Empty Seats: Phoenix Raceway To Host Next Local Sports Mega Event Amid Pandemic
This story is part of a six-part podcast project called Empty Seats, the pandemic versus a sports capital. Download Episode 1 to hear how Phoenix Raceway and three other home-grown major events made metro Phoenix a destination for sports tourism. Visit emptyseats.kjzz.org to get a new episode every Monday through Nov. 9, 2020.
Arizona’s first survey point is deep in the southwest Valley on top of Monument Hill. Look north from there and you’ll see where the Gila and Salt Rivers meet. Then look west and you’ll see the sprawling Phoenix Raceway. The far side of the track has a curved grandstand topped with luxury suites. I got to go inside one and study the infield with NASCAR’s Rodney Scearce.
“Right here you have Mike’s Hard Lemonade stand in the middle, right below is the scoring tower. Over here is the Miller Lite Beer Garden,” Scearce explained these sections were designed to put race fans on top of the action. “And then right here in the front, smack dab in the center, is Gatorade Victory Lane.”
Mike McComb paid close attention, too. The view now is very different from the 1980s, when he was the facilities coordinator living at the track with an uncertain future.
“They gave me — it was just a trailer. It was a double-wide trailer in the parking lot, literally in the gravel parking lot. And they gave me a little truck to drive,” he said.
Today the venue is much more stable. Phoenix Raceway is scheduled to host NASCAR’s Championship Weekend in early November. Four title races over three days add up to the next mega sports event here in the Valley. But the pandemic means NASCAR can’t fill all of the track’s 42,000 seats.
Much of what McComb had to take care of when he was at the track was still original to the 1960s. Keeping the track usable took a yearly process of bending coffee cans into spouts used to fill all the cracks.
“So it was very tedious, backbreaking, hot-ass work because it was summertime,” he said.
A promise to resurface was part of a deal to sell the track to Emmett “Buddy” Jobe in 1985. He redid the track, got back the Indy car race that had left, and set a goal of hosting a NASCAR cup race.
Jobe got a sit down with then chairman Bill France Jr., known for being direct and to the point. Jobe’s pitch was that a race in metro Phoenix would expand NASCAR’s western presence, which was tiny. And when the weather is bad in stock-car heartland, the Southeast, races can go on here.
“[France] says, I think your chances are next to none. I went ‘like really?’” Jobe said
Does that mean one in a thousand? One in a million? Jobe asked France.
“And he kind of reared back and he grinned and he says, Well, you got one chance in a million. So I stood up, and shook his hand and I says, ‘Really good talking to you, Mr. France. I says, ‘We’ve still got a chance.’”
The head of NASCAR did end up needing a new venue in the west. Jobe was summoned to a meeting with top executives at NASCAR headquarters in Daytona, Florida.
“So we sit there and talked, and talked, and talked. And they had a big overhead map. And they were looking at it. And they were asking me questions,” Jobe said.
The meeting ended, but Jobe wasn’t sure what had just happened. A NASCAR vice president told him at a nearby cafe that it had been to figure out what to put in a press release saying metro Phoenix would host a NASCAR cup race.
“He started laughing. He says, ‘Well didn’t you have it figured out by now?’ And says, ‘Well I’m a little slow,” Jobe said.
NASCAR’s official announcement came months after lightning started a fire that burned most of the Phoenix racetrack’s grandstand. Jobe built a new one that could hold more fans. He liked to go sit and talk with them.
“But I wouldn't go up there, you know, in a suit and tie, you know. It's always cowboy hat and jeans and boots, you know. Go up and just sit and have a beer or have a Diet Coke or whatever,” he said.
NASCAR doubled the number of yearly races in Phoenix in 2005. Jobe had sold the track by then.
Mike McComb became a firefighter. And found that his experience qualified him to help plan and run Tempe’s biggest events, like Super Bowl 30. He shared old stories in the luxury suite.
“From what it was, to what it is now, I couldn’t have imagined it would be this big,” he said.
He flipped old pictures of a visit to pit row with his young son.
“This is like him and Kenny Schrader. Just hanging out. Him and Mario [Andretti]. This is Kyle Petty right there. Kyle would let my son sit on his lap while he was timing the other cars, trying to get their lap times,” McComb said.
NASCAR recently bought the track that McComb equates with family. His grandfather swept the racing surface for years. He met his wife because she worked in the ticket office.
“They were having a birthday party for me at the office. And she signed my card and she said ‘OK well you’re 30 years old now. So you’re too old to ask me out. You missed your chance,” he said.
McComb joked that his son was conceived in the old suite building. And that his daughter was in-utero when a Guns and Roses and Metallica tour played here. We didn’t realize at the moment, but that concert was 28 years to the day before McComb and I looked through the suite glass toward Monument Hill, across a racetrack now considered a crown jewel of NASCAR.