The NASCAR Cup Series returns to Phoenix Raceway on March 13 with the Ruoff Mortgage 500. Motorsports in the Valley of the Sun is now limited to a pair of NASCAR weekends each year, but for a brief period Formula One and IndyCar made some appearances in Phoenix
F1 racing and Arizona aren’t usually associated with each other, but for a brief stretch Phoenix hosted the United States Grand Prix with a downtown street circuit. From 1989 until 1991 the U.S. Grand Prix was held at the 2.36-mile (1989-1990) and 2.31-mile (1991) street circuit in downtown Phoenix near the Footprint Center, home of the Phoenix Suns.
It was a disaster.
Shortsighted planning had the race held on June 4, 1989, with a high of 100.9 degrees on that Sunday. Ayrton Senna garnered the pole with a 1:30.710 lap, 1.4 seconds ahead of his teammate Alain Prost who qualified second.
Only six cars finished the race. The rest retired early due to mechanical problems and its reasonable to assume the Arizona summer heat played a factor in the retirements. Attendance was sparce with 31,441 F1 fans in the makeshift bleachers throughout downtown Phoenix. Prost won the race, almost 40-seconds ahead of Riccardo Patrese in a Williams-Renault.
The 1990 U.S. Grand Prix was held earlier in the F1 season, March 11, and the high was 84 degrees. Gerhard Berger qualified first but Senna won the race, 8.685-seconds ahead of second place finisher, Jean Alesi. Attendance was lower than the previous U.S. Grand Prix, with an estimated 10,000-15,000 fans in downtown Phoenix, but those who made it there saw Senna win the season opener on his way to his second world championship.
Held on March 10, as the opening race of the 1991 F1 season, the downtown Phoenix street circuit was modified from previous incarnations and was slightly shortened. Reigning F1 champion Ayrton Senna qualified on the pole for the planned 82-lap race, led every lap and beat Prost by 16.32-seconds for the race win. The race ran longer than the allotted 2-hour time limit and as a result it finished a lap short.
Citing low attendance and an overall lack of interest the 1991 U.S. Grand Prix would be the swan song for F1 racing in downtown Phoenix. It was also the end of F1 racing in the United States until the 2000 U.S. Grand Prix at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
IndyCar has a long history at Phoenix Raceway, formerly Phoenix International Raceway, with races held at the suburban Phoenix track from 1964-2005 and 2016-2018.
Initially raced under USAC from 1964 to 1978, then CART from 1979 to 1995, and ultimately the Indy Racing League/IndyCar Series the Valley of the Sun has seen many iconic open wheel drivers win in the desert.
Rick Mears, Johnny Rutherford, and Bobby Unser hold the record for most career wins at Phoenix with three and Mario Andretti won the final race of his career there in 1993.
IndyCar stopped racing at Phoenix in 2005, citing low attendance, but returned in 2016 for the Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix.
From 2016 to 2018 it was run as a 250-lap, 255.5 mile, race at night. Helio Castroneves set a track record with an average speed of 194.905 mph over two qualifying laps in 2017, but once again low attendance led to the end of IndyCar raceway at Phoenix Raceway.
At this point only NASCAR runs at Phoenix Raceway with their two annual races, including the championship race, and there are no indications that the southwest racing venue will hold an IndyCar race in the near future. It’s also safe to assume that F1 isn’t returning to downtown Phoenix.
As a Phoenician and motorsports fan it’s a major bummer that IndyCar and F1 no longer race at venues close to me. But I’m also realistic that sporting or entertainment events with low attendance aren’t economically viable and have a short shelf life.
Regardless, I enjoyed covering the 2016 Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix, but the writing was on the wall when I saw that some of the grandstands were empty in IndyCar’s return to Phoenix Raceway.
Attendance was estimated to be just under 20,000 in 2016 and for a venue that holds more than 60,000 it was clear there wasn’t a lot of local interest in IndyCar. But alas, maybe it will return.