Tuesday, October 25, 2016

The history of Phoenix International Raceway from 1973 to today


The Bricklin car was born and died quickly

In June 1973 Malcolm Bricklin enticed the Canadian province of New Brunswick to build a factory and give him $6.5 million and a $3 million loan guarantee and purchase 51% of Bricklin Canada stock to get started on the production version of the “safety car.”  Bricklin told the New Brunswick government that he would begin producing cars in September 1973, and he expected to sell 10,000 cars the first year, 18,000 the second year and 35,000 cars a year by the fifth year.  Meanwhile, Bricklin signed up new dealers at $5,000 apiece and in July moved to Phoenix where he sported Western attire from head-to-toe as he told the press he was “just a cowboy at heart.”

After two years of delays, the Bricklin SV-1, complete with integrated safety cage, and gullwing doors was unveiled at the Four Seasons restaurant in New York City on June 24 1974. It was announced that the Bricklin SV-1 would sell for $6,000 with features that included a colored acrylic body, a breathable suede interior, and a “European instrument panel.” Bricklin claimed the 130,000 square foot plant in New Brunswick would produce 1000 cars a month by October 1974.    

The first Bricklin rolled off the production line on August 6 1974, after which Malcolm Bricklin extracted more money from New Brunswick government up to a total of $11 million in grants and $3 million in loan guarantees. The 772 1974 Bricklin cars built with either manual or auto transmission were powered by an American Motors Corporation (AMC) 360 -ubic inch engine, while the 2,100 1975 Bricklin cars built were powered by Ford Windsor 351-cubic inch engine mated to Ford C-4 automatic transmission.

A "safety green' 1974 Bricklin SV-1 from the Bricklin brochure
author's collection

The May 1975 issue of Car & Driver magazine compared a 1975 Chevrolet Corvette and the first 1975 Bricklin built head-to-head at Willow Springs Raceway. The Bricklin was sticker priced at $9,780 versus the Corvette’s $8,350 price. Performance results were close; on the skid pad the Bricklin scored a .67 G result while the Corvette scored .68 G. On the quarter mile the Corvette recorded an elapsed time of 16.1 seconds with the Bricklin half a second slower.

Writer Don Sherman found the Bricklin’s braking better than the Corvette's but faulted the car’s gullwing doors- the design meant little headroom and the thick A-pillars made it hard to see out. Alarmingly, there was no interlock to prevent the driver and passenger from attempting to open and close their doors simultaneously which would burn up the electric pump that powered the hydraulic system. The cabin was noisy at cruising speed and overall, Sherman said the Bricklin’s “suede-like” interior suffered from poor fit and finish that he compared to a kit car.

The lukewarm Car & Driver review did not seem to damage Bricklin sales as the Consumer Report review had killed the Subaru 360, but in fact General Vehicle Inc. was not much longer for this world. On September 24 1975 the New Brunswick government refused to issue any more funding, apparently $23 million was their limit. Two days later Bricklin Canada, the car assembly division entered receivership, and filed for reorganization on October 1 1975, the same day that Malcolm Bricklin left General Vehicle Inc.  

Even with Bricklin bankrupt FasTrack lived on
 Bricklin 150 program cover

While the parent firm was struggling for survival, FasTrack International Raceway held two USAC ‘Phoenix 150’ races during 1974 won by Mike Mosley and Johncock. The March 16 1975 USAC FasTrack race held under the regime of new general manager and promoter Russ Kurtz was dubbed the ‘Bricklin 150.’ By the second USAC date in November 1975 Bricklin Cars was already on its way to oblivion and the race returned to it earlier ‘Phoenix 150’ moniker.  

Kurtz cancelled the planned November 30 1975 ‘Desert 150’ NASCAR Winston West stock car race, which would have been the track's first NASCAR event, on November 25 and cited “a lack of financial support, as preliminary ticket sales were insufficient.”
At the same time, NASCAR vice-president Lin Kuchler told United Press International (UPI) that the race was cancelled and not rescheduled that the promoters, Kurtz and Ron Ails had failed to meet the terms of their sanction agreement. It would 1988 before NASCAR would visit the one-mile dogleg oval.

Bricklin and General Vehicle Inc. filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy on January 2 1976, with Bricklin personally $34.6 million in debt, which included a $2.4 million federal court judgement against him awarded to FasTrack LeisureLand investor Leon Stern. Members of the gallery reportedly laughed after Malcolm Bricklin told Federal Bankruptcy Judge Edward Davis that his name was a personal attribute not for use by or sale by the bankruptcy trustee.

Outside of FasTrack International Raceway, General Vehicle Inc. had little in assets left other than leftover parts in the factory bought by automotive liquidator Consolidated Motors from which thirty-four Bricklin cars were built and sold as 1976 models. In a January 12 1976 hearing Judge Davis declared General Vehicle Inc. bankrupt with $31.9 million of debt unsecured, but he agreed to allow FasTrack International Raceway to continue to operate in an effort to pay off creditors. 

Robert Jarrett, the bankruptcy trustee, named Jerry Ballah as the interim track operator. Ballah, the part owner of Beeline Dragway from 1965 to 1969, was an interesting choice as he was awaiting trial in the state of Missouri on a charge of drawing a check with intent to defraud .
FasTrack International Raceway held the 50-mile ‘Copperstate Sprint Classic’ on February 15 1976 but the outcome of the race was not declared final until two days later, after three drivers complained that their last laps were not properly scored.

Jerry Miller of Speedway Indiana a future championship car entrant was still the winner with a $1250 share of the purse, followed by Rick Ferkel. Jim McElreath who had been initially scored as the third place finisher was dropped to seventh in the final results.

The March 14 1976 ‘Jimmy Bryan 150’ was a milestone event in three ways. For the first time in three years, the name of the 3-time national driving champion, the “Arizona Earthmover,” was restored to the title of the March Phoenix race. Second, the race marked JC Agajanian’s 251st USAC promotion, his first having been a midget show at the 1/3-mile Saugus Speedway in Santa Carita California held on January 29 1956.  ‘Aggie” proudly told the Arizona Republic that he had paid out $1.75 million to competitors in his previous 250 USAC promotions.

The third milestone was the appearance in the starting field of a woman - the first of her sex to drive in a USAC championship race. Arlene Hiss who ran over 1000 test miles under the watchful eye of Lloyd Ruby was granted a conditional license by USAC President Dick King. Hiss started 21st in the 22-car field in Mike Devin’s Eagle and finished 14th, the last car running twenty-two laps behind winner Bobby Unser who was fairly blunt in his judgment of Hiss’ race driving skills.  After the race, Hiss’ conditional USAC license was withdrawn and she lost her chance to become the first woman to qualify for the Indianapolis ‘500.’    

FasTrack up for sale

During the spring of 1976, the Federal Bankruptcy Court accepted offers to purchase FasTrack International Raceway after the First Pennsylvania Bank agreed to lift its $2.5 million lien on the property. After appraiser Robert E. Francy set the fair market value of the facility at $434,000, Judge David rejected a bid of $200,000 from an unidentified bidder. 

On May 3 1976, Tempe Arizona Recreation vehicle dealer Bill Moore withdrew his apparently successful offer of $375,000, as his attorney told Judge Davis that Moore and his two partners had changed their minds. Judge Davis then set a hearing on his calendar on May 11 at 8:45 AM to hear “any and all” additional offers. The following day the Scottsdale Progress newspaper reported that Davis had rejected an unidentified offer of $280,000.

In August 1976 Owen Kearns in his ‘Checkered Flag’ column in the Bakersfield Californian newspaper shared that Chris Economaki had reported in the July 28 NSSN that JC Agajanian “was attempting to buy FasTrack International” but “isn’t getting any answers from the trustee.” Kearns reported that Agajanian was “seriously considering moving the November 6 USAC finale to Hanford (Speedway) if something isn’t done soon.” Kearns closed the piece by admitting that his attempts to reach “Aggie” failed to get either confirmation or denial of Economaki’s claim.  

courtesy PIR

Per the 2014 PIR 50th anniversary media guide: “1976 - Dr. Bob Fletcher, Dr. Tom Taber, Dr. David Lehman, Dr. Robert Stevens and Bill hard purchase FasTrack International Raceway. Changed the name back to Phoenix International Raceway.”  Once again, the media guide is inaccurate.  On August 18, 1976 the UPI wire service  carried the story. “A group led by Dr. Tom Taber and Bob Fletcher yesterday purchased FasTrack.

The terms of the deal were not announced. The group immediately announced the facility will be given its previous name.” At the time the purchase was finalized, former track owner Nancy Hogue was married to Robert ‘Bob’ Goldwater, to whom she remained married until she passed away in 1982. 

Dr. Tabor, who like all three of the physicians, was an orthopedic specialist was also identified in an article in the Arizona Republic as the President of the Phoenix Racing Association (which sanctioned Phoenix area supermodified racing) and the owner of a supermodified driven by his son Tom Taber III, and stated that Taber would be the new President of Phoenix International Raceway.

Taber told the Associated Press (AP) “I don’t think it’s any secret that our group has worked hard the past year trying to get involved in auto racing.” Taber indicated that the next race at the renamed facility would be the $50,000 Bobby Ball 150 on November 6 promoted by JC Agajanian.   

The 2014 PIR media guide misidentified Bob Fletcher as a doctor; Robert L. Fletcher was the president of the Cobre Tire the largest Firestone tire distributor in the Southwest, and the owner of a USAC Indianapolis race car team since 1973. “Bill hard” was actually contractor Bill Hardy, owner of WJ Hardy Concrete Construction.

On August 27 the Scottsdale Progress reported that the owners of PIR had hired Dennis Wood who had been the manager of Manzanita Speedway since January as the track’s new general manager. A former modified stock car driver and sportswriter for the Arizona Republic and Phoenix Gazette, Wood served in many capacities at PIR over the next 23 years which included seven years as majority owner.  

Wood cut prices at PIR for the 1977 Jimmy Bryan 150 - parking was free, beer was 35 cents, and a pack of cigarettes 50 cents. “It’s not that things weren’t worth what the previous owners charged we’re just trying to recapture the sports dollar.” There were six different priced tickets offered that ranged from $5 to $14, and the track had its largest pre-sale revenue in its 14-year history.

Phoenix International Raceway played one final important role in USAC championship racing only a couple of years into the new group’s ownership. On December 11 1978, Bob Fletcher awarded two PIR 1979 race dates to the newly formed Championship Auto Racing Teams Inc. (CART) of which he was a member, instead of USAC,. The last USAC championship car race held at PIR, the ‘Miller High Life Bobby Ball Memorial 150,’ was held on October 28 1978 and the first-ever CART race sanctioned by SCCA, the ‘Arizona Republic Jimmy Bryan 150’ was held at PIR on March 11 1979.

Malcolm Bricklin after his car company failed 

As he left the General Vehicle bankruptcy hearing in January 1976, Malcolm Bricklin told reporters he was working on an exciting new automobile engine. The following day he founded Bricklin Motors Inc. to build the “Bricklin Power Plant.”  In 1982 another new Bricklin company,  International Automobile Importers (IAI) imported Bertone (formerly known as Fiat) X19 mid-engine sports cars before he set up a new deal for importation of a cheap car in 1984.

Bricklin’s YugoAmerica division imported Yugo vehicles which were introduced to the American public at the Los Angeles Auto Show in May 1984, promoted with a price of only $3,990 and a 10 year - 100,000 mile warranty with free maintenance. Nearly 150,000 Yugo cars, considered among the worst quality cars ever built, were sold in the United States over the next eight years, but Bricklin sold out after four years for what he reported was $10 million.
In 1991, Bricklin seated on the patio of his Scottsdale home in cowboy boots told the Arizona Republic that he had lined up $60 million in financing for a series of fifty “Auto Ranches” which he said would revolutionize the car buying experience.  Bricklin said the ranches would be “used-car Disneylands where cars will be made over and then sold as "new experienced cars."

At the Auto Ranch, Bricklin’s crew would put new tires, belts, hoses, brakes, batteries, mufflers, shock absorbers and spark plugs on a used car and “fix anything else it needs” before they repainted it. “We're going to be able to offer you things much, much cheaper than you'd ever think," Bricklin said, "Cadillacs for under $10,000, BMW’s under $15,000 and Mercedes under $20,000.”

In 2003 Bricklin tried to market a lineup of Chinese cars the Chery. In a 2009 interview with Car & Driver magazine, Bricklin said of Chery Motors “they decided to see if they could screw me. Thought they would see if they could take it all back, and they did, and we’re suing them for $14 billion.”
Bricklin’s largest lawsuit filed in federal court in 2008 against Chery and other defendants, sought $26 million to recover his initial investment and at least $1.1 billion to account for the loss of projected earnings.  In 2013 Malcolm Bricklin’s company, V Cars, was awarded $2 million by a Detroit jury in his suit against a former executive Dennis Gore for fraud and other offenses.

More than thirty years after the last car rolled off the assembly line, Bricklin SV-1 cars are rare, as it is estimated that only 1,500 of the gullwing cars survive, but they do not have much collector value as they sell for an average of $14,000 per the Hagerty website.

Postscript-the later history of Phoenix International Raceway

Emmett “Buddy” Jobe bought PIR from Dennis Wood in 1985, and in 1987 the original grandstands were struck by lightning and burned to the ground. New Aluminum grandstands to seat 30,000 fans were built, just in time for the first National Association of Stock Car Racing (NASCAR) event in 1988, which drew a reported crowd of 63,000 fans. In 1991, a new infield road course was built and the old outer road course and drag strip abandoned.

In 1997, Jobe sold the track to International Speedway Corporation (ISC) which is owned by the France family and the track began to change to meet the requirements of NASCAR stock car racing. The characteristic ‘dogleg’ at the exit of turn two was revised first in 2003 and then changed again in 2011 such that the original layout of the PIR oval is no longer recognizable to fans before ownership by ISC/NASCAR. 

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