Sperber bullish on IndyCar as ‘new Phoenix’ groundbreaking begins

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AVONDALE, Ariz. – As groundbreaking began for the new Phoenix Raceway today, track president Bryan Sperber said maintaining the momentum from the Verizon IndyCar Series’ return here last year is just as important to carry through alongside the track’s NASCAR races before 2018.

Sperber said the awareness of having a first comeback for IndyCar last year, plus the fact the event occurs several weeks later after the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race compared to last year, should help the IndyCar crowd for this year’s race.

“Oh I think it helped a lot,” Sperber told NBC Sports in an interview at Phoenix.” There was a tremendous amount of enthusiasm for the IndyCar Series coming to Phoenix Raceway.

“Obviously Phoenix is an iconic track on the IndyCar calendar for decades, and not having IndyCar here for 10 years was really tough on everybody.

“I think being able to bring the series back last year was incredibly exciting for our staff, for the drivers, the teams, the IndyCar Series itself. Everywhere we went, people were really enthusiastic, so I think it was a great debut if you want to call it that, or return.

“And that’s given us a tremendous amount of momentum going into 2017. I think the date change will be a positive as well, so we’ll have more date separation from the NASCAR weekend. And I like that time of year, the late April timeframe will be really nice under the lights, it will be very pretty here at that time of year.”

Last year’s race was called the Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix, and while that entitlement sponsorship has not yet been confirmed by the track yet, Sperber said he “anticipates that will be the case” again in 2017.

Today though marked a new beginning for Phoenix, as construction has begun for the new $178 million “new Phoenix Raceway” construction and enhancements project, powered by DC Solar.

To kick off the occasion, Team Penske driver Helio Castroneves took to a Caterpillar excavator to begin the construction process.

“When I got invited to come… ordinarily they tell me not to break things, and this is the first time they tell me to break things!” Castroneves joked.

“It’s a fun fact. The first time I came to Phoenix, it was my first short oval ever. So this place is so special for me, when I came for Indy Lights.

“I’m excited to be here. Phoenix is an amazing place. They’ve been coming for so many years.

“The progress is incredible! At PIR, they’re giving back to the community, and the marketing is so incredible. For that machine… I’d do some great damage with this.”

Phoenix’s grandstands and current configuration will continue through April 2018, ahead of the third IndyCar race installment, which Sperber says will be the last with that configuration.

“It will be cool. I think the IndyCar race in 2018 is the last race with the old start/finish line, if you call it the old race track,” Sperber said.

“They’ll close out quite a long chapter in terms of history at Phoenix Raceway. It’ll be here before you know it. We’re already looking forward to April next year.”

While Sperber is optimistic for how IndyCar will run this year, drivers have stressed the need for a more entertaining show compared to last year.

It’s been said in the past the second year of an event is often a more important barometer for future success than the first year.

In that case, the Verizon IndyCar Series’ upcoming return to Phoenix for its second race on April 29 (9 p.m. ET, NBCSN) after returning to the schedule last year for the first time in 11 years is going to be key to watch.

“Our first objective as a series, but mostly as drivers, is to make a better show for the fans,” said Andretti Autosport’s Ryan Hunter-Reay. “It’s better for us. It’s more fun for us. When it’s more entertaining for you, it’s fun for us, and we wanted to do something. When we have a last year when it takes 30 laps to pass a car, it becomes frustrating and we know that that’s not what the fans come here and want to see.”

Added defending race winner Scott Dixon of Chip Ganassi Racing Teams, “I think it’ll be better. It’s always a fine line and something that’s very tough to achieve and takes multiple attempts, I think, at doing it. Right now is a very tough time, too, because this is a non-development year and everything has stayed stagnant, it’s very hard for Honda to change any of the parameters because this is — basically nothing is meant to change.”

Houston Supercross by the numbers: Five riders begin to gap the field

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Chase Sexton stumbled in San Diego and Eli Tomac had a hard fall in Anaheim 2, but the Monster Energy Supercross numbers for Houston suggest they will continue to be the ones to beat in Houston. To do so, they will have to turn back challenges from another pair of riders who have swept the top five in the first three rounds and another with a worst finish of sixth.

Houston Supercross numbers
Cooper Webb’s ability to close races makes him a Houston favorite. – Feld Motor Sports

Despite an accident in his heat in San Diego that sent him to the Last Chance Qualifier (LCQ), Sexton recovered to score a top-five that weekend. His podium finish in Anaheim 1 and overall win last week in Anaheim 2 makes him one of the three riders with a perfect top-five record. He is joined by Cooper Webb, who finished second in the first two rounds and fourth last week, and Ken Roczen, whose consistency in the first three races contributed to him grabbing the top spot in this week’s NBC Supercross Power Rankings.

There are reasons to believe Webb and Roczen can keep those streaks alive.

Webb is the only multiple winner at Supercross’ current Houston stadium. His pair of wins came in 2019 and 2021, the same year he won his two 450 championships.

Clinton Fowler points out this week, that Webb has carried that strength into 2023. Webb had a late surge in Anaheim 1, advancing from fifth to second in the final six laps. In San Diego, he set his ninth fastest lap with two to go and his eighth fastest on the final lap. He posted his fastest lap of Anaheim 2 on Lap 12 while the rest of the field did so on Lap 6 on average.

By comparison, Tomac set his 14th fastest lap on the final circuit in route to winning the Main at San Diego while he was trying to keep Webb at bay.

With a sixth at San Diego, Dylan Ferrandis barely missed sweeping the top five in his first three races as did Tomac with a sixth last week at Anaheim 2.

This will be the 46th year Supercross has visited Houston and with 55 races the city is tied for the second-most with Detroit.

Jim Pomeroy won the first race in the Astrodome during the inaugural season of 1974 on a 250, which was the premiere class at the time. Houston was one of three races held that year along with events at Daytona International Speedway and the Los Angeles Coliseum. All three venues return in 2023 with the first SuperMotocross championship finale returning to the famed LA Coliseum in September.

Webb won most recently in 2021 in the final race of three held there that year as the series executed a strategy of racing in residencies to limit travel during height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Tomac and Justin Barcia also won in Houston in 2021.

Two privateers have started the season on a high note.

Joshua Cartwright and Joshua Varize have each made the last two Mains. Cartwright finished 18th in San Diego and 21st last week in Anaheim 2 – all while working fulltime as a Business Intelligence Analyst at the University of Texas, Dallas. Varize earned a top-15 (12th) in San Diego and was 21st in Anaheim 2 in his third season on a 450.

Michael Mosiman scored his first 250 win last year in San Diego. – Feld Motor Sports

The numbers show none of the active 250 Supercross East riders have won in Houston, so no matter who steps on top of the box, there is going to be a fresh face. That is not surprising since most of the top competitors have not raced at this venue yet.

Michael Mosiman has a pair of top-fives there, however. His best finish was a second in the second 2021 race. Garrett Marchbanks scored a top-10 in his rookie season of 2019 in Houston.

In the 250 East division, Hunter Lawrence is one of the favorites to win the title now that Christian Craig has moved to 450s. Last year he had four wins and nine podiums, but failed to set a fast lap in a race.

The other 250 riders with 2022 wins this week are Mosiman, who earned his first Supercross win last year in San Diego, and Nate Thrasher, who became the fifth new class winner at Daytona.

Jeremy Martin will attempt to extend a record this week in Houston. His division leading SuperMotocross podiums number 65. He has 26 wins in the combined sessions, which ranks fourth all time.

Last Five Houston Winners

450s
2022, no race
2021, Race 3: Cooper Webb
2021, Race 2: Eli Tomac
2021, Race 1: Justin Barcia
2020, no race
2019, Cooper Webb
2018, Jason Anderson

250s
2022, no race
2021, Race 3: Colt Nichols
2021, Race 2: Jett Lawrence
2021, Race 1: Christian Craig
2020, no race
2019, Dylan Ferrandis
2018, Aaron Plessinger

By the Numbers

Anaheim 2
San Diego

More SuperMotocross coverage

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Power Rankings after week 3
Malcom Stewart out for “extended duration” after knee surgery
Haiden Deegan makes Supercross debut in Houston, Justin Cooper to 450s
Talon Hawkins set to relieve injured Jalek Swoll in Houston
Jalek Swoll out for an indefinite period with broken arm
Ken Roczen urgently needed a change
Chris Blose joins Pro Circuit Kawasaki in 250 East opener
Seth Hammaker to miss Houston with wrist injury
Jo Shimoda joins Seth Hammaker, Austin Forkner on injured list
Injury sidelines Austin Forkner for remainder of 2023 SX
Chase Sexton wins Anaheim 2 in 450s; Levi Kitchen takes 250s
Results and points from Anaheim 2