Phoenix Rising

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My first trip to Phoenix had nothing to do with auto racing.

It was in 1989 and like thousands of other snowbirds, I went to the "Valley of the Sun" for just that in mid-March.

Of course spring in Arizona means baseball, so I spent a week following my beloved Chicago Cubs around the valley playing games in the variety of minor league ballparks that are clustered around the area.

What I remember most about that trip, outside of the fact that the Cubs actually went to the playoffs later that year, was how desolete and sparse the area was outside of downtown Phoenix.

Fast forward nearly twenty years and the Valley is one of the busiest areas in the country and has grown tremendously. Of course that growth has included NASCAR's presence here, which seemed somewhat like an oddity when the first Cup race was held at Phoenix International Raceway in 1988.

While PIR had hosted a variety of open wheel and regional stock car events in its history, bringing NASCAR's premier division to the desert was something different.

As NASCAR began to reach out to new markets and expand its reach, heading west was a natural fit.

Alan Kulwicki won that memorable first race in 1988, which saw the birth of the "Polish Victory Lap," the Wisconsin driver's innovative salute to fans where he drove around the track in the opposite direction waving the checkered flag to the grandstands out the driver side window.

Improvements at PIR include the addition of a lighting system and of course a second NASCAR weekend in April. More grandstands and parking are said to be on the horizon as well as a new media center (personal note - please hurry on that one).

The fan support is strong as has been the attendance, so track officials and NASCAR are excited about the future.

One thing hasn't changed over time in the Phoenix area and that's the weather, which is its usual warm and sunny again this weekend.

That's not a bad way for a Midwestern guy to spend a November weekend either.

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NASCAR Sprint Cup, 2006

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