AVONDALE, Ariz. – Fans enjoyed it, drivers enjoyed it, teams enjoyed it. Following the Feb. 26-27 promoter test at Phoenix International Raceway, the sentiment was nearly unanimous that the Verizon IndyCar Series is back where it belongs.
The journey will come full circle when the Indy cars that crested 190 mph during the two-day session on the 1.022-mile short oval return for the Phoenix Grand Prix race weekend April 1-2.
“I remember being a kid watching Indy car races around here,” said James Hinchcliffe, driver of the No. 5 Arrow Honda for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports. “To now come back and be part of the comeback, even from the buildup to this test, never mind the race, the feedback from the fans has been incredible. I think that speaks volumes for this city and how anxious they are to have INDYCAR back. Certainly everybody in the Verizon IndyCar Series is happy to be coming back and bring another iconic venue back on the calendar.”
The 21 drivers participating in the promoter test amassed more than 5,300 laps during the four sessions. Nearly that many fans showed up for Prix View day at PIR, an opportunity to watch the testing for free Feb. 27 and attend a driver autograph session. That made one legendary driver, Mario Andretti, very happy.
“When it was nailed down that we were coming here, I said, ‘Amen, we’re going back to Phoenix,’” said Andretti, who spent the two days driving the INDYCAR Experience two-seater for celebrities and dignitaries.
“We belong here. This was track was built for INDYCAR. I was here from the beginning and I enjoyed it through four decades as a driver and now I’m still a driver (of the two-seater), so I’m still enjoying. I have a third generation that will race here now, so for me, Phoenix is like coming back home because I’ve spent so much time here.”
Tony Kanaan drives the No. 10 NTT Data Chevrolet for Chip Ganassi Racing Teams now, but he vividly remembers winning back-to-back races at PIR for Andretti Autosport in 2003-04.
“It's still one of my favorite racetracks,” Kanaan said. “One of my best recollections, I gave Michael Andretti's team their first win when they got back to INDYCAR. It was here in 2003. A lot of good memories about this racetrack.”
Josef Newgarden was only 14 the last time the Verizon IndyCar Series raced at Phoenix in 2005. But the Ed Carpenter Racing driver senses the history of the track and the fan excitement about the return.
“This really seems like there's a serious amount of fan interest, so I hope when we get here for the race, it's just going to be packed,” Newgarden said. “It seems like we're going to have a lot of people out here for just tests. We're still a month out and people are looking to come out.
“Hopefully that bodes well for the race. Hopefully we get a lot of people here. It seems like people really want to see us racing here, so that's great. It's a really great thing.”
The track has been reconfigured slightly since the 2005 race. The exit of Turn 2 has been widened and banking added in the back straight. It’s still a very challenging oval, the drivers said, most adding it is a cross between Iowa Speedway and The Milwaukee Mile.
“The track is a whole lot of fun,” Hinchcliffe said. “This is a tough little place. It's incredible how little time you have to think about anything around a lap here. It's so flat out, you cannot let your concentration waver for even a fraction of a second.
“Physically the G-forces around a small track like this are very high,” he added. “The heat is obviously an issue. For us, this is going to be a tough little race, but it's going to be a lot of fun.”