RACERS SAY FAREWELL TO WILD HORSE MOTORSORTS PARK
Alexis De Joria called it “somber.” Matt Hagan said, “It saddens my heart.” Leah Pruett called the venue “magical.” Cruz Pedregon, Tony Schumacher, and Ron Capps, who’s taking a trip down Memory Lane, all used the word “bittersweet.”
Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park, formerly Firebird Raceway, is hosting its final NHRA Arizona Nationals this weekend here in the Phoenix suburb of Chandler. Its final chapter is another unfortunate-for-the-sport story of urban encroachment and land-value eruption. Commercial development at this site has won out over drag-racing tradition. And NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series drivers want to give it a proper farewell – and they all want to be a footnote to history by winning the final Arizona Nationals.
Funny Car’s DeJoria said, “Racing this last year at Wild Horse Pass will be a somber one. Between the annual NHRA Arizona Nationals event, and all of the years we went there for preseason testing, I feel like I’ve spent a lot of time at that facility. The Phoenix track holds a lot of great memories for me, especially since that’s where I won my first professional nitro Funny Car event back in 2014. I’ll miss going there every year, and of course, will miss all of our wonderful fans.
Maybe no one likes the facility more than Top Fuel racer Leah Pruett.
“I usually say that it’s magical for me and don’t have an answer,” she said, trying to explain her success at this venue. “However, now that time has passed and I’ve had success with different teams and crew chiefs in different stages of the lifespan of the various teams, I think it comes down to track time.
“As a driver, I’ve seen that tree a lot, and I am not only familiar with it, but love the sun scope of how it falls and I feel at home. Performance for the cars I’ve raced have excelled because we had the most data from that track as we typically test there every preseason before that event. It was the place we knew the most and worked at going extremely fast, and the results showed.”
Pruett, who won here twice against Brittany Force in two of only three all-woman final round match-ups in the sport’s history (Shirley Muldowney defeated Lucille Lee in the first), said, “I have so many great memories at Phoenix. From trick-or-treating between pits at 10 years old, dressed up as a ’70s girl, to testing Jack Beckman’s Funny Car on a Monday in 2008. They had just won the day before, and they had to test. That was the same day I met Boogs (Chris Afflerbach), who now works on my car. I got to film a Hoonigan video at testing one year, which now has over five million views. I’ve advanced to many final rounds there.
“But, my most favorite memory was being rushed in the lanes for the final round against Brittany in 2016,” she said. “I didn’t know I was racing her until getting suited, because we were not having the smoothest day. I’m sitting in the back seat of the van, had just gotten fully geared-up, and struck a 1-2-3 jab at the back of the headrest of the 2010 falling-apart Astro van that we had for a tow vehicle. Punching is part of my pregame, because I love boxing. Well, I jabbed so hard that a spring or support for the headrest broke, and it hurt my right hand. But I didn’t care, because I knew I was David up against Goliath for this final round and wanted this win more than I had ever wanted anything. It was at this moment that fist pumps became my thing. And the results showed. The win is still all-time for me. Seeing that final win light and trying to comprehend that we really did it. But when it comes to moments, it’s the pre-final round ritual and what it stands for that lives on.”
Tony Schumacher has Top Fuel performance milestones at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park, and he said this weekend’s race “will be a bittersweet race. Going here for the last time is going to be tough. We were the first team to ever run 330.23 mph, and that is where we did it. Some great memories, for sure, and I would love to make one more amazing one this weekend with our SCAG team.”
He leads the Top Fuel class in victories here, with five (2000, 2002, 2005, 2013, 2015), and leads in No. 1 qualifiers, with six. He was the first to crack the 330-mph barrier (330.23-mph) during the 1999 national event. He also reset both ends of his career-best numbers during the 2018 event (3.649-second elapsed time, 336.57-mph speed). He also reached the final round in 2012.
Capps, known for his three Funny Car championships, made his professional debut here in the Top Fuel class in 1995.
“It’s bittersweet, knowing that this is likely to be our last Arizona Nationals event. I used to go to that track growing up as a crew member, working on several different alcohol dragsters, Blaine and Alan Johnson’s car. Throughout my career, it was the first race I entered when I was a rookie in Top Fuel, driving for Roger Primm,” Capps said. “We actually qualified and ran Joe Amato first round, and I won my first round of competition against the legendary Amato at that event. I remember we had just barely gotten the car together and got it to the race. It was my rookie year, and I hadn’t even driven a car to the finish line under power prior to that.”
Then, he said, “when I got hired by Don Prudhomme to drive his Funny Car, Phoenix was where we tested and I made my first runs in a nitro Funny Car. It’s pretty incredible to fast forward and look at where we are now. I’ve been fortunate enough to get a couple of wins there and race for legendary sponsors and team owners, so it’s been pretty special. Phoenix has always been one of those events where we would take our family, and make a whole trip out of it, so it’s more than just a race for me.”
And he could add to his Phoenix lore this weekend. His next final-round appearance will be his 10th since he formed his own team two offseasons ago.
Capps’ fellow Funny Car racer Tim Wilkerson lamented the loss of yet another national-event track since 2018 following Englishtown, Atlanta, Houston, and for awhile Joliet.
Wilkerson said, “It's real sad to see us lose a racetrack, especially this particular one. Hopefully we can find another facility that was as neat as that one. It’s a great area with a strong drag-racing fan base. We won there in 2016, beat John Force in the finals, and it was the last race I ran with a car that I had for actually 10 seasons. So that’s one of those memories that will always stand out to me about the Phoenix track.”
Antron Brown earned his Top Fuel license here in 2008. The Top Fuel winner in 2009, 2012, and 2014, he clocked his career-best E.T. (3.667 seconds) at this facility in 2017.
He said, “It’s sad to think that this will be our last race in Phoenix. I remember Phoenix from the very start. That’s where I got my Top Fuel license with David Powers. I’ve got a few wins here, too. Phoenix has always been a good racetrack. We’ve kicked off a lot of our seasons at Wild Horse Pass with preseason testing for many years. We have a huge group of Matco Tools distributors and their families out there who always come out in full force to support us. So, this last race has a lot of meaning for us. This is our second race of the season, and we want to have a good showing out there this weekend. We’re going to have our heads down, and we’re going in ready to rock and give it all we’ve got. Hopefully, we can leave on a good note and get one last win to add to our Phoenix memory bank.”
After giving Tony Stewart Racing its first Funny Car trophy of the season at the Gatornationals two weeks ago, a confident Matt Hagan turned nostalgic when he thought about what Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park has meant to him.
Of course, he likes the racetrack at which he was top qualifier last season and where he has advanced to the finals in five of his past nine starts.
Hagan said, “We used to test at Phoenix a lot, so that that’s given us a lot of data to reference. It’s also pretty cool here this time of year, which the car responds well to. The track maintenance is also really good, and you can apply a lot of power to it. Dickie (crew chief Venables) likes to run in drier conditions like that.”
In the end, he said, “It saddens my heart to think we won’t be back to Phoenix. I really enjoy the whole area, plus the Radford Racing School is out there. I’ve always enjoyed Phoenix, so it’s tough that it’ll be our last season racing at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park. Let’s put our names in the history books and go win the last one in our Dodge Direct Connection Charger SRT Hellcat Funny Car.”