Back to the future: INDYCAR returns to Phoenix International Raceway

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AVONDALE, Ariz. – The blockbuster 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series season takes a page out of its own history this weekend with the highly anticipated return to Phoenix International Raceway for the Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix.

The 250-lap race April 2 marks the series’ return to the 1.022-mile oval in the desert following an 11-year absence. Drivers, teams and fans alike are eager to see the 22 cars racing at what are expected to be record speeds.

CLICK HERE: Weekend schedule; Entry list

No one knows better the significance of PIR in Indy car annals than the man who’s won more Indy car races than anyone, A.J. Foyt. He won the first PIR race in March 1964 and was victorious a total of four times at the track built for Indy cars.

“Phoenix has been great in a lot of ways for me,” Foyt said March 30 at the ceremony announcing that the winner of this year’s race will be awarded the A.J. Foyt Champion’s Trophy. “I’d say right here in Phoenix is where I got my big start. I’m just glad to be back here.”

The current crop of Indy car drivers returned to Phoenix last month for a two-day promoter test. While the track has been resurfaced and slightly reconfigured since the last Verizon IndyCar Series race here in 2005, the test’s results were eye-opening. Eighteen of the 21 drivers participating eclipsed Arie Luyendyk’s official track record of 19.608 seconds, with the top six all exceeding 190 miles per hour.

Blinding speeds, high G forces and wheel-to-wheel action is anticipated all around the oval when the race takes place under the lights.

“Physically this will be the most demanding race of the year, I believe,” said Graham Rahal, driver of the No. 15 Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda.

"Very fast!” summed up Takuma Sato, driver of the No. 14 ABC Supply/AJ Foyt Racing Honda. “It's well known that this track is unique as there is different banking for each corner. It's very impressive. The track has such a high level of grip and the cornering speed is incredibly fast.”

Juan Pablo Montoya holds an eight-point lead in the championship after winning the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on March 13.

"It was good to get the 2016 season started right with a win at St. Pete in the Verizon Chevy and now we get a chance for our first oval challenge in Phoenix,” Montoya said. “It's good for the Verizon IndyCar Series to come back to a market like Phoenix, with all the history the series has there.

“I think it's going to be a pretty interesting race on Saturday night and our Team Penske cars should be fast there, so hopefully we can make it two in a row to start the season."

Four of the 22 entered drivers have raced Indy cars at PIR before, including past winners Helio Castroneves of Team Penske (2002) and Tony Kanaan of Chip Ganassi Racing Teams (2003, 2004).

Practice and qualifying take place April 1. NBCSN takes over television coverage this weekend and is telecasting the opening practice (1 p.m. ET) and qualifying (5 p.m.) live. The final practice will be streamed live on RaceControl.IndyCar.com.

Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix facts:

• Race 2 of 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series season. This is the 62nd Indy car race at Phoenix International Raceway. The first was on March 22, 1964, the Phoenix 100 won by A.J. Foyt. The last race at PIR was the XM Satellite Radio 200 on March 19, 2005, won by Sam Hornish Jr.

Tickets and event information: www.phoenixraceway.com

Twitter: @PhoenixRaceway, #DDCPhoenixGrandPrix; @IndyCar, #IndyCar

TV: NBCSN is televising opening practice April 1 (1 p.m. ET), qualifying April 1 (5 p.m. ET) and the race April 2 (8:30 p.m. ET). Rick Allen is lead announcer, with Townsend Bell and Paul Tracy the analysts. Pit reporters are Katie Hargitt, Kevin Lee, Robin Miller and Marty Snider. Internationally, ESPN distributes Verizon IndyCar Series race telecasts through a combination of ESPN networks and syndication to more than 198 countries and 103 million homes.

Radio: Mark Jaynes is the chief announcer alongside analyst Davey Hamilton for the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network. All Verizon IndyCar Series races are broadcast live on network affiliates, Sirius 212, XM 209, IndyCar.com, indycarradio.com and the INDYCAR Mobile app.

Radio network broadcasts of qualifying are available on Sirius 212, XM 209, IndyCar.com, indycarradio.com and the INDYCAR Mobile app. Practice sessions are on IndyCar.com, indycarradio.com and the INDYCAR Mobile app.

Fantasy league: The #INDYRIVALS Fantasy Challenge driven by Firestone allows fans to become a team manager by fielding a four-driver lineup for each Verizon IndyCar Series race, with a stockpile of prizes on the line each week. Sign up today at fantasy.indycar.com.

From the fans