Tucson CitizenTucson Citizen

Racing heats up with NASCAR Winter Series


Selling the racing at Tucson Raceway Park to the people of Tucson has been a slow process. Tucson rightfully . . . loves the Wildcats and has embraced the Tucson Toros. Once people become aware that Tucson has become as important a location for auto racing as it is for college football and basketball and as key a stop on the racing circuit as it is for PGA and LPGA golf, NASCAR racing will take its deserved place on the local sports scene.

This winter, Tucson will be the center of auto racing in the United States.

Normally, racing in the United States shuts down from November to February. But this year, the National Association for Stock Car Automobile Racing is sanctioning the NASCAR Winter Heat Series, starting Nov. 20 and running for eight Sundays, concluding Jan. 22, at TRP. The series, featuring many of the top stock car drivers in the West and in the country, will be televised live nationally from 3 to 5 p.m. on The Nashville Network.

Rick Henderson, track media relations director, and I have worked closely with the local chamber of commerce and other organizations that promote the city to prepare for the influx of race fans. The NASCAR Winston West and Southwest Tours, both part of the Winter Heat Series, regularly draw thousands of fans who follow the races from California to Nevada to Arizona and other points in their recreational vehicles. Others fly from race to race, staying in hotels and, of course, eating at local restaurants and taking in the local sites.

Tucson officials and business people are gearing up for their arrival and are looking forward to the economic influx. Studies have shown that events at Phoenix International Raceway, which hosts NASCAR Winston Cup and Indy car racing, both of which draw upward of 90,000 people for each race, pump more money into the local economy than any other sporting entity. That includes the Phoenix Suns, Arizona Cardinals and Arizona State football and basketball teams.

The Winter Heat series will probably draw crowds better than 6,000. Combine that with several hundred race car drivers, crew members, race officials, national media (including those TNN folks), and that translates into a lot of motel rooms, restaurant meals, trips to Old Tucson, the Desert Museum, local golf courses and dozens of convenience stores.

But we are not looking at this as strictly a business venture.

Racing is fun and good family entertainment. Having this series in Tucson adds to the quality of life, much as the Copper Bowl or Fiesta de los Vaqueros do.

Race fans already know the excitement of watching skilled drivers pushing state-of-the-art race cars around TRP’s three-eighths-mile oval at speeds exceeding 100 mph. Those who have never seen auto races or have just seen them on TV have a chance to come out and see them in person . . . and it’s nothing like seeing races on the tube. You can feel the experience.

The fact that at TRP you can sit 25 yards from the speeding cars makes it an extraordinary experience.

Plus, for you pickup truck owners, the Winter Heat series marks the competitive debut of the NASCAR SuperTrucks. They have already run exhibitions at TRP and other tracks and have proven to be very popular with fans and drivers. Some of the top names in the business, including the owners of Dale Earnhardt’s race car, Richard Childress Racing, have already built trucks and tested them in Tucson. Mike Cofer, who kicked for the Super Bowl champion San Francisco 49ers, has switched from football to racing and will run in the SuperTrucks series and the NASCAR Featherlite Southwest Tour.

But none of this would have been possible had International Speedway Corporation not taken over the lease at TRP four years ago.

Back then, TRP was a dirt track. It was a good facility, but it was primarily for local racers. With ISC and NASCAR in charge, TRP quickly became something more than a place for southern Arizona’s weekend racers to have their fun. They still do, and despite the Winter Heat series, TRP will remain primarily a track for local racers.

But the laying of asphalt two years ago allowed TRP to host touring series, such as the Winston West and Southwest Tour, and now the Winter Heat series.

The paving of the track was not merely a matter of slapping down asphalt. The paving was supervised by Clarence Cagle, a longtime official at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and one of the nation’s experts on race-track paving. Cagle supervised the repaving of Phoenix International Raceway last August.

The TRP track is banked in such a way that cars are able to race around at full speed, two and three abreast. That’s a unique feature at TRP. Many tracks are built so that cars can’t race two and three wide without compromising speed. That cuts down on the driver’s ability to pass other cars and makes for less racing action and less excitement. At some tracks, there is just one “racing groove,’ and the effect is like watching a freight train as the cars race mostly in single file.

Not at TRP. And the drivers love it for that reason.

Ron Hornaday Jr., a veteran of Winston Cup racing and a Winston West and Southwest Tour champion, has raced numerous times at TRP and looks forward to it because of the track’s race-ability.

The same goes for Rick Carelli, who, along with Hornaday, is considered the cream of West Coast stock car racers. Both drivers raced recently in the Winston Cup race held in October at PIR.

P.J. Jones, son of former Indy 500 champion Parnelli Jones, is one of the most versatile drivers today. He has raced at the Winston Cup level, on the IMSA circuit and this season is testing the Toyota Indy car, which is still being developed. Look for him to make a few Indy races next year and run the entire Indy series, including the Indy 500, in 1996.

He recently tested his NASCAR SuperTruck at TRP, and he said the track is one of his favorites. P.J. will race in Winter Heat in both NASCAR SuperTrucks and the Winston West Series.

It should be a hot time in the Old Pueblo this winter.

Lee Baumgarten is general manager at Tucson Raceway Park.

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