After 30 years, Firebird International Raceway hosted its last race in April 2013, leaving the future of drag racing in Phoenix in doubt. Now, like a phoenix, Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park rises from the ashes. With a new and energetic management team and a revitalized facility, the future of racing in the Valley of the Sun looks bright.
The Motorsports Park is a full service motorsports facility that includes three road course circuits, 120 acres of pavement for autocross and skidpad use, a 120-acre motorsports lake and an off-road race course in addition to the drag strip. With the change in management comes many improvements to the drag strip. The biggest change is the new concrete launch pad, which is a favorite with the drivers. A new state-of-the-art timing and scoring system has also been installed along with a new PA system, scoreboard and stands. The drivers I spoke with say the improvements put this facility on par with any drag strip in the country.
The drag strip is available for open racing on most Friday nights during the winter racing season. At the grand opening of the new track on January 24, 2014, there were 442 racers and over 1,000 spectators in attendance.
On February 4, 2014, many top National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) drivers stopped by the track for some practice runs on their way across the country to the NRHA Winternationals in Pamona, California. It was a spectacular afternoon for me because I had a chance to go down onto the track with the officials and crews for several runs of the Pro Stock cars. When I feel the roar of the engines pounding inside my chest, it never fails to get my heart pumping. The cars were amazingly fast, reaching speeds over 200 mph in the quarter mile. Top Fuel and Funny Cars can go over 330 mph. As I stood on the side of the track, it was difficult to get a photograph because the cars flashed through the viewfinder too fast to see.
The Carquest Auto Parts NHRA Nationals return to Phoenix on February 21, 2014 at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park. The three-day event includes side-by-side racing of all the favorite NHRA classes. I was a big fan of NHRA racing when I was a high school student in Southern California. For me, drag racing was a lot more than watching two cars run down the strip over and over. I loved the drama of the competition. There were great rivalries I followed back then. In particular, I followed Shirley Muldowney vs. “Big Daddy” Don Garlits in Top Fuel Dragsters. It was great to watch these top competitors move through the brackets defeating all comers until they almost always faced off each other in the final run.
Garlits represented the old school of racing where the drivers built their own cars and tuned them by instinct. Muldowney was a completely new breed. The first female driver to be a top contender in drag racing, Muldowney had a professional crew of trained engineers in the pit. It was the classic match-up of brain vs. brawn and it mirrored the times when the emerging space and computer sciences were poised to carry the country into a new era, competing with hard won lessons from the school of hard knocks. I can't remember now who came out on top, but who won was not really the point. It was great to watch them come out there time after time and give everything they had.
There are some great rivalries coming to Phoenix for the Carquest Nationals. Women are commonplace in drag racing now. John Force Racing, which includes 16-time national champion John Force and his daughters Brittany and Courtney, will face off with the Don Schumacher team led by the 2013 runner up, Matt Hagan. Hagan is surely hungry to unseat the long time champion. In addition, Erica Enders-Stevens, who won in Phoenix in 2013 in the Pro Stock division, will be defnedng her top spot. No matter who wins, there is sure to be some great matchups to inspire a new generation of fans.
The Carquest Auto Parts NHRA Nationals take place at the Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park in Chandler, Arizona from February 21 – 23, 2014. You can get tickets and more information online at racewildhorse.com.