IRL drops Phoenix, condenses ’06 schedule

UPDATE #4 Racing fans have spoken: Open wheel racing is just spinning its wheels. There seems little doubt that the Indy Racing League has worn out its welcome in the Valley, and if Phoenix International Raceway loses its Indy race this week as expected, there will be very few tears shed.

Open wheel racing, which gave PIR its identity decades ago and drew tens of thousands of die-hard enthusiasts, is now merely yesterday's news to the majority of Valley racing fans. You want proof? Only about 10,000 showed up at this year's IRL race. Adding to the irony is the fact that Valley resident Danica Patrick has finally given the IRL a much-needed image boost, and she likely won't be able to race next season on her home track.

What happened to turn people away? The most obvious answer is the tremendous impact of NASCAR.

"It's all about NASCAR," said Tom Sneva, the 1983 Indianapolis 500 winner who lives in Phoenix. "The perception around the country is NASCAR is where it's at. It's really too bad, because Indy-car racing has had a history in Phoenix.

"The bad news is, it's all perception. NASCAR has done such a good job of marketing, and there's only room for one person on top of the list in motorsports. And right now, that's NASCAR. We go to a lot of the same tracks as NASCAR, and if we get the same fan at an Indy race, they'll say the IRL is more exciting."

Besides NASCAR, other key racing factors come into play, according to longtime Valley racing fans: the apathy created in 1996 by the IRL/CART split that diluted the sport, and the influx of foreign drivers.

"Drivers are the biggest draw," said Mike Brooke, 48, of Chandler, a longtime NASCAR fan. "Fans have favorites. Even people who don't follow the sport closely, they know the superstars of racing like they know the ones in other sports. It's the big names you need. Open wheel used to have very big names, guys like A.J. Foyt, Tom Sneva, Mario Andretti, those guys, rough-and-tumble drivers.

"Now in this generation, there are names you can't pronounce, and you can't embrace them. It's not like they're a 'home team' any more. In this day and age, especially after 9/11, we embrace our own. NASCAR is an American sport."

Former IRL driver Billy Boat, a Valley native, sensed a lot more enthusiasm a few years ago but he can't put his finger on why the downturn started,

"It's a mystery to me," he said. "I think a lot of it has to do with the timing of the race. There's an abundance of activity that time of year (March), and it's never really been able to create fans."

For Scott Flatt, 44, of Chandler, who has followed Indy-style racing since he was a youngster, the IRL has no clear identity or direction.

"The IRL is back to everything it said it wasn't going to be," said Flatt. "It's on the level of Formula 1 – no identity. You can enjoy it for the racing, but there's nothing to draw you to it."

Phoenix's Buddy Rice, who won the Indianapolis 500 in 2004, said if the IRL left the Valley it would be difficult for him to accept.

"What makes it more disappointing is that I don't know what the cause is," he said. "I don't know if it's poor attendance because people don't want to come out when it's hot, they don't like IRL racing, they're not promoting it, whatever it is . . .

"The NASCAR draw is completely different and we never draw here for open wheel cars, and I don't' know why. Obviously, there are racing fans here. There's two NASCAR races, and obviously we're not doing a good job. What do we do to fix it? I don't know. I can't make that call or put the blame on anyone." More at Arizona Republic

07/27/05 The Indy Racing League's lack of flexibility in scheduling and Phoenix International Raceway's conflict with an April date led to the decision not to include PIR on the 2006 IndyCar Series schedule, an open-wheel racing source close to the situation said Monday. PIR, which has run Indy-style races on the Avondale mile oval since 1964, is expected to officially announce sometime in early August that it has been left off the 2006 IndyCar Series schedule.

The racing industry source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said PIR was offered an April race date for 2006, but track president Bryan R. Sperber and PIR parent company International Speedway Corp. turned down the date because it was too close to PIR's first NASCAR Nextel Cup race of the season, which is April 22.

IRL officials countered by offering Phoenix an August race date, but PIR didn't find running a race in 100-degree heat, even at night, an attractive option. Those were the only choices PIR was offered, the source said. “(IRL) didn't want to be flexible."

IRL officials would not confirm Phoenix is off the 2006 calendar and won't release next season's dates until early August. More at East Valley Tribune

07/26/05 Officials at Phoenix International Raceway and the Indy Racing League say it's too soon to announce whether the Valley's IRL race will return in 2006. "We continue to have discussions with (PIR President) Bryan Sperber," said John Griffin, IRL vice president of communications. "It's premature to say anything yet." Sperber acknowledged that negotiations are ongoing for the 2006 schedule, which will be announced next week.

A Web site,, reported Friday that PIR, which has hosted Indy cars for more than 40 years, will not be on the schedule. Griffin told the site that one of the IRL's goals is to condense its season. A 17-race schedule this year, with Phoenix the second stop, started in March and will run through October. Arizona Republic

07/24/05 IRL president Brian Barnhart said the 2006 season will be shorter in duration. The official schedule will not be released until next month, he said, but it figures to begin in St. Petersburg, Fla., either April 2 or April 9 and end Sept. 10 in Joliet, Ill.

This season runs from March 6 to Oct. 16. "We just don't want to fight football (in the fall)," Barnhart said.

There will be 16 or 17 races, he said, with Phoenix expected to be dropped. The race in Kansas City, Kan., will be held the week following the Indianapolis 500. Barnhart said Texas Motor Speedway general manager Eddie Gossage was given the choice whether to be the first race after Indy or keep its traditional date two weeks after the 500. He chose the latter, Barnhart said.

A new street race in Quebec City, Canada, is being planned. Indy Star

07/22/05 The 2006 Indy Racing League season will start later, end sooner and may be reduced from 17 to 16 races but one of Indy-car's cornerstones for the past five decades has been dropped from the schedule. It's still a few weeks from becoming official but has learned that Tony George's series will begin with a street race at St. Petersburg, Fla. in April and end in early September at Chicago.

The Michigan race appeared to be in jeopardy (ticket sales for next week's race are reportedly dismal) but will likely be around at least one more year and the IRL is also thought to be looking at one more venue which would bring the total back to this year's number (17).

Although the IRL has shown interest in racing in Canada, there are no additional plans to add any road courses in '06 as Sonoma, Calif. and Watkins Glen, N.Y. will remain the IRL's only two road courses. Full story at

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