Friday, August 01, 2014

Decades of Thunder

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PHM0214Flash-2-4Turning the corner on 50, Phoenix International Raceway looks back on its long lap from nowhere to NASCAR.

These days, Mike McComb only sees Phoenix International Raceway on TV – every March and November, when NASCAR rolls into Avondale and splashes the picturesque foothills of the Estrella Mountains across the screens of every sports bar in America. “It’s crazy now,” he says. “I see them do the fly-over shots on TV, and I can’t believe how big it’s grown. I don’t know if I could handle the crowds.”

But back in the ‘80s, when it was surrounded by more tumbleweeds than tailgaters, McComb lived at Phoenix International Raceway. Literally. “I lived in a trailer in the parking lot outside of turn one,” says the Tempe firefighter, who worked as the track’s maintenance man and facilities coordinator from 1982 to 1994. “I swept the track and made sure everything was good for the drivers. Then when they built the suites near turn one, they gave me an apartment in that building, and I lived there for about eight years. It was real nice!”

McComb has truckloads of colorful stories from that middle era of the now world-class race track, which this year marks its 50th anniversary with a series of special events celebrating its progression from a lonely loop of asphalt in the middle of nowhere to a driving force in the West Valley’s explosive growth. According to the W.P. Carey School of Business at ASU, PIR’s two annual NASCAR races contribute close to half a billion dollars a year to the state’s economy.

But back in the ‘60s, PIR still had a farm-circuit-feel. McComb recalls skeet-shooting beer cans in the parking lot with IndyCar legend Al Unser, who won his first race at PIR in 1969. “I’m sure Big Al deliberately threw that can up right in front of the loudspeaker so I would shoot it out – and then have to fix it!” he says, laughing. He recounts sitting in his trailer with Paul Newman talking movies, marinara and Le Mans, and meeting Tom Cruise during the filming of Days of Thunder.

Ron Rose, the track’s former announcer, remembers PIR even further back. “I was there from opening day, in March of ‘64 – Parnelli Jones on the pole, A.J. Foyt wins the first 100-lapper, wire to wire!” says Rose, who still thrillingly recounts races as if he’s standing behind a mic. Rose began going to PIR races religiously as a kid and eventually got a job as the track’s mouthpiece, a post he held from 1982 to 1999, surviving a couple of grandstand fires, a few smashed barrier walls and some big ownership changes.

Dennis Wood owned the track from 1976 to 1985, and packed PIR’s yearly schedule with events like midget car competitions, IndyCar contests, sports car events and a motorcycle road race. Wood also tried to get in on the NASCAR boom, but reportedly lacked the resources. “Denny had big ideas, but not deep pockets,” Rose recalls.

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Enter Emmett “Buddy” Jobe. The wealthy Arizona rancher initially purchased PIR as an investment in 1985, and poured millions into facility improvements. He brought in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series in 1988, leading to exponentially bigger crowds.

Now 69, Jobe is living the dream you’d expect for a retired auto racing honcho. Personal yacht? Check. Successful country-singing daughter? Check. (That’d be Chelsea Bain, who performed at two dozen NASCAR races across the country in 2012.) Smokin’ hot wife? Check – and double check.

“Yeah, she’s a twin!” Jobe says, amiably. “I tell ya, she and her sister, they’re always on the same wavelength. And they’re beautiful, too!”

Even as a young cuss, with his ever-present cowboy hat and cigar, Jobe admits he totally fit the image of the hand-shaking, back-slapping race track wheeler-dealer. “I’m from the South. I was born in Tennessee,” says the University of Arizona graduate, who moved to Arizona prior to high school. “Some people tell me I still have a little Tennessee twang to my voice. And frankly, I think that helped me bring in NASCAR. You not only have to be a businessman, but you gotta be part of the club – a good ol’ boy. You gotta kind of play that role out. And I guess I fit into their club.”

Jobe fit right in with the PIR family, too, sometimes engaging in rowdy antics. McComb recalls his boss celebrating the NASCAR contract by racing the brand new Corvette Jobe received as part of the deal around the newly configured road course – with McComb holding on in the passenger seat. “We were going around that course, faster and faster, and next thing I knew we had spun out – ran out in the infield, through the chain link fence, just tore that car up!” he says. Adds Jobe, “That was a humbling moment. But hell, I couldn’t resist!”

In 1997, Jobe sold PIR to International Speedway Corporation, the management company started by NASCAR founder Bill France, Sr. As part of the deal, ISC agreed to let Jobe stay on as president for five years. It was mostly an honorary title – ISC’s polished operation virtually ran itself. But he got to hang around long enough to make sure his baby was in good hands. “I stayed on, but it was really kind of a selfish thing on my part,” he concedes. “I just didn’t want to sell it and walk out the door and say goodbye. I wanted to kind of wean myself off of it gradually. It kind of felt like sending your kid off to college.”

PIR has done well in auto racing’s Ivy League. Bryan Sperber, the track’s current president, says ISC recognizes and celebrates PIR’s uniqueness. In 2011, when the track was repaved for the first time in 21 years – a testament, Jobe notes, to the durable asphalt artistry of original track superintendent Clarence Cagle – some turns were widened or tightened but the basic configuration was honored. “We kept the dogleg,” Sperber says, referring to the odd curve in the backstretch that’s become a favorite of both fans and drivers – although it, too, was enhanced: extended out 95 feet and banked, making it harder for drivers to shortcut it. “We just further accentuated it to make it even more of an exciting turn.”

NASCAR has also seized on the course as a prime venue for its Latino outreach, adding the NASCAR Mexico series before the spring Sprint Cup event. “We had close to 15,000 Latino fans here for our first event last March, and my guess is many of them hadn’t attended a NASCAR event before,” Sperber says, acknowledging the sport’s long-standing dearth of diversity. “We hope that we’re making some new friends.”

The company also has big plans to celebrate PIR’s 50th in 2014. Each NASCAR event will feature a “venue within a venue,” Sperber says, called Memory Lane. “We’ll be bringing back some of the great race cars that won some historically significant races here. We found A.J. Foyt’s winning car from PIR’s very first pro race, and that’ll be back here for the first time since it graced our victory lane 50 years ago.”

 

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