Who needs economic stimulus? We have PIR - East Valley Tribune: Sports

Who needs economic stimulus? We have PIR

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Posted: Friday, April 17, 2009 6:07 pm | Updated: 1:46 am, Sat Oct 8, 2011.

Scott Bordow: Despite the rough economy and other failed auto racing ventures, NASCAR keeps motoring along at Phoenix International Raceway.                                      

Biffle wins Nationwide | Martin claims pole | Johnson not resting on past success

SLIDESHOW: Racing at PIR  |  NASCAR drivers  |  Schedule/results  |  Teams

The first NASCAR race in Phoenix was held on April 22, 1951.

The winner: Marshall Teague in his Teaguemobile, with an average lap time of 60.153 mph.

Four months later, Manzanita Speedway opened in west Phoenix at 35th Avenue and Broadway, and the dirt track became a proving ground for Indy car drivers.

SLIDESHOW: Racing at PIR

Biffle wins Nationwide race

Martin claims 3rd pole of season

Johnson not resting on past success at PIR

Over the years, the Valley became a motorsports haven. Some events took root and grew - drag racing at Firebird International Raceway, for example - while others wilted away.

Remember the Formula One races in downtown Phoenix from 1989 to 1991? Don't worry. No one else does, either.

Four years ago, the Valley lost its IndyCar Series race when the Grand Prix Arizona was canceled for economic reasons. And this past Sunday, the checkered flag fell on Manzanita after 58 years of racing.

Yet the two NASCAR Sprint Cup races at Phoenix International Raceway keep, well, motoring along.

More than 100,000 are expected at PIR on Saturday to watch the Subway Fresh Fit 500. Another 100,000 or so will be back at the track in November to catch the Checker O'Reilly Auto Parts 500.

The Valley doesn't need an economic stimulus package. It has PIR.

"When I moved here in 2002, I thought the Valley was really a NASCAR town waiting to take that next step," PIR president Bryan Sperber said.

Why has NASCAR thrived here when so many other motorsports have faded away? Well, part of the reason is the sport itself. In the United States, there's NASCAR - and everything else is a distant second. Every weekend, NASCAR routinely ranks second in television ratings among Valley sports fans (behind, say, the Cardinals or Suns).

But there's more to it than that. Simply put, PIR has become one of the sport's hot spots.

When you think of NASCAR hubs, the Valley doesn't come to mind. Yet PIR added a second Sprint Cup race to its schedule in 2005, and while it won't set an attendance record Saturday, there won't be thousands of empty seats either, as was the case at the March 9 race at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Jeff Gordon said he was "baffled" that the stands were only two-thirds full, adding, "This place should be packed."

Atlanta isn't the only track that's seen a decline in attendance. Even the Daytona 500 and the Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway struggled to sell out.

PIR officials like to believe that the side-by-side racing and Western theme - this year, fans can buy rattlesnake fritters and margaritas - draw in the crowds. But the truth is, PIR has been able to withstand the economic hard times better than most tracks because of a real estate axiom:

Location, location, location.

What racing fan wouldn't want to get out of the cold and come to the Valley in April and November?

"Back East, you're still in the part of the year where you can have cold weather, snow and even freezing rain," said Ramsey Poston, NASCAR's managing director of corporate communications. "This track has a great setup for RVs, and you can't beat the weather. What we see is fans taking advantage of that to take their family vacation."

Listen to what one fan said about his week in the Valley:

"I love coming to Phoenix. Yesterday (Thursday) we hiked over at Camelback Mountain and had a really good time. Then we just kind of drove around. We went to that big mall they've got out there in Scottsdale (Fashion Square Mall), and that was kind of fun. We just hung out. I love the weather here, the hiking and stuff like that, and the people here seem to really be into racing, so that's cool."

That fan? It was NASCAR driver Carl Edwards. The Arizona Office of Tourism should use him as a spokesman.

PIR isn't immune to hard times in the economy. Sperber said that Saturday's race won't set any attendance records and for a few weeks, he was worried about the specter of thousands of empty seats.

But it's clear by now that in good times or bad times, fans will flock to PIR as long as the sun is shining, the margaritas are cold and the Grand Canyon is just a few hours away.

"It's a unique experience," Poston said.

Now, if they could only locate the Teaguemobile and put it on display.

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