Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Early racing at Phoenix International Raceway

PIR opens for racing

At the September 1963 groundbreaking ceremony, developer Richard Hogue pledged to the Arizona Republic newspaper that “we'll be racing by late November or early December." Hogue planned to have “everything complete” when the track opened which besides the oval, the 10-turn 2.75-mile long road course and the dragstrip included the main grandstand with seating for 8,000, a hillside grandstand seating for another 2,000 above “one closed track curve,” a hilltop restaurant, a grandstand observation area over the drag strip and road course, an asphalt parking area for 5000 cars, and a four-lane access road from 115th Avenue.
The "old" PIR original layout with the road course and dragstrip

The first sports car races were initially scheduled for December 14 and 15, 1963 but unspecified construction delays during November forced the first races to be rescheduled to early January.  Despite the construction delays on December 21, PIR announced that the first “100-mile race for Indianapolis type cars” was scheduled for March 22 1964.
The PIR road course opened on January 5 1964 for a Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) regional sports car race won by Wichita oil man and former American Automobile Association (AAA) championship division car owner Jack Hinkle in his Cooper Monaco. This was followed by five SCCA divisional races on February 16, and then PIR hosted back-to-back SCCA regional and national races over the weekend of April 18 and 19.

The 1964 SCCA national PIR race program cover
note the billing as "The Indianapolis of the West" 

The SCCA national event featured a number of well-known road racers on the entry list: Chuck Parsons, Ronald ‘Skip’ Hudson, Dave MacDonald, Jerry Titus, George Follmer, Dick Guldstrand, Rick Muther, and Bobby Unser who drove Dick Hogue’s Lotus 23B Ford. The featured 60-lap 250 kilometer race on Sunday was won by Dave MacDonald in the Shelby-American “King Cobra” over Skip Hudson in the Nickey Chevrolet Cooper Monaco.   

After a New Year’s Day open test, the first drag race at the PIR complex was held on Sunday afternoon, January 12, 1964. Drag races on the unlighted 70-foot wide strip were held infrequently as the PIR strip fought with the better known and established Bee Line Dragway which opened in Mesa in early 1963. The PIR drag strip suffered a severe blow less than three months after it opened when on March 1 1964, Robert Snyders III, driver and co-owner with Larry Reimer of the “Snyders-Reimer Special” dragster died in a crash.

At the end of his final 187 mile-per-hour (MPH) pass, the parachute failed to deploy and Snyders’ car struck the retaining wall where the shutdown area blended into the oval at an estimated speed of 130 MPH.  After it hit the wall, the “Snyders-Reimer Special” flipped over several times and came to a stop upside down.  Snyders, a 27 year old father of two daughters from Chicago was taken from the wreckage and transported to St. Joseph's Hospital nearly 45 minutes away where he was pronounced dead on arrival. 

Harry Redkey takes over PIR

With the PIR drag strip and road course open in January 1964, the oval became active soon after and hosted its first USAC championship car race, the “Phoenix 100” held on Sunday March 22 1964, which was won by AJ Foyt who led every lap in Bill Anstead and Shirley Thompson’s Watson roadster. Tony Briggs, the first Phoenix International Raceway General Manager, had a short reign in July 1964, Dick and Nancy Hogue announced they had hired the track promotion and management team of Tucson’s Bob Huff and the legendary Harry Redkey. 

Redkey, the son of a municipal court judge in Muncie Indiana had been involved in the racing business for nearly thirty years, as a mechanic, driver, owner, and promoter primarily with stock cars. Redkey’s first race promotion dated back to 1950 at the high-banked Cincinnati Race Bowl and then in 1951, Harry and his partner Charles E. Schaff had established the touring Championship Stock Car Racing Club (CSCRC), which became the Society for Autosport, Fellowship and Education (SAFE) “All-Star Circuit of Champions.” In addition to running SAFE, Redkey also leased the 16th Street Speedway across from the gates of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1954 and promoted stock car racing on the ¼ -mile paved oval.

During 1955, SAFE ran a 32-race all-convertible schedule of races across the United States, under director of racing Bill Holland the 1949 Indianapolis 500-mile race who had retired from race driving the year before.  In late December 1955, Redkey and Schaff formally merged the SAFE organization with the National Association of Stock Car Racing (NASCAR), and SAFE became the NASCAR Convertible Division. Redkey served as a NASCAR Vice-President for some time, but moved on to Las Vegas and tried unsuccessfully to promote a series of USAC races at the Las Vegas Park thoroughbred track.

In August 1959 Redkey with partners Chuck Hud and RD Mole announced a pair of 250-mile races to be held on successive Saturdays, November 21 and 28, with the first race for stock cars and the next weekend a 250-miler for championship cars.  AAA had staged a promotional disaster championship car race the ‘Silver State Century’ at the same Las Vegas Park thoroughbred track in 1954.  On October 20 Competition Director Henry Banks announced USAC had granted a sanction for a 250-mile championship race on Saturday November 28. Somewhere all the way, plans changed and USAC and the ARCA co-sanctioned a 250-mile stock car race at Las Vegas Park on November 29 which was called due to darkness with 147 laps completed with Hoosier Fred Lorenzen in the lead.

In 1961, Harry Redkey and partner Nick Roberts signed a five-year lease for Manzanita Park Speedway located at the corner of Broadway and 35th Avenue in Southwest Phoenix. Originally started as a dog track, disgruntled racers from South Mountain Speedway started auto racing there and eventually added a ½-mile track to augment the original ¼-mile track. The track sat idle through the early part of the 1961 season, but Redkey reopened it and promised a guaranteed $1000 purse or 40% of the spectator gate receipts versus the original $400 purse. Redkey’s promotional skills saved Manzanita Speedway and eventually South Mountain Speedway closed.     

Redkey attempted to schedule a pair of weekend USAC midget races at Tucson Speedway and Manzanita in early April 1963, but both races were canceled just a few days prior when Redkey was unable to obtain satisfactory insurance to meet USAC standards. It appears from news reports that at least one of the races were rescheduled for October 1963 as Billy Cantrell won the 40-lapper on the half-mile at Manzanita Speedway over Mel Kenyon.

In turning over the operation of Phoenix International Raceway to Redkey, Dick Hogue was quoted in the July 9 1964 issue of the Arizona Republic that “he wanted to be free to concentrate on other business interests.” Redkey and Huff, the promoter of Tucson Dragway promised “major improvements” for the PIR facility which included building a roof over the grandstand, and the addition of 2000 box seats which would bring the main grandstand to a total capacity of 10,000 fans. This grandstand remained unchanged until lightning sparked a fire in 1987 and burned the structure to the ground.

Redkey and Huff’s first PIR promotion, the USAC championship 200-mile Bobby Ball Memorial in November 1964 drew an estimated 16,000 to 17,000 fans, a huge success that created an hours-long traffic post-race nightmare for fans, a problem that PIR suffered with for many years. 

Redkey and PIR drag racing

After lights were added in May 1965, the Phoenix International Raceway drag strip began to host a regular program of weekly Sunday night drag races. When he announced the purchase of the lights in April, Harry Redkey claimed that he was negotiating with both the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) and the American Hot Rod Association (AHRA) but he had made no choice of a sanctioning body. When the weekly races began they were unsanctioned.

On the night of August 22 1965, a seventeen-year-old Tucson High School junior, Phil Miner, was killed when the “Valley Auto Parts” AA/fuel dragster he was driving left the pavement, touched the soft dirt shoulder, dug in, and cartwheeled to a stop.  Rescuers found young Miner still alive, strapped into the cockpit of the destroyed dragster and removed him, but he was pronounced dead on arrival at St. Joseph's Hospital.

The Arizona Republic sports columnist Gerry Pierson asked the following day “what rules allowed a 17 year old to race a car capable of over 200 MPH?  The two top-ranked national sanctioning drag racing organizations, the NHRA and the AHRA have definite rules where the qualifications of competitors are concerned. PIR is unsanctioned by either group.” Pierson’s editorial also questioned whether the PIR drag strip was unsafe. “People will bring up the fact that Bee Line Dragway has successfully staged over 105 meets and has yet to have a fatality while PIR has had two drag strip deaths in seven meets.”

Sports columnist Bob Crawford writing in the Tucson Daily Citizen a few days later responded to Pierson’s editorial that “witnesses agree that anyone who places the blame on Phoenix International Raceway for Phil Miner’s death is wrong.” Crawford’s column quoted Miner’s mentor, Gary ‘Red’ Graeth “if a similar accident occurred in the Midwest, Miner could have taken a couple of dozen spectators with him. We’re lucky to have a strip as safe as PIR.”  Likely due to the publicity associated with the two tragedies, it appears that drag racing at PIR did not continue for long after the Miner tragedy, if at all.

Changes on the horizon as “Aggie” returns

Redkey continued to promote both PIR and Manzanita Speedway through 1965, and in late November 1965 that Redkey was elected to a three-year term to replace Bill Lipkey as the promoter’s representative on the USAC Board of Directors. In January 1966, former driver and wholesale auto dealer Keith Hall bought out the final year of Redkey’s lease on Manzanita Speedway and bought the track grounds from owners Rudy Everett and Larry Meskimen. While Redkey had saved Manzanita Speedway, Hall would take the track to greater heights. 

Beginning in 1965 Redkey landed a second annual PIR date on the USAC championship trail, the season opener and the season finale for the next three seasons. Redkey also managed to obtain FIA/ACCUS “full international” sanctioning status for the March 1966 Jimmy Bryan 150-mile race which he hoped would attract foreign drivers and thus more fans, but no international stars joined the USAC regulars.  

Harry Redkey had his first hiccup after five successful races when a lack of entries forced cancellation of a 250-mile USAC late-model stock car race at Phoenix International Raceway just days before the January 15 1967 race date. The $23,600 purse race, which would have been the first stock car event ever held at PIR, was to have opened the 1967 United States Auto Club USAC late model stock car racing season. "We simply had no other way to go," Redkey told the Tucson Daily Citizen. "We waited as long as we could and went as far as we could go before calling it off." Redkey said he had only seven signed entries and nine verbal commitments and that “we could hardly put on a decent race with seven cars.” 

USAC stock car supervisor Emil Andres pointed out “there’s a football game on television that day isn’t there” (referring to the first ‘Super Bowl’) but claimed that he had “nineteen bonafide entries and four vebals.”  Andres told the Arizona Republic newspaper he thought “the promoter was a tittle hasty in calling this thing off. I don’t think he ever wanted this race,” a claim Redkey vehemently denied. “If Mr. Andres would have spent as much time trying to get entries as he did talking to the press we would have a race.” 

At some point during the period from 1965 to 1967, track owners Richard and Nancy Hogue divorced and by 1967, Nancy Hogue moved in her new home at 7347 Red Ledge Drive in Paradise Valley and was in total control of the Phoenix International Raceway. On February 3 1967 an article in the Arizona Republic announced that JC Agajanian had been named to the PIR Board of Directors and would be an ‘advisor’ to Nancy Hogue, the sole owner of the speedway. The press release stated that Harry Redkey would remain as the director of racing at PIR, but that quickly changed.

On February 16 1967 readers of the Arizona Republic read reporter Dennis Woods’ article that revealed that 47-year old Harry Redkey was out at PIR, replaced by JC Agajanian as promotions director a rumor which “Aggie” had denied less than two weeks earlier. Jerry Raskin, identified as Nancy’ Hogue’s “business manager” told Wood “we have no reason for the dismissal to give to the press.”

Redkey read Wood a prepared statement “Myself and Robert Huff have been informed by the President and majority stockholder of PIR that we are removed from the board of directors. I have also been informed that I am no longer a corporate officer or the general manager. We will no longer participate in the active management of PIR; however Mr. Huff and I still remain as minority stockholders.”  

Charges and countercharges

Two days later, Nancy Hogue filed for an injunction against Redkey and Huff to obtain PIR property, papers and business records in their possession. Nancy’s suit also revealed her reason for the firing of the pair as she said there were “extended extravagant amounts of money for travel, hotels, entertainment, telephone calls, salaries etc.”  In apparent response to Redkey’s claim of minority ownership Agajanian told reporter Dennis Wood that “no one owns stock in PIR besides Nancy Hogue.” Agajanian stressed in his interview that “Mrs. Hogue dismissed Redkey, not me,” but added “it was obvious that there was dissension; otherwise there wouldn’t have been a dismissal.”  

In early March 1967 Redkey and Huff filed a $200,000 suit against Nancy Hogue which made several claims; first that “false representations were made with the intent to deceive and defraud” the pair. Redkey claimed that he had loaned PIR $10,000 for operating expenditures and his suit claimed that that loan came after “Nancy Hogue removed money for the PRI operating fund checking account without notice for no apparent reason. Finally, their suit claimed that Nancy Hogue “refused to have stock issued to Redkey and Huff as agreed,” and that their firing was a breach of their three-year contract with Hogue signed in October 1966. The pair asked the court to award them both compensatory and punitive damages.  

On January 28 1968, JC Agajanian as the new track promoter presented the first stock car race at Phoenix International Raceway, a 250-mile race held not on the oval but on the 2.73-mile long road course. The race, sanctioned by the United States Auto Club (USAC) featured several of USAC’s top Indianapolis star drivers- Foyt, McCluskey, Pollard and Jones and was won by USAC stock car stalwart Don White before more than 7,500 fans. In February, Jerry Raskin described as a former advertising executive and real estate developer was first quoted as the “track spokesman” when the raceway offices were opened at Dick Hogue’s former office at 511 East Culver Street in Phoenix.     

Redkey in Tucson

By June 1968, when Redkey and Huff announced their purchase of Tucson Raceway and a surrounding 300-acre parcel on Houghton Road as the site of the multi-purpose facility, their $200,000 lawsuit against Hogue was still active. The pair announced their plans for the initial construction of 2.7-mile paved road course which would eventually be joined by a 1-1/2 -mile high-banked oval, a half-mile oval, and a quarter-mile oval that would include a figure-eight. "That's all in the plans,” said Huff, "but it's also somewhere in the future. For right now, we are going to complete the road course and be ready for a November 3 USAC race with seating for about 16,000 with initial outlay for the road course and stands of "about a quarter of a million dollars."

"We'll have to start construction at least within the next couple of weeks," Huff told Pete Erickson of the Tucson Daily Citizen "and go fast." Huff claimed that with the road course is completed it would require “only a little work” to complete the big oval and the half-mile track. A large part of the existing Tucson drag strip was be used, and that the road course would be unique. “Every fan with a seat should be able to see a wheel turn anywhere on the track," according to Huff “I don't think there's a road course in the country at which you can see everything from your seat. Because of the contour of the land and the fact that it slopes slightly away from the grandstands -- which will be raised, by the way -- you'll be able to see the entire track."

The audacious plan for the road course was never completed, and on Redkey and Huff’s  planned race date November 3 1968, USAC held its second 250-mile championship car race promoted by Ken Clapp at the 1-1/2 mile Hanford Motor Speedway (originally known as Marchbanks Speedway) in Hanford California.

 A bizarre incident

Jerry Raskin Mrs. Hogue’s “business manager” became the PIR general manager and in September 1968 told the Arizona Republic that the dogleg on the oval had been “removed.”  "What happens now," Raskin said, "the cars will be able to drift coming out of the second turn and won't have to adjust again entering the straightaway." Raskin said renovation of the facility, cost $5,000. "We had to move in several tons of earth to bank the turn about 16 degrees but it’s well worth it.” The author could not find any information to confirm Raskin’s claim.

Later during 1968, Mrs. Hogue fired Raskin and he filed a lawsuit that asked for $17,100 in back wages and commissions.  The next turn of events on December 4 1968 came when Raskin was reportedly physically assaulted in his lawyer’s office prior to his scheduled deposition. Raskin’s attorney Rod Wood  told the Arizona Republic that Mrs. Hogue’s lawyer, Marvin “Mike” Johnson reportedly greeted Raskin and repeatedly referred to him as “big man” After Raskin refused to shake hands, Johnson allegedly struck Raskin four or five times in the face.

Raskin was treated for bruises on the left side of his face and shoulder at St Joseph’s Hospital and Phoenix Police patrolman Ernie White took a report on alleged attack by but no charges were apparently filed in the incident, and the Arizona Republic reported in a front page story that attorney Johnson could not be reached for comment.  
The incident was treated in a light-hearted way as in his January 5 1969 Arizona Republic “On the Town” column Vic Wilmot listed a number of items that he wished “the New Year may bring” that included “a suit of armor for Jerry Raskin.” The source of the friction between the two men became evident when in September 1971 Nancy Hogue married her lawyer in the Raskin case, Marvin Johnson in Santa Monica California.

In the next installment of the Phoenix International Raceway story, we will review the operation of the speed facility up to its purchase by entrepreneur Malcolm Bricklin

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