To celebrate its 50th anniversary this year, Phoenix International Raceway has a commemorative “Memory Lane” display, highlighting many of the track’s most memorable moments of the last five decades.
But one of the most unique aspects of PIR’s 50th anniversary isn’t on display. Rather, it’s sitting in the grandstands, a living, breathing testimonial to both the racetrack and its fan base.
It’s there you’ll find Larry Ogburn, who is celebrating his own 50th anniversary this year of coming to the one-mile track just outside of Phoenix.
Having turned 63 on Thursday, Ogburn was just 12 years old when he, his older brother Jim, his father Lawrence and uncle Joe all came to PIR for its opening in March 1964. They watched as the legendary A.J. Foyt outdueled Parnelli Jones to take the first checkered flag in PIR history – and Larry has been going there ever since.
If there was ever a walking, talking encyclopedia of PIR history, Ogburn is it. While he’s missed a few races along the way, Ogburn has made it a point to make a pilgrimage to PIR at least once or twice a year, sometimes more.
“My wife and I were walking around the track last year and we saw all these banners put up abut PIR’s 50th anniversary in 2014,” Ogburn told MST. “I turned to my wife and said, ‘Oh my God, I’ve been coming here 50 years.’
“It just became so natural for me to go to these races, from the time I rode with my father and his brother in the backseat of my mother’s 1957 Ford to the first PIR race, up to now. I didn’t even realize until last year that I’d been going there so many times, I really didn’t.
“It’s just natural, all these years, just to get up on a Sunday morning and go to a race and enjoy it.”
As far as Ogburn and racetrack officials know, Ogburn is the only fan with the track record – no pun intended – that Ogburn has of coming to PIR for all kinds of races, from NASCAR to USAC to IndyCar.
“I’m pretty proud of this,” Ogburn said. “My father actually started going to races at the old State Fairgrounds back in the 1950s, so Phoenix has a lot of history for me.
“Plus, my birthday is November 6, so I’ve been celebrating my birthday for 50 years at PIR, as well. How cool is that?”
Over the years, Ogburn has played witness to some of the greatest names in motorsports. The names roll off his tongue in rapid-fire succession: Foyt (Ogburn’s favorite driver), Jones, Eddie Sachs, Mark Donoghue, the Bettenhausens (Gary, Merle and Tony Jr.), Mario Andretti, Johnny Rutherford, the Unsers (Al, Bobby and Al Jr.), Peter Revson, Richard Petty, Alan Kulwicki, Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick.
“Just name who they are and I’ve seen every one,” Ogburn said. “I’ve been so blessed to go there and be able to see so many famous drivers. It’s a Who’s Who of who has raced at PIR.”
And Ogburn hasn’t just witnessed racing from the stands. He’s also been able to meet dozens of racers over the years. At this year’s March race, when he showed IndyCar great Tom Sneva a program from the first-ever race at PIR, Sneva was so impressed that he spent 15 minutes just talking racing with Ogburn.
“My DNA is all over this place,” Ogburn said of PIR. “Back when I was young, you could pretty much stand next to the walls as the cars would go by, just inches away.
“I’ve been in the infield, I’ve been on the mountain that overlooks the track. I’ve been everywhere around that track.”
Ogburn has a photographic memory that can immediately recall dates, races and events that took place that he can recall and make it seem like they were only yesterday.
“I don’t carry a camera, my camera is in my head,” Ogburn laughed.
As one might expect, the Kingman, Arizona resident has a vast collection of souvenirs and memorabilia that he’s collected over the years. So much so, that several items in PIR’s Memory Lane are on loan from Ogburn.
Speaking of memories, the recollections Ogburn has of all his visits to PIR are countless.
“But one sticks out to me like it was yesterday,” Ogburn said. “I grew up in Southern California watching AJ Foyt, Parnelli Jones, all these famous drivers.
“The next thing you know, I go to PIR for its first race on March 22, 1964, I’m 12 years old and sitting on the pole is Parnelli Jones in the 98 Agajanian (Indy) car, and AJ Foyt in the famous Sheraton-Thompson Special roadster that he won the race with.
“That sticks out like it was yesterday. Then, we go back in November, and Jones and Foyt were again on the front row, this time with rear-engine cars. The next thing you know, Lloyd Ruby wins the race, and the rest is history. There are so, so many stories like that that I can recall as if they just happened yesterday.”
For close to 30 years, Ogburn and his father were fixtures together at PIR. The elder Ogburn, now 89, still lives in Southern California, but stopped going to the races about 20 years ago.
Still, his son – who is pulling for Carl Edwards to win Sunday’s Sprint Cup race at PIR – has definitely continued the family tradition.
It’s a tradition that the younger Ogburn hopes to continue for many more years to come.
“I didn’t think about it until my oldest grandson, Kyle, he’s 22, told me recently, ‘Grandpa, you’ve only got another 25 years and you’ll be going (to PIR) for 75 years. That’s pretty cool, isn’t it?’
“I’m just a regular guy that worked hard, wrenched (served as a mechanic) for a little bit, drove a truck and for the last 12 years of my career, I worked in the wildland fire industry, supporting air tankers (who fight forest fires),” Ogburn said. “I’m now retired, disabled with severe COPD.
“Sure, I could very easily sit here on the couch, watch TV, watch qualifying with the channel changer, but no, I don’t. It’s just not the same to actually being there at the track, at PIR. That’s where I belong, where I want to be.”
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