Phoenix International Raceway - Birthplace of the Polish Victory Lap

November 9, 2016
Marijan Malcevic

  • phoenix international raceway pack turn photo by chris trotman
  • Phoenix International Raceway, Avondale, Arizona

The Phoenix International Raceway, located in Avondale, Arizona, is one of America’s oldest oval race tracks currently active in NASCAR and IndyCar Series.

Since its opening in 1964, the PIR regularly hosted the open-wheel racing events on its one-mile oval and 2.5-mil road course until 2005. After an eleven year hiatus, the Indy Car Series returned to Phoenix in 2016. Stock cars came to the PIR in 1968, with NASCAR’s premier series visiting Phoenix for the first time in 1988. In recent years, Phoenix is the venue of two NASCAR race weekends annually.

In 2018, the name has been changed to ISM Raceway due to a partnership with Ingenuity Sun Media (ISM Connect).

Phoenix International Raceway, 1964

Early years of racing at Phoenix International Raceway

PIR wanted to be the Indianapolis of the West

The construction of the Phoenix International Raceway was completed in January 1964. Scottsdale builder Richard Hogue, an amateur sports car racer, designed the track at the foothills of the Estrella Mountains to be known as the “Indianapolis of the West”. At that time, it was the only one of its kind outside of Daytona Beach and the only road racing course between the Mississippi and California. The race track was named after the nearby metropolitan area of Phoenix, which is approximately 20 miles away.

Unique shape of the one-mile oval

The new track featured a uniquely-shaped one-mile oval, a quarter-mile drag strip and a meandering 2.5-mile road course. The road course ran both inside and outside of the main oval track, departing and rejoining the oval course after Turn One. Because of such a layout, constructors had to build a “dogleg” into the backstretch, which has become the circuit’s signature feature.

Phoenix International Raceway, Aerial view

An aerial view over the Phoenix International Raceway

The Monument Hill is the favorite place for spectators

The hillsides next to the track also offered a unique point to watch races from. The Monument Hill, located alongside turns 3 and 4, is a favorite among race fans because of the unique view. At the top of this hill lies a USGS bench marker known as Gila and Salt River Meridian, now listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Long before PIR existed, this spot was the original land survey point for all of which later became the state of Arizona.

AJ Foyt was the winner of the first USAC race in Phoenix

Before the PIR was built, the Arizona State Fairgrounds was hosting the AAA and USAC races. The first race at PIR was held on February 16, 1964, with Davey MacDonald winning the sports car race at the road course. The first USAC event on the oval took place on March 22, with AJ Foyt winning the Phoenix 100 race. One more USAC Championship race was held in November. It was the Bobby Ball Memorial and the winner was Lloyd Ruby. Since then and until 1986, Phoenix was hosting two USAC/CART races annually.

Driver posing with his vehicle

Back in the past, Phoenix hosted all sorts of race cars: midgets, sprint cars, stock cars, sports car, open-wheelers…

Al Unser recorded six wins at the PIR

In the following decades, the USAC Championship visited Phoenix twice a year until 1978. In 1979, CART IndyCar World Series continued to come to Phoenix and then, in 1996, the Indy Racing League became the main open-wheel series. In total, 62 USAC/CART/Indy races took place at Phoenix International Raceway between 1964 and 2005.

The list of winners is a short display of the American open-wheel racing history because many of the greatest drivers at least once scored the victory in Phoenix. After his inaugural victory, AJ Foyt added three more wins in later years. Mario Andretti and Bobby Unser were also four-time winners, same as Johnny Rutherford and Tom Sneva. Rick Mears celebrated three times in Phoenix, while Gordon Johncock triumphed five times. Above all is Al Unser, who is the record-holder with six wins.

Steve McQueen, Phoenix International Raceway, black and white

Steve McQueen won the race at Phoenix International Raceway

Steve McQueen showed his talent at the track in Avondale

Some milestone events in the history of the circuit were the first USAC stock car race in 1968, Steve McQueen‘s victory in the 1970 Winter Sprint with Porsche 908, the first USAC Midget Series race in 1973, the first Copper World Classic event in February 1977, and the first NASCAR Winston West Series race in November 1977.

In 1985, Emmett “Buddy” Jobe became the new owner, purchasing the track for $2.75 million from Dennis Wood. His main goal was to bring NASCAR major series (Winston Cup) to Phoenix. In April 1987, a lightning strikes the track’s main grandstand, burning the majority of the structure to the ground. That misfortune, along with NASCAR’s announcement of coming to Phoenix in 1988, started the reconstruction of the circuit.

The reconstruction was completed in October 1988. The three-story suite building was constructed outside of Turn 1 and reserved seating capacity was increased to 30,000. In November 1988, the first ever NASCAR Winston Cup event took place at Phoenix International Raceway.

Alan Kulwicki celebrating his win in 1988

Alan Kulwicki celebrates at Phoenix International Raceway in 1988

The Polish Victory Lap was born at Phoenix Raceway

Alan Kulwicki won the Checker 500, recording his maiden Winston Cup victory in front of record crowd of 60,000 spectators. They witnessed the birth of his famous “Polish Victory Lap“, running a victory lap in reverse direction to be closer to the fans, as the driver was sitting on the left side of the car.

The next reconstruction followed in 1991 when the old 2.5-mile road course was removed and replaced by a 1.51-mile infield road course. The road course was mostly used in the sports car competitions. In 1992, the IMSA-sanctioned races returned to Phoenix. The sports car racing events lasted at PIR until 2006.

In 1996, the grandstand capacity was increased to 65,000. In 1997, the International Speedway Corporation (ISC) took the ownership from Emmett “Buddy” Jobe. ISC is still the owner today.

Phoenix International Raceway, grandstands, 2004

Phoenix International Raceway in 2004

2005 – IndyCar left Phoenix, NASCAR added one more race

The season of 2005 was the milestone year because of two reasons – the IndyCar Series left Phoenix, but also, NASCAR gave a second annual race to PIR. The original Winston Cup race at PIR was a fall event (October or November), so the new race was scheduled for spring (April). Following the announcement of the second race, the track installed lights to allow the new race to be run in the evening.

One more grandstand expansion was made in 2006, with the Allison Grandstand being expanded from turn 1 to turn 2. The overall seating capacity was increased to 76,800. The Octane, an exclusive lounge on the top of the grandstands, was also constructed. In 2008, the SPEED Cantina was added. It’s one-of-a-kind at-track sports bar and grill located outside turn 2. In early 2010, some of the grandstands along the backstretch were removed to allow additional room for vehicles, thus the seating capacity dropped to around 67,000.

Phoenix International Raceway, map

Map: Phoenix International Raceway track layout – oval race track has an unusual shape

The major reconstruction of the circuit in 2011

The major reconstruction of the track, which changed the layout of the circuit, was completed in August 2011. The changes included repaving of the surface, different radiuses of the turns and bankings, while the famous dogleg was moved outward by 95 feet (29 meters).

As result, the length of the oval track was slightly increased to 1.022 miles and the road course was sealed off, so the Phoenix International Raceway became an oval-only racing circuit.

IndyCar Series returned in 2016

The new 1.022-mile PIR continued to host two NASCAR Sprint Cup races annually, but also the races of the Nationwide Series (now Xfinity), Camping World Truck Series, K&N Pro Series West and Mexican NASCAR. The record-holder with eight wins in Phoenix’s Sprint Cup races is Kevin Harvick. Jimmie Johnson recorded four wins at the PIR, one more than Dale Earnhardt Jr.

In 2016, IndyCar Series returned to Phoenix, with Helio Castroneves taking the pole and setting a new track speed record (192.324 mph) and Scott Dixon winning the race.

Renovation project started in 2017, new name in 2018

In January 2017, a $178 million renovation project started, zcalled the Phoenix Raceway Project Powered by DC Solar. A plan is to finish all until November 2018. In September 2017, PIR formed a partnership with Ingenuity Sun Media (ISM Connect) to rename the track to ISM Raceway starting in 2018.

Address: Phoenix International Raceway, 125 S. Avondale Blvd., Avondale, AZ 85323, USA

Phone: +1 623-463-5400

Official website:


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