Friday, October 7, 2016

The construction of Phoenix International Raceway
courtesy of PIR Inc.

Recently, the author browed the history section of the Phoenix International Raceway 50th anniversary media guide which was published in 2014. Some of the events and dates listed are approximately correct, such as the completion of the construction of the track in 1964, but the guide contains several incorrect statements.
Historic inaccuracies are not unusual with corporate owned entities and the purpose of this article and those to follow in the coming days is to accurately re-trace the early history of Phoenix International Raceway (PIR) including and through period during which car manufacturer Malcolm Bricklin owned the Phoenix track and renamed it “FasTrack International Raceway.” 

The creation of PIR

On the last day of July 1963, the local planning commission approved the plans submitted by Scottsdale developer Richard P “Dick” Hogue to build a road racing course and dragstrip. The 314-acre parcel southwest of Phoenix near the city of Avondale was laid out in a natural amphitheater adjacent to Estrella Mountain Park on the east and bounded on the north by the dry creek bed of the Salt River.  The planning commission then passed Hogue’s July 1 proposal onto the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors for final approval.

Hogue and his wife Nancy as well as his partner Templeton (Tony) Briggs Jr. all resided in the affluent Phoenix suburb of Scottsdale. Hogue, a housing and real estate developer, tackled the created of the new raceway following the completion of his 62-unit Holiday Apartments project at 511 East Culver Street in December 1962.  Both Hogue and his partner Briggs were accomplished amateur sports car racers who wanted to build a permanent road course in Phoenix as until then the area sports car races were held on abandoned airstrips or parking lots. 

Briggs had won the 1957 SCCA G production national championship behind the wheel of his own Alfa Romeo Giulietta Veloce. Hogue raced in Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) events beginning in 1957, as he progressed from a Volkswagen Karmen Ghia to an AC ‘Ace,’ and then in 1959 he drove several races in Cincinnatian John Quackenbush’s 4-cylinder Ferrari 500 Testa Rossa Spyder. After Quackenbush sold his Ferrari, Hogue bought and raced his own Porsche 718 RSK and Cooper Monaco, and in 1964 he owned a Ford-powered Lotus 23B formerly driven by Jimmy Clark. 

The reader might ask how these two men, Hogue and Briggs, managed to fund the nearly one million dollars needed for the land purchase and facility construction of Phoenix International Raceway. The answer was family money - Tony Briggs’ father was a Scottsdale real estate investor and owner of a Phoenix advertising agency while Nancy Hogue’s family owned of one of the nation’s premier corrugated box manufacturers, the Kieckhefer Container Company. Nancy had grown up in a huge home in Milwaukee which overlooked Bradford Beach on the west shore of Lake Michigan and her uncle William Kieckhefer was one of the wealthiest men in America, with an estimated net of worth between 75 and 100 million dollars.

The Maricopa County Board of Supervisors issued a Special Use Permit for PIR on August 26 1963 and by the date of the official groundbreaking on September 19 1963, construction was already well underway as described by the Arizona Republic’s sports editor Frank Gianelli. “It’s gratifying to walk in on a groundbreaking and find construction already underway. Generally at such occasions, there's the mockery of somebody leaning on a shovel, a flash of architect's renderings, and a great volume of promises,” wrote Gianelli, “No such conditions prevailed yesterday, though - when Phoenix International Raceway had starting ceremonies on the $500,000 speed site south of Avondale, great chugging earth movers have already have humped up the landscape and gouged out the route for the mile closed oval.” James V. Peterson, of Scottsdale with “paving experience that includes the Milwaukee championship mile oval,” was introduced as the man in charge of all track construction.   

The last years of racing at the Fairgrounds
The one-mile “dogleg” oval for which PIR became renowned was not included in Hogue’s original plans, but added at the suggestion of famed Southern California racing promoter and USAC Board member Joshua Clay “JC” Agajanian as USAC about to lose its Arizona venue.  The American Automobile Association (AAA) and it successor organization, the United States Auto Club (USAC) had staged championship car races on the one-mile dirt oval at the Arizona State Fairgrounds with various promoters for fourteen years, but the seven-member Arizona State Fair Commission had voted to end automobile racing on the one-mile dirt oval at the Fairgrounds after November 1963. 

The future of auto racing on the Fairgrounds one-mile dirt oval had been trouble for several years prior to 1963. Track conditions were bad during the 1961 Bobby Ball Memorial promoted by Mel Larson. The track began to break up early, as Ray Crawford’s car flipped in turn two during time trials and Ray was admitted to the hospital with back and chest injuries. On lap 41 of the 100-lap race Alvah ‘Al’ Keller’s in Bruce Homeyer’s yellow ‘Konstant Hot Special” which had set quick time in time trials hit a rut then flipped and rolled six times in the fourth turn.

After a single lap under the yellow flag, the race continued until lap 49 when the red flag was displayed; rescuers untangled the fourth turn chain link fence from the crushed car and removed Keller’s lifeless body for transport and he was pronounced dead on arrival at St. Joseph’s Hospital. The track was then re-worked with a scraper and water truck before the race restarted after an hour and half delay. On lap 88, Chuck Hulse flipped in turn four and the race ended with 89 laps completed due to darkness.

After the race, Rodger Ward told the Associated Press “this is the worst track I’ve ever run on and I’ve run on a lot of them. I hate to see poor officiating, it makes me angry. I think the race could be a good one if enough thought and preparation went into it.” USAC competition director Henry Banks was later quoted "I was on my way to the starting line to halt the show when the accident (Keller’s) occurred.”  For the next race, USAC attempted to ensure acceptable track conditions by dictating the promoter to the Fair Commission, and listed Agajanian as the only certified promoter for the Arizona mile, but that plan conflicted with the annual public bidding process for the track rental.

USAC racing on the Arizona Fairgrounds mile edged closer to oblivion after Elmer George’s “HOW Special’ went through a chain link fence and injured twenty-three spectators, two critically, standing in the “overflow section” in front of the grandstand during the 1962 Bobby Ball Memorial race. Fair Commission Executive Director Charles Garland was quoted at the time that “the fair commission makes very little money off auto racing; we kept providing one of two race strictly out of a sense of obligation to the 25,000 fans. But the future of the Bobby Ball race will be a topic of discussion in our December meeting.”  

Race promoter Mel Martin made the curious statement after the race to the United Press International (UPI) reporter that “had the crash wall been stronger it would have flipped the car over and over into the people,” which would have made for a higher injury toll. 

Two days after the 1962 race the Arizona Republic newspaper published an editorial entitled “Enough is enough” that called for the abandonment of the auto racing on the Fairgrounds mile. The Fair Commission later faced $1.2 million in damage suits filed by spectators who alleged that they were injured due to negligence.
Since the race took place before the Arizona Supreme Court ruled that the fair commission was not immune from liability, the commission had only required liability insurance coverage of $300,000 from race promoter Mel Martin. The situation became worse for the Commission after Martin’s insurance carrier stated that it had notified promoter Martin in advance of the race that its coverage would not extend to standing spectators outside the grandstand, a claim Martin disputed.

The fight over racing at the Fairgrounds

The approval of the PIR use permit was not without some controversy as while the PIR plans were being considered during July, the South Phoenix Racing Incorporated a company operated by promoter Mel Martin and a partner Tom Breen, offered a proposal to the Arizona State Fair Commission to pave the one-mile Fairgrounds track in exchange for the right to promote four automobile races at the track annually for a seven year period.

However, Phoenix Planning and Zoning Commission Chairman Allyn Watkins recommended that the commission reject the South Phoenix Racing proposal, and cited neighborhood objections to racing at the track. Martin then charged that the planning commission had acted "politically on behalf of private interests. I can't think of any reason for their action," Martin said, "other than it was promoted by backers of the Phoenix Raceway."

Watkins, also a neighbor of the fairgrounds, said Martin's plan seemed "economically unfeasible" to the zoning commission.  The same day that the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors granted their approval for the construction of PIR to proceed, Martin’s unsolicited offer to pave the fairgrounds track was unanimously rejected by the seven Fair Commission members.  

However, despite the ongoing construction of PIR, the future of auto racing on the one-mile Arizona State Fairgrounds was not dead as in January 1964 fair commissioners reconsidered Mel Martin’s revised proposal. Martin’s new proposal called for a 10-year exclusive lease on the fairground track in return for Martin's investment of $56,000 in track paving new guard railings and fencing the dirt oval. Martin's investment was to be written off the company's books at a rate of $8,000 a year over seven years.  If the commission broke Martin's lease before the end of the seven years, Martin’s proposal called for the fair commission to reimburse him for any portion of his investment not yet written off.  

Under his revised proposal Martin would stage at least four USAC-sanctioned races a year and he offered to pay the Fair Commission either a flat annual track rental of $16,500 or series of guarantees against receipts: $4,000 guaranteed against 12.5 per cent of ticket receipts, 12 per cent of parking fees and 15 per cent of program sales. 

Martin’s proposal was curious as USAC had stated in 1963 that JC Agajanian was the only promoter to whom USAC would issue sanctions for racing on the Arizona State Fairgrounds oval.  The Commission expressed doubts over Martin’s financial ability of Martin's firm to meet the rentals and guarantees and required $2 million of “advance” insurance coverage. Later, the Arizona State Attorney General held that the Fair Commission could not enter long-term contracts binding on future commission members.

In its early April 1964 meeting, the Fair Commission voted to raze the 59-year old race track and replace it with a new game and fish building, a new Indian exhibit hall, a stage for the annual state fair and a $5.5 million 15,000 seat coliseum which had been planned since 1962.  Executive Director Garland and other Fair officials said that the construction of Phoenix International Raceway had rendered the fairground facility obsolete.

The only remnant of the old mile track is the grandstand. Author photo

Even with the loss of the old track, Mel Martin and Tom Breen were not done with auto racing at the Arizona State Fairgrounds as in 1966 the pair promoted the closed circuit telecast of the Indianapolis 500-mile race at the new Arizona Veterans Memorial Coliseum. The race broadcast was shown on two 20-by-26 feet screens with carbon-arc projectors placed on the arena floor.

Clarence Cagle’s role in PIR

When Agajanian approached Hogue about adding an oval track to his new racing venue, Hogue agreed, as long as “Aggie” provided someone to design and oversee the oval construction. Agajanian enlisted the help of Clarence Cagle who had served as the track superintendent at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway since 1948.
Clarence Cagle's 1957 Passport photograph
courtesy of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Collection
 in the IUPUI University Library Enter for Digital Studies

A native of Terre Haute Indiana, Cagle worked on the Hulman family farm, Lingen Lodge, as a teenager in the nineteen thirties, and then went to work in various roles in Hulman family businesses after he graduated from high school. After he spent 33 months as a driver in the U.S. Army in Europe during World War 2, Cagle returned to work as a “trouble shooter” for the Clabber Girl Baking Powder Company. After Anton “Tony” Hulman Junior bought the Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s from Eddie Rickenbacker, Hulman summoned Cagle to assist Jack Fortner, the pre-war superintendent of the track grounds to get the facility ready in time for the 1946 Indianapolis 500-mile race.

An ailing Fortner retired in 1948 and Cagle became the Speedway’s track superintendent and then in 1952 a vice-president with the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Corporation, jobs he held until he retired in August 1977.   Cagle and his wife Gladys his former secretary whom he married in 1963 lived on the Speedway grounds in a small frame house, originally Carl Fisher's summer cabin with one room and a fireplace.  Cagle’s crowning achievement in his thirty-year career at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was the two-year construction of the “new” IMS Museum building completed in 1974.

A 1959 article in the Terre Haute Tribune related that since Hulman bought the IMS facility Cagle “has never seen a 500-Mile race, since he remains in his office behind the Grandstand ‘D’ throughout the running of the race in order to be available at all times to care for any emergencies or problems arising which may require his assistance.”

Cagle considered America’s  “go to” expert on race track construction and paving, initially could not fit the layout of a one-mile oval inside the Phoenix road course, but the addition of the characteristic “dog leg” off the oval’s second turn made it fit. Cagle remained involved with Phoenix International Raceway for many years, as he supervised the oval’s resurfacing in 1985 after the track’s deteriorated condition due to flooding forced the cancellation of the March “Dana Jimmy Bryan 150” race. Cagle again supervised the resurfacing of the PIR oval in August 1993. 

In our next installment, we’ll examine the history Phoenix International Raceway after it opened for racing.

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