit, while Daly finished second in Race 1 at Detroit, finished fourth at Watkins Glen, and scored a trio of sixth-place finishes at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course, Race 2 at Detroit, and the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.

And 2017 was set to possibly be the best year the team has ever had. Sebastien Bourdais gave the team a popular win in the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, and then rookie Ed Jones scored back-to-back top tens – 10th and sixth – at St. Pete and the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach to start his career.

But, things started unraveling at the Indianapolis 500. Bourdais appeared set to be in the Fast Nine Pole Shootout during his first qualifying run – both of his first two laps were above 231 mph –  before his horrifying crash in Turn 2.

While Jones qualified an impressive 11th and finished an even more impressive third, results for the rest of the season became hard to come by – Jones only scored two more Top 10s, with a best result of seventh at Road America.

But, retooled for 2018, the Coyne team is a legitimate threat at the 102nd Running of the Indianapolis 500.

Bourdais, whose No. 18 Honda features new sponsorship from SealMaster and now ownership partners in Jimmy Vasser and James “Sulli” Sullivan, has a win already, again at St. Pete, and sits third in the championship.

And Bourdais may also be Honda’s best hope, given that he was the fastest Honda in qualifying – he’ll start fifth behind Ed Carpenter, Simon Pagenaud, Will Power, and Josef Newgarden.

“I think it speaks volumes about their work, their passion and their dedication to this program, Dale (Coyne), Jimmy (Vasser) and Sulli (James Sullivan) and everybody from top to bottom. I can’t thank them enough for the opportunity, for the support,” Bourdais said of the team’s effort.

Rookie Zachary Claman De Melo has been progressing nicely, and his Month of May has been very solid – he finished 12th at the INDYCAR Grand Prix on the IMS Road Course and qualified a strong 13th for the “500.”

“It’s been surreal to be here as rookie. I’m a bit at a loss for words,” Claman De Melo revealed after qualifying. “The fans, driving around this place, being with the team, everything is amazing. I have a great engineer, a great group of experienced mechanics at Dale Coyne Racing.”

While Conor Daly and Pippa Mann struggled in one-off entries, with Mann getting bumped out of the field in Saturday qualifying, Daly’s entry essentially puts three Coyne cars in the race – Daly’s No. 17 United States Air Force Honda is a Dale Coyne car that has been leased to Thom Burns Racing.

Rest assured, the days of Coyne being an “also ran” are long gone, and a Coyne car ending up in Victory Lane at the biggest race of the year would complete the Chicago Cubs analogy – the Cubs won a World Series title in 2016, and an Indy 500 triumph would be the crowning achievement in Coyne’s career.

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