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SPERBER: "We are up to the challenge" of bringing INDYCAR back to PIR

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PHOENIX - APRIL 10:  A general view of race action during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series SUBWAY Fresh Fit 600 at Phoenix International Raceway on April 10, 2010 in Phoenix, Arizona.  (Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images for NASCAR)
PHOENIX - APRIL 10: A general view of race action during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series SUBWAY Fresh Fit 600 at Phoenix International Raceway on April 10, 2010 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images for NASCAR)
Getty Images for NASCAR

Even as urban sprawl eats the landscape like a plague of locusts, there is still a streak of Phoenix, Arizona's Old West heritage that stubbornly fails to die.

Although the rustlers, ranchers, and outlaws that once populated this desert city have largely been replaced by young families, celebrities in tony mountain retreats, and a nexus of warmth-seeking retirees, it's hard for the city to shake its public image of toughness and intractability that was forged in the crucible of the nation's westward expansion.

Maybe that's why people seem to think that Phoenix International Raceway president Bryan Sperber has been waging some sort of staring contest with INDYCAR, each party standing at a stalemate, waiting for the other to make a move towards his pistol like some clichéd scene from High Noon.

People who think that PIR is waging a cold war with INDYCAR may be surprised to discover that the idea Sperber finds the whole idea laughable. Literally. "I've read and have seen a lot of the various news reports and columns that speak with great certainty about PIR's relationship with INDYCAR and about what we would or wouldn't do relative to IndyCar racing," Sperber says with a wry chuckle. "Quite candidly, most of it is completely false."

The rumors, Sperber explains, seem to spring from people who have not made any effort to actually ask him about whether they have any merit. Consequently, the perception that PIR and INDYCAR are feuding like some corporate version of the Hatfields and McCoys is off the mark. "I would say we have had a perfectly fine professional relationship with INDYCAR for as long as I've been here," he continues, "and many, many years before that."

Pundits might be further interested to learn that the oft-repeated belief that it was only Randy Bernard's assumption of control of INDYCAR's administration that broke the long-standing ice between PIR and the IZOD IndyCar Series is not only erroneous, but almost exactly opposite of the truth.

"It was a real shame when INDYCAR left here," remembers Sperber. "There is a popular misconception that we ‘dropped' IndyCar racing, but that was not the case. INDYCAR chose to leave here because of some scheduling issues that they had at the time. If you recall, they embarked on a strategy not to have any racing in the fall because they wanted to close the season in Chicago around Labor Day."

The change in scheduling paradigms left PIR with few available options. The biggest chunk of availability for the track outside of its other events was in the summer, and nobody with any sense of sanity would even consider attempting to race in weather that only got down to 90 degrees Fahrenheit after midnight. "The dates that we were able to run were dates that they took off the board," Sperber goes on, "so they elected to go elsewhere."

In subsequent years, Sperber and INDYCAR officials worked annually to try to find a fair compromise in race dates. Contrary to popular belief, the two entities remained in constant communication, raising potential scenarios and working to find a plausible model for the IZOD IndyCar Series to return to one of its foundational venues. That such a scenario never panned out was regrettable, Sperber admits, but it was not for a lack of trying.

That is, until two years ago, when communication from the INDYCAR side abruptly ceased. When Tony George was replaced as CEO of INDYCAR by Professional Bull Riders (PBR) executive Randy Bernard, it was as if the faucet controlling the flow of goodwill between the two entities had been suddenly closed. Indeed, it was not until after the tragic events of October 2011 that INDYCAR came calling again, and even then it was not Randy Bernard making the overtures.

"I don't know Randy," Sperber says bluntly. "I've never met him or talked to him on the phone. He's never called to talk to me. I hear good things, and I've certainly admired his work with PBR and watched with interest how he's managed IndyCar racing, but unfortunately I can't give you any good insight on what it's like to work with him because I don't know the man."

The lack of any sort of working relationship with INDYCAR's new CEO does not paint a very rosy picture of the future prospects between PIR and the series, but Sperber insists that if INDYCAR wants to do business in the future, "The answer is, ‘Absolutely!' If it makes sense for them and for us, of course we would do it.

"I think that the reality of the situation is that, at the end of the day, it's got to be a good business decision for any track, whether it's an ISC track, an SMI track, or anyone else. That's always what it comes down to the most - ‘Does it make financial sense for both parties to get together?' If the answer is ‘Yes,' then you get into the details of scheduling and distance and all those sorts of things. But anytime that you see a race not being scheduled, I can tell you what the reason is: it just doesn't make good business sense."

The conventional wisdom at the time that INDYCAR left PIR was that IndyCar racing at the track no longer made business sense. PIR was at the time making a strong push for a second NASCAR date and crowds at IndyCar races had declined precipitously, thanks to two important factors - the ongoing open-wheel Split which was consistently wearing away IndyCar's relevance to the general populace, and the decline of the traditional USAC Copper World Classic, an annual event featuring a variety of racing series including USAC and NASCAR's Southwest and Modified Series that had been tremendously popular with grassroots racing fans for many years.

The extent to which IndyCar's business model affected attendance is a subject of hot debate, but there is no denying that the loss of the Copper World Classic was a serious blow to both the track and INDYCAR. Sperber points to two watershed moments that doomed the Copper World Classic - the loss of Skoal as a title sponsor thanks to stricter tobacco advertising laws, and the loss of broadcast partner The Nashville Network (TNN).

"Both of those companies were true partners with PIR in producing that event, along with others," Sperber says. "They were real pillars in making the financial side of the event work. Many people worked a lot of hours trying to identify another organization or sponsor to step forward and pick up that flag. Unfortunately, nobody was in a position to do that, and it was very, very disappointing for us here at PIR and for the many competitors and fans who enjoyed that event."

But, says Sperber, everyone at PIR would love to have the Copper World Classic return to the track if proper sponsorship could be found. "The return of the Copper World Classic is something that we talk about around here quite a bit," he says.

If INDYCAR is to return to Phoenix International Raceway, it would need a revitalized Copper World Classic as well as an enormous amount of elbow grease from all parties concerned. The entertainment landscape in Phoenix is far different now than it was six years ago. PIR now has two NASCAR Sprint Cup Series events at the track, one of which is squarely in the middle of the annual Chase for the Sprint Cup championship run. Paired with a challenging economy - Phoenix is one of the worst-hit cities in the nation by the financial crisis - and the bad taste left in the mouths of Arizona racing fans when INDYCAR abruptly pulled stakes and left, PIR and the IZOD IndyCar Series would have their work cut out for them to bring open-wheel racing back to the prominence it enjoyed in years past.

"This is a complicated issue in that there are many pieces and components to the solution," explains Sperber. "First and foremost, could INDYCAR and PIR create a financial model that wins both for the series and for the track?"

Assuming that this could be done, the second piece of the puzzle is the track itself. In the intervening years since INDYCAR last raced at PIR, the track has changed significantly - most recently in a multi-million-dollar reconfiguration that added progressive banking to the turns, lengthening and increasing the banking to the backstretch dogleg, and paving a fresh surface that results in increased grip.

The changes to PIR's configuration come at time when INDYCAR is hypersensitive to banked ovals because of the wreck at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in October that killed 2011 Indianapolis 500 champion Dan Wheldon. But much of the worry about PIR is unfounded, according to Sperber. "I see in these reports about how we ‘radically changed the banking, almost suggesting that we've turned into Daytona," he says. "We have actually taken a degree of banking out of the turns in the lower groove."

The words "progressive banking" sound alarm bells for some who note that Las Vegas Motor Speedway's reconfigured surface also featured multi-groove racing. In fact, INDYCAR's accident report from Las Vegas specifically identified the multi-lane racing surface as a causal factor in the accident. But considering that open-wheel racing at Phoenix historically has been of the one-groove variety, the addition of progressive banking in no way creates the kind of "point it anywhere" pack racing seen at Las Vegas and other 1.5-mile high-banked oval tracks.

Still, Sperber suggests, no movement towards a return of IndyCar racing to the PIR calendar will be considered without an extensive probationary period. "We would need a test of the race surface and the competitors to determine whether the venue is still appropriate for IndyCar racing and whether the track could still produce the kind of great open-wheel racing that it historically has produced," he suggests. "We have to make sure the competitors feel good about it, the competition side of INDYCAR feels good about it, and we feel good about it."

The final component may be the most challenging yet. "How do you reintroduce IndyCar racing to a market they abandoned years ago in a manner that reenergizes the fans?" Sperber asks. "The truth is that we have a bit of a job to do to win them back. And we'd have to do that in an economic landscape that, at least today, is very, very challenging. So we would have to work very, very closely with INDYCAR leadership to identify a marketing strategy on how you go to market and reintroduce this series at PIR into a market that felt abandoned and today is economically challenged."

Certainly, such a task is no small feat, but if Sperber can find willing partners within INDYCAR to work with him on it, he seems enthusiastic about the prospects for success. "We certainly are up to the challenge if they are, and we would welcome an opportunity to figure that out."