There’s only a handful of drivers competing in this weekend’s Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix who have past experience at Phoenix International Raceway and two of them – Charlie Kimball and Ryan Hunter-Reay – have previously raced on PIR’s now inactive infield road course.
For Kimball, whose team premiered the new Tresiba livery aboard his No. 83 Novo Nordisk Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet on Monday, the chance to return to a pseudo-home race in Arizona is a welcome one.
“Yeah it was a lot of fun racing out there. It was 2003 in the spring… and I was still in high school!” Kimball told NBC Sports. “It was good. I was with PR1 Motorsports, led by Bobby Oergel. We won both races and I have some fond memories for sure.
“We just really enjoy being out in the Southwest; it’s a great part of the country. My crew chief Ricky Davis grew up three to four miles away from Phoenix, and he might have a bigger cheering section than I do!”
Kimball, of Camarillo, Calif., his family that lives outside Phoenix in Buckeye. He expects in-laws and other family to attend the race. And then with Long Beach coming up on April 17, he’s got two West Coast races back-to-back.
His memories of Phoenix stretch longer than just that brief weekend at PIR 13 years ago.
“I remember driving out to Phoenix for a go-kart race. It’s up on the north side of town, near Deer Valley. We took the 101 to avoid going through downtown Phoenix. And back then, about 12 to 15 years ago, that was in the middle of nowhere!
“Now, with the stadiums and Camelback Ranch, with the baseball spring training, it’s fully built up. The 101 isn’t the edge of town anymore.”
Kimball finished 10th in the season opener after fighting overheating, then what he termed a “reasonably catastrophic failure” the team in the brakes the team was still trying to diagnose. It was also his first race with new engineer Eric Cowdin, who replaced Brad Goldberg after Goldberg went to Ganassi’s Ford GT program.
“I think as a team, we fought some overheating issues,” Kimball explained. “I’m not sure if it was us, Chevy, or more than other people up and down pit lane. I know the engineers were surprised. We hadn’t seen a collection of debris. And so we’re going to have to figure out what it means for street circuits going forward.
“There were no clear answers. The last lap I went into Turn 1, and I had been fighting some brake fade for about 10 to 15 laps. It was a reasonably catastrophic failure, but I was lucky it happened into one, with more runoff, so it was a fairly minor impact at the end of the day.”
“I think it’s gone very well,” he added about the engineering switch. “The nice thing about driving for Chip and working there is that everyone is so good there. Everyone works so closely. Transitioning from Brad to Eric wasn’t a huge shakeup in the grand scheme of things. It was pretty seamless.”
Kimball, who started 13th at St. Petersburg and ahead of teammates Max Chilton (16th) and Tony Kanaan (19th), was frustrated to have not advanced out of his group in qualifying but still pleased that even on a tough day he still secured a top-10.
“We were disappointed with St. Pete, because we missed by .06 of a second in moving on. Just needed one more tenth,” he said.
“We had a fairly stout Group 1, though. Of five of the six that moved on, those five made it into the Firestone Fast Six. We also got caught up in the Munoz/Rahal incident, and we were on for a decent result.
“Between engaging reverse, stalling engine, and ending in tire barriers but still getting a top-10, you’ll take it in this field!
“You take everything you can get. The results that matter are the ones where you’ve overcome challenges, or getting to a new track. You have to pick up the pieces when you’re not on form.”