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CUP: Fangs For The Memories, Phoenix

The NASCAR Sprint Cup series is visiting Phoenix International Raceway this week and that fires off a lot of memories, not all of them pleasant.

PIR, in the shadow of the foothills of the Estrella Mountains, is located about 15 miles west of downtown Phoenix, just a couple of miles away from Interstate 10, the road that connects the Valley of the Sun with the city of Los Angeles.

The one-mile track that opened in 1964 was mostly known as an Indy car venue before NASCAR’s elite Cup series made its debut there in November of 1988.

My first visit to PIR came in the spring of 1980. I was sent out there from the still-chilly East Coast to cover the opening Indy car race of the season.

After arriving at the Phoenix airport and picking up my rental car, I decided to head straight out to the track to get my credentials and scope out the layout. It was the middle of a hot Thursday afternoon and I put the windows down to enjoy the full effects of the desert sun and wind.

But, in those days, there was no I-10. And Buckeye Road, the main route to Avondale, where the track is located, was a rather dreary industrial strip with what seemed like dozens of stoplights. After driving for close to an hour, I came to the road that was supposed to take me to the track.

After leaving the main road, all I could see for miles were dusty cotton fields and a few cows and horses wandering in the fields – and, of course, those hazy, blue mountains way off in the distance.

It seemed to take forever but, finally, I crossed a tiny stream of water called the Salt River and saw the track, the old wooden grandstand rising not very majestically into the afternoon sun. After collecting my credential and parking pass from a trailer in the parking lot, I found my way toward the infield only to discover that there was no tunnel entrance.

The Indy cars were practicing and a line of cars and trucks, including what looked like a couple of team vehicles, were sitting along the outside of the track’s Turn 2 waiting for the action to conclude so the gates could be opened.

I got out of my car to wait and perhaps strike up a conversation and find out more about the place. As I closed the driver’s door, something shot past my chest and there was an enormous crash as a piece of debris from the racetrack smashed through the driver’s side window of my rental, leaving shards on the front seat.

Welcome to PIR.

But that was only the beginning of my introduction to the place.

After cleaning the front seat as best I could, and thanking heaven there was no rain in the forecast, I drove into the infield and parked in the designated area in the middle of a dirt field.

I found my way to the teeny, hot infield media center, made my introductions and got busy working on some interviews and stories. All of a sudden, I realized I was the last writer left in the building and decided it was time to head to the hotel and get some dinner.

As I walked to the car, the sun dropped behind the horizon and it was hard to see where I was walking. I’m a fast walker and I was striding toward my car, one of the few left in the lot, when I noticed movement between my feet and heard a telltale rattle.

I’ve never particularly liked snakes and this was not a pleasant surprise. If you’ve ever seen one of those cartoons where the character hangs in the air for moments before suddenly darting away, believe it. That’s what I did that day.

I don’t think my feet touched the ground until I reached my car. I knew, realistically, the snake wasn’t chasing me, but I still burned rubber leaving the track that night.

That was just the beginning of my relationship with the Arizona track that grew to be one of my favorites – and not just because I love the dozens of authentic Mexican restaurants in the area. It turns out that the track, with it’s distinctive dogleg, puts on some great shows.

I covered many a race from the old press box atop the wooden grandstand. The building would sway every time a line of cars drove past on the track.

It’s a different place now, with a new modern grandstand and press box built in 1987 after the old grandstand was set on fire by lightning. The track also has a very nice two-lane tunnel entrance now, allowing passage in and out any time. And there are a lot of other modern amenities that weren’t there in 1980, including a competitors’ garage, luxury suites overlooking the first turn and a much more roomy infield media center.

But the local Indians still do a snake roundup a few days before every race, clearing the area so that people can sit safely on the big hill overlooking the third and fourth turns of the track and walk unmolested to and from their cars.

Longtime NASCAR star Buddy Baker thought he was being kidded when he was asked if he wanted to go along on the snake roundup a few years ago.

“I said, `No Thanks,’ but I really didn’t think they’d find many snakes out there,’’ Baker said. “Then they came back with this big bag and opened it up and told me to look inside. That thing was full of snakes and some of them looked about six feet long.’’

I’ve heard of drivers being bitten by the wall in Turn 2, but I’ve never heard of a race fan or competitor being bitten by a rattler on a race weekend. Still, I’ve always watched my step a little more carefully since that first visit to PIR.

Mike Harris was the long-time auto racing beat writer for the Associated Press and is now a frequent contributor to RacinToday.com

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