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.”

Max Verstappen, Sergio Perez and Formula One embrace the United States

Verstappen Perez United States
Jared C. Tilton / Getty Images
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Last week, Red Bull Racing revealed their new car, the RB19, and a new relationship with US-based Ford Motors in a press event in New York City complete with drivers Max Verstappen, Sergio Perez and Team Principle Christian Horner. They are the only Formula 1 team to launch in the United States, but even that small move of the needle reflects a major shift in the attitude of both F1’s management and their teams – and the extent to which the American audience has fully embraced the sport.

“It’s something fantastic and unique, for the sport to be able to break it into the U.S,” Perez told NBC Sports. “The market is huge and it’s a huge opportunity for everyone involved, for the drivers, for the team. It’s always a huge market.”

Verstappen Perez United States
Sergio Perez finished fourth in the Unites States Grand Prix, but he was first with the fans.  – Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

In 2023, Formula 1 will race three times in the United States and five times in North America. The Circuit of the Americas will host their 11th consecutive race in October before heading south to Mexico City. Miami returns for a second time in May on a temporary street course around the Hard Rock cafe and the third addition is in downtown Las Vegas in November.

With the Canadian Grand Prix on the schedule for June and the Brazilian Grand Prix in November, American fans are now in the ballpark of Europeans, who have eight events on the continent and one in England.

In 2022, Verstappen won every race in North America. He was kept from sweeping the hemisphere only by George Russell, who won in Brazil. That fact is less remarkable when one considers that Verstappen won 15 times in the season – nearly two-thirds of the races on the schedule.

By the time Formula arrived in Austin for Round 20 of 23, Verstappen had already wrapped up his second consecutive championship.

“Sometimes it can be hard to replicate the season, but I think it’s the same as with the car, right? You always try to improve it,” Verstappen told NBC Sports. “And I always look at the little details that even when you have had a good race, you could have done better. And then of course you also learn from the bad races. So we always try to look for these little improvements and general experience you gain year after year.

“You try to do better, but of course it also depends a lot on the package you have.”

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Max Verstappen United States Grand Prix win was one of 15 for the drivers and 17 for Red Bull.
(Gongora / NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Now Verstappen’s thoughts will inevitably turn to establishing a dynasty – and America will again play a pivotal role.

“I just enjoy what I’m doing,” Verstappen said.  “After the years in Formula One, when you have to be on top of your game and you gain a lot on your experience – in that sense nothing really can get to you anymore. Every year you just try to do the best you can. But a lot depends on the material around you. It’s always a bit of a guess. Start the season as fit as you can be and be well prepared. But if you don’t have the car, you’re not going to win the championship.”

Perez added two wins to Red Bull’s total, at Monaco and the Marina Bay Street course. With two of the US 2023 races on street courses, Perez hopes to close the gap on Verstappen and potentially be his principle rival for the championship.

“The strategy is clear; it is to maximize the potential of the car – and we believe we have a good car, but how good?,” Perez said “We don’t know what the competition is doing. We just give our best in building this car and we hope that it’s good enough to get us to win races.

“I think we have to work together as a team. At the same time. We both want to win the championship. It’s just having good compromise. The competition will be really strong out there, so we really need everything we possibly can get from each other.”

Formula One returns to the United States for Round 6 and the Miami Grand Prix on May 7.