Monday, October 17, 2016

The history of Phoenix International Raceway continues………..


In their January 1969 meeting the United States Auto Club (USAC) Board of Directors voted to require race promoters increase the guaranteed minimum purse for races on one-mile tracks from $10,000 to $30,000. In response, Phoenix International Raceway (PIR) promoter JC Agajanian and track owner Nancy Hogue claimed that the proposed increase “would drive Indy racing out of Arizona” and canceled the scheduled ‘Jimmy Bryan 150’ race dates. Agajanian’s promotions in previous years PIR had paid out 40% of the spectator gate receipts, which meant the typical purses had totaled out closer to $20,000. 

After weeks of negotiations, it was announced at the end of February that the Jimmy Bryan 150 race date was re-set for March 30 with a guaranteed purse of $25,000. “When the USAC board agreed to come down from their original demand,” ‘Aggie’ told the Tucson Daily Citizen “Mrs. Hogue graciously agreed to underwrite the new schedule.”  It appears that part of Mrs. Hogue’s “underwriting” meant that Agajanian had to cancel his “Open Competition Supermodified and Caged Sprint Car Race” originally scheduled at PIR for March 2 and direct all his promotional efforts on the Jimmy Bryan race.   

A month before the Bobby Ball Memorial Race in November, Agajanian told the Arizona Republic that Nancy Hogue spent $100,000 (nearly $700,000 today) on renovations over the past two years on the Phoenix International Raceway oval track. Changes included moving the guardrail and crash wall in front of the main grandstand back ten feet and crews had widened the pit area. According to ‘Aggie,’ the track had spent $30,000 on new paint alone, built new bleachers and crash walls, resurfaced parts of the track, and built larger concession stands and restrooms. 

Charlie Alexander

Courtesy PIR

The history timeline in the 2014 Phoenix International Raceway 50th anniversary media guide states that in 1969 “Track owners Dick & Nancy Hogue sell PIR to Phoenix hotel magnate C.A. Alexander.” The author’s research found that Nancy Hogue did NOT sell PIR to Charles Max “Charlie” Alexander. Charles Max Alexander started his career in furniture and television sales then became a custom home builder developer before he and partner Wayne L. Romney built the landmark Kon Tiki Hotel in Phoenix in 1961. 
A vintage postcard from the author's collection

Built on Phoenix’s “Hotel Strip” on East Van Buren Street, the exotic Kon Tiki, designed by noted Phoenix architect James Salter, featured a torch-lit Polynesian bar, giant tiki masks, ‘goggie’ architecture and guest rooms with waterbeds. With the advertising slogan “a Little Bit of Waikiki in the Heart of Phoenix,” the Kon Tiki became isolated when the freeway system was built, closed in 1993 and was demolished in 1997.

Alexander signed a three-year lease for PIR which ran through 1973, and articles in the Arizona Republic from 1970 through the end of the 1972 racing season refer to Charlie Alexander as the racing director or promoter. Under Alexander’s leadership, PIR moved the “Copper State 200” USAC stock car race from the road course the one-mile oval for April 1970, but the USAC stock cars never returned to PIR, despite a crowd of over 10,000 fans and 34 cars that vied for a 24-car starting field.  Alexander’s single greatest promotion appears to have been the 1971 Bobby Ball Memorial when television star Peter Graves of “Mission Impossible” was the special guest and race fans mobbed Graves for an autograph.

The PIR racing surface was reportedly deteriorating during 1971 which exacerbated the track’s long-standing traction problems created by blowing sand. For 1972 Alexander had “a treated tire surface” applied that created problems for team during winter tire testing. Bobby Unser told the Arizona Republic that “we tested too soon after the track had been treated and the car’s side-mounted radiators started gumming up.” That problem was rectified through the use of a different tire compound, and in March Unser described the track as “solidified” though lap speeds were slower. 

On September 16 1972 PIR hosted an odd event organized by 30 year old Phoenix area home builder and developer Frank Braggiotti in support of former Beatle John Lennon and Yoko Ono. The singer and his wife were then involved with the Immigration and Naturalization Service in deportation fight over Lennon’s marijuana conviction in 1968. Braggiotti claimed he “became a born again Democrat the day the Republican administration decided to deport John Lennon and Yoko Ono."

Braggiotti spent over $15,000 to rent the track and he expected 2000 to 5000 people but less than 300 people showed up.  The crowd listened to marijuana decriminalization speakers John Sinclair and Lee Otis Johnson before John and Yoko called from New York City but the small crowd could not hear the pair because the organizers could not get the telephone call to play on the track’s public address system.

Nancy Hogue actually did sell PIR

The Phoenix International Raceway (PIR) 50th anniversary press guide identifies 1975 as the year that “Bricklin Cars purchases PIR changes name to FasTrack international but the parent company goes bankrupt within the year Nancy Hogue regains control.” Once gain the PIR press guide is wrong, as Bricklin’s purchase of PIR occurred three years earlier, in 1972.

On Wednesday morning December 6 1972, readers of the Arizona Republic newspaper read that Nancy Hogue, “described as the sole owner of PIR” had sold the track to Paul O’Shea of Newport Beach California for an undisclosed price. O’ Shea was identified as the owner of California Automotive Research in San Bernardino, a company which “deals in car and accessory testing.” The article stated that Charlie Alexander would “continue to present the two Indianapolis-type races in 1973 as in the past” in addition to O’Shea’s plans to use the track for automotive testing.  

Paul O'Shea was a former Sports Car Club of American (SCCA) race car driver who had started his racing career in 1949 driving an 331 cubic inch V8 Cadillac powered Allard J2X. O’Shea had a tremendous run of success from 1955 in 1956 behind the wheel of a Mercedes Benz 300SL “Gullwing,’ as he won twelve national races and the SCCA D/Production national title both years. In 1957 O’Shea won four national races and repeated as the SCCA D/Production champion behind the wheel of a Mercedes Benz 300SLS roadster. In 1972, O’Shea was described as an “automotive research consultant and professional auto safety witness.”
O'Shea's patent drawing
click to enlarge

In 1971 O’Shea received United States patent number 3608210A for his invention, the “O’Shea Traffic Hazard Simulator,” described as a system for testing the driving ability of an automobile driver.  At a given distance, the tested driver approached in the car and after the car passed over a cable, red, yellow and green lights displayed which if any of three lanes was open. The driver of the car would then make a decision as to which lane is open, within the time period determined by his speed and the given distance. The author could find no record that O’Shea’s device ever found any commercial uses.

Just over a week after the PIR sale was announced it was revealed that O’Shea was NOT the new owner of Phoenix International Raceway that O’Shea had “helped finalize the purchase” and the actual purchaser was revealed to be General Vehicle Inc.  The December 14 1972 article also revealed that 1950 Indianapolis 500-mile race winner Johnnie Parsons, and employee of O’Shea’s California Automotive Research would be the track’s new racing director. 

General Vehicle Inc. was an umbrella holding company for several companies controlled by entrepreneur Malcolm Bricklin, who during 1971 had decided to build and sell his own “Safety Car” to the public. General Vehicle Inc. would eventually grow to include four divisions: Bricklin Vehicles Inc. to market the cars, Bricklin Canada to build the cars, Bricklin Northeast to operate dealerships, and FasTrack, the murkiest of all the Bricklin businesses.

Who was Malcolm Bricklin?

It is difficult to separate facts from the legend regarding the famous (or infamous) Malcolm Bricklin. Born in Philadelphia in 1939 he was working in his father’s building supply business in 1958 when he started selling a system of franchise hardware stores known as “Handyman America”. For $15,000 a franchisee bought the rights to use the name in single store or for $250,000 could obtain “territorial rights.” 

Legend has that Bricklin sold the nationwide Handyman America Company in 1960 and became a millionaire before the age of 25, but the book The Yugo: The Rise and Fall of the Worst Car in History by Jason Vuic claimed that actually Bricklin’s Handyman America Company went bankrupt in 1965 after several lawsuits.  Bricklin then became a “business consultant” and sold Italian “Cine Box” jukeboxes and Lambretta scooters until 1967 when he negotiated a deal with Fuji Industries to import and sell their scooters in the United States. His ‘Rabbit’ scooter success led to talks with Fuji for the US importation of their small light car known as the Subaru 360.

The Subaru 360 was so lightweight (under 1000 pounds) that it was exempt from US federal automotive safety standards.  Subaru awarded Bricklin and his partner Harvey Lamm a four-year exclusive contract to import the 360 at $650 apiece with a guarantee that the pair would take 2000 cars the first year, a number which was to increase by 1000 cars more each additional year of the contract. The pair formed Subaru of America in February 1968 with a total investment of $75,000 and set out to sell not cars themselves but dealerships for the car that Car & Driver magazine called one of the ugliest cars in history.

According to Jason Vuic’s book a Subaru dealership cost $1000 with each car delivered to the dealers’ lot for $950 each that sold for $1357 retail.  After they sold 80 dealerships, Bricklin and Lamm sold shares in Subaru of America on the Philadelphia Stock Exchange which raised one million dollars.  The combination of money pouring in from franchise fees, stock sales, and bank loans enabled the pair to live the good life – huge new corporate headquarters in New Jersey, private jet, yachts and luxury apartments.


In April 1969, Consumer Reports tested the Subaru 360 and found among that it took 37 seconds for the 360 to reach 50 MPH and that the car could not reach 60 MPH.  Bricklin claimed that it could travel over 60 miles on a gallon of gasoline but the Consumer Reports observed fuel economy was 25 to 35 miles per gallon of gasoline which had to be mixed with two-cycle oil like an outboard boat motor.

With rear-hinged “suicide doors” with weak latches, “scarier” emergency handling, “disorienting” brakes, a “board-like” front seat that slid forward under heavy braking, and an inside mirror that vibrated so much at 50 MPH that it was useless, Consumer Reports rated the Subaru 360 “not acceptable.” The article sounded the death knell for the 360; by early 1970, Bricklin’s company had 2000 Subaru 360’s rusting away in stock and was millions of dollars in debt. Malcolm Bricklin came up with a new franchise idea – ‘FasTrack’ to save the day.    

The concept of ‘FasTrack’ was a pay-by-the-lap go-kart type racing experience which killed two birds with one stone; new franchise would get Bricklin out of debt and also get rid of the leftover Subaru 360’s. To replace the rusted sheet metal Bricklin enlisted Bruce Meyers, creator of the first Volkswagen dune buggy the Meyer Manx, to build “race car type” fiberglass bodies for the leftover 360 chassis. 

For $25,000 a ‘FasTrack’ franchisee got 10 cars, 20 uniforms and helmets, lighting, fencing, and signs. The first ‘FasTrack’ was built outside the Subaru of America headquarters, and the franchise sales literature told investors that by charging $1 per lap, they could make $135,000 annually operating their ‘FasTrack’ just 27 hours each week.

The corporate entity of “FasTrack International Inc.” was formed in Pennsylvania on December 6 1971 and the following day Bricklin formed “FasTrack LeisureLand Inc.” The goal of  ‘FasTrack LeisureLand’ was to create a series of franchised resort vacation destinations where visitors could stay and race ‘FasTrack’ cars.  According to author Jason Vuic, a Florida man named Leon Stern traded a large Pocono mountains resort property to Bricklin in exchange for $1.25 million in ‘FasTrack’ stock and $1000 a week salary as Stern would line up new resorts and investors. Bricklin then borrowed heavily against the Pocono property to invest in new ventures and around the same time sold Subaru of America in a deal which included a three-year $120,000 a year consulting contract for Bricklin. 

Malcolm Bricklin then started on his next venture; General Vehicle Inc. to build his “safety car.” The Bricklin concept car built by Bruce Meyers had a colored acrylic over fiberglass body powered by a Valiant “slant six” engine and was completed in the later months of 1972.  Bricklin had no money to manufacture the car, so he set out to find the financing from various Canadian governments to build the car, while at the same time General Vehicle Inc. bought Phoenix International Raceway in a heavily leverage deal. Nancy Hogue held the first mortgage of $250,000 on the track property and First Pennsylvania Bank held the $500,000 second mortgage.

The turbulent early days of Bricklin’s track ownership 

Early in January 1973 the Arizona Republic published the rumor that Malcolm Bricklin was one of the three persons interested in buying the mansion and grounds of the estate of the late Pittsburgh oil man Samuel Walker McCune Junior. McCune built the home for his new wife, Carol, who left him during construction then he died in April 1971 never having lived in the uncompleted 52,000 square foot mansion located on hilltop six acres in Paradise Valley. The three-story home, one of the ten largest homes in the United States, which featured 14 bedrooms, 30 bathrooms, a movie theatre, an indoor ice rink, and a 14-car garage  eventually was sold at an auction to satisfy IRS liens to Arizona fitness magnate Gordon Hall.


At a January 23 1973 press conference, Anthony “Tony” Kopp the track president announced Phoenix International Raceway had been renamed “FasTrack international Raceway,” and that the USAC championship race scheduled for March 17 would become a two-day program, with time trials held on Saturday March 16 and the 150-mile race which no longer carried the Jimmy Bryan name would be held Sunday March 17 1973.

Kopp also announced new construction of an extension of the pit entrance and exit, a new pit wall, the addition of 2000 more seats to bring the total to 12,000, and the renovation of restroom and concession areas.  After previously published reports to the contrary, the track cancelled JC Agajanian’s scheduled $50,000 purse 50-lap “Open Competition Supermodified and Caged Sprint Car Race” scheduled for the weekend of February 16 and 17 1973, so the track could be prepared for the scheduled March USAC date.  

On March 12, 1973 during a private practice session, Robert Dale “Bob” Criss a USAC sprint car driver from Newport Beach California died after he crashed. The 1970/71 Eagle chassis he drove was the same car with which David ‘Swede’ Savage won the Phoenix 1970 Bobby Ball 150. After All American Racers Inc. sold the car to Mary and Tom Page’s Page Racing Enterprises, Mike Hiss drove the car with a turbocharged Offenhauser engine in eight 1972 USAC races, including his seventh place finish in the 1972 Indianapolis 500-mile race which earned him the Stark Wetzel Rookie of the year honors. 

Criss, 34, who had driven a Brabham BT23 in three rounds of the 1972 SCCA Formula B championship, completed less than 10 laps when he spun and the car crashed into the inside wall at the exit of turn four with tremendous impact. The Eagle split in half and caught fire, but there were no fire trucks or an ambulance on site as the Pages rented the facility. Driver Billy Shuman and his crew were also at the track to test and helped put out the flames as the Phoenix Fire Department and an ambulance was called. Criss was pronounced dead on arrival at a nearby hospital from his internal injuries. USAC spokesman Donald Davidson was quoted in the Anderson Herald newspaper that “Criss was not a registered USAC driver and I don’t think he had made an application for a license yet.” Criss was laid to rest in his hometown of Terre Haute Indiana.

The March 17 1973 ‘Phoenix 150’ was never held. Shortly after Criss’ death the Phoenix area received heavy rains which caused the Salt River to flood and cut access to the track. The date was rescheduled twice but the flooding continued and then on March 31 Tony Kopp canceled the event, as the USAC championship schedule with two April races left no open dates. Kopp told the Arizona Republic that the $50,000 in advance sales, the largest in the track’s history would be refunded or could be applied to other tickets. Kopp added that he was working for two November USAC race dates.

In our final installment on the early history of Phoenix International Raceway we will see Malcolm Bricklin lose it all- including FasTrack International Raceway. 

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