01/07 2013

Racing at Firebird International Raceway likely to continue

Racing at Firebird International Raceway likely to continue

By Michael Knight Special for The Republic | Thu Jan 3, 2013 7:05 PM

The National Hot Rod Association is negotiating with the Gila River Indian Community to continue professional drag racing at Firebird International Raceway in 2014, despite reports Thursday that the track will close in April.

Track President Charlie Allen, who for 30 years has operated the 400-plus-acre motorsports complex, including the drag strip, the lake for drag-boat races and an off-road racing course, was not able to negotiate a new lease with the Gila River Indian Community. But racing could continue under different management once Allen’s contract expires.

“NHRA continues to have meaningful discussions with the Gila River Indian Community regarding the facility and hopes to finalize the agreement (for 2014) in the coming weeks,” Peter Clifford, NHRA’s executive vice president and general manager, said Thursday.

NHRA President Tom Compton said, “Based on our discussions with the Gila River Indian Community, we are very optimistic that the venue will be on the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series schedule in 2014.” The raceway is on Maricopa Road near Interstate 10 on the Gila River Reservation.

“There has been some talk about the community utilizing the facility as a motorsports venue moving forward,” Allen said in a statement posted on the track’s website.

Allen has scheduled almost weekly events through March, including the headliner NHRA Mello Yello series Arizona Nationals Feb. 24, featuring Top Fuel and Funny Cars. The last event for the 2013 season is scheduled for April.

The Gila River Indian Community has made no official announcement.

The NHRA’s most successful driver said that, from a business standpoint, having a presence in the Phoenix market is important for the sport. John Force, the 15-time Funny Car champion and drag racing’s biggest name, said Thursday the Valley’s large and demographically diverse population makes the Arizona Nationals a key event for his lineup of blue-chip corporate sponsors. His team’s budget is believed to be at least $15 million.

“We’ve been racing Phoenix for 30 years,” Force said. “Drag racing kinda grew up right along with the town so it’s an important market for the sport, the NHRA and our sponsors at John Force Racing — Castrol, Ford, Auto Club, Traxxas, BrandSource, Mac Tools. It’s all about selling product, and Phoenix is a great marketplace.”

Forrest Lucas, whose Lucas Oil company sponsors the drag-boat and off-road series that compete at Firebird, told two months ago he’s had talks with tribal officials about continuing those races. Lucas said he built the off-road track.

“They (Gila River) said we can keep that,” Lucas said in the story. “Now we’re going to try to hang onto the lake, too.”

The raceway and adjoining Bob Bondurant School of High Performance Driving generated a combined $70.1million aggregate economic impact on Maricopa County in 2008, according to a study conducted by the W.P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University.

Negotiations between Allen and the Gila River Indian Community had been ongoing since at least March 2010. A news release from the raceway office Wednesday said the negotiations have concluded, denying the raceway and extension or renewal of the property lease beyond this season.