NASCAR drivers to take on new-look PIR in Chase
Phoenix International Raceway had become like a comfortable old
chair for NASCAR drivers over the past 20 years: cracked and
creaky, yet familiar and fitting.
This weekend, it’ll feel more like something fresh out of the
Repaved and reconfigured, the mile oval at PIR will look and
feel vastly different for NASCAR’s second race at the track this
season than it did just nine months earlier.
And with this being the penultimate race in the Chase for the
Sprint Cup championship, it’s going to add a whole lot of extra
intrigue, not to mention some guesswork by the teams and
”With two races spread out the way that they have it, I guess
they felt that during the offseason wasn’t going to be right for
them,” said Jeff Gordon, eighth in the Chase, 81 points behind
leader Carl Edwards. ”I’m sure it’s something that many of us
would disagree with, especially with how much it is going to change
things for the championship, but I think it’s their choice and
their decision. We don’t know all the input that went into making
that decision, so we live with it.”
PIR was built nearly 50 years ago and has been a regular stop
for NASCAR since Alan Kulwicki won the inaugural race there in
1988. The track is quirky, with vastly different turns at both
ends, and had become bumpy and cracked since its last repave 20
Despite its flaws and eccentricities, PIR had become a place the
veteran drivers felt comfortable, particularly since it started
hosting two races a year in 2005.
The problem was that the track had become too worn down. PIR
officials use an aggressive approach to track maintenance between
races and on race weekends, but the track was brittle and breaking
apart after 20 years of racing.
”It just got to the point where we were just patching
patches,” PIR president Bryan Sperber said. ”The last weekend we
had in February, we had the track break apart in four or five
different places and had to go in at night to fix it. To have a
track come apart on a race weekend, that’s the last thing you
The concern, at least for the teams, was the timing of the
It’s one thing to have a new track surface at the start of the
season, but doing it near the end of the Chase puts added pressure
on teams that they didn’t necessarily want with so much on the
Normally at a track such as Phoenix, teams have a deep data base
of what kind of setups have worked and the drivers know which
racing lines will work. With the repaving and the alterations to
the banking and dogleg, they’re nearly starting anew.
PIR held a tire test in August and a two-day test for teams in
October, but that’s still not a lot of time for a sport that relies
on so many calculations by teams and the feel from the drivers.
”They did a really nice job with the work they’ve done here, so
it’s just a matter of us trying to figure out what we have to be
good for the weekend now,” said Tony Stewart, three points behind
Edwards in the Chase. ”After this weekend, when we come back in
the spring, we’ll have a lot better idea, but it definitely does
put a little more emphasis on trying to get it figured out and get
Many of the drivers would have liked the changes to have come in
the offseason, but there really wasn’t much choice because of the
timing between races.
Track officials started tearing up the track immediately after
the Feb. 27 race and spent the next six months working to push the
dogleg out 95 feet, increase the banking and set the new
The Chase race wasn’t until November, but the track had to be
nearly complete for a test in August so Goodyear would have time to
get tires ready. Workers needed almost every minute of those six
months to get the work done, so trying to redo the track between
Sunday’s race and the next one in March wouldn’t have worked.
Weather also worked against PIR trying to do it during the
Asphalt sets better in the heat and there are few places hotter
than Phoenix in the summer. Had PIR officials tried to do the
repaving in summer, they would have risked the temperatures
dropping too low – yes, even in the desert – which would have kept
the asphalt from setting right and led to cracking.
”You’ve got to go with the hand that you’re dealt,” Sperber
said. ”There was just no other alternative because of the time it
takes to do it because there’s no way it could have been done
during the offseason. Which is the lesser of the two of evils: you
have a wild card race or you have it break apart during the race.
Those were my options, so it was kind of an easy decision.”
PIR did its best to break in the track.
In addition to the tests in August and October, the track ran a
tire dragging machine that spun 80 tires over the track for more
than 90 hours. It also had a group of drivers, including Nationwide
Series champion Randy Lajoie and ARCA champion Frank Kimmel, turn
laps the past few days in an attempt to widen the upper groove.
Combined, the cars ran more than 3,000 miles at the track.
The Cup drivers got four hours of practice over two sessions on
the new surface on Friday, but they would have liked more – a whole
”It’s a little frustrating and presents a challenge with you
and your team, but that’s what the sport is about, I guess,” said
Dale Earnhardt Jr., seventh in the Chase standings. ”It’s not
something I enjoy, but it’s part of the playing field, part of what
you’ve got to encounter while you are out there trying to get your
In other words, it could take them a little while to get
comfortable with this new version of PIR.