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.”

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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