Q: Last week Bob Smith from Phoenix asked a question about the fabled Copper World Classic at Phoenix International Raceway. You answered that the history of its demise would have to be told by readers in a future Mailbag edition. In response to his query as to whether NASCAR would have an appetite for reviving an old event name/format for their championship weekend in November, you correctly opined, “As for NASCAR looking to add a really cool outlaw event that takes away from its championship finale, that would be outside the company’s playbook.” “Outside the company’s playbook” is the exact reason the Copper World Classic went away.
No need to delve too deeply into the history of what was once known as “the world’s fastest one-mile paved oval” so we will just go back to 1977, the first year of the Copper World Classic – although there were two “Copper State Classic” races held in ’75 and ’76.
All credit for the event, often referred to as “the little guy’s Indy 500” goes to former track owner and longtime PIR general manager Dennis Wood. Wood raced modified stock cars at Manzanita Speedway while working as a sportswriter for Arizona’s two largest newspapers prior to his tenure at PIR.
The first Copper World Classic featured four races; two on the old road course that ventured outside the oval plus a stock car and sprint car race. Joe Ruttman (stock cars) and Chuck Gurney (sprint cars) won the roundy-round contests. Sammy Bell won the sports car race and a young David Bruns, who later founded Swift Racing Cars, won the Formula Ford race.
In 1978 they abandoned the road course and raced stock cars, sprint cars and Formula Fords on the oval. Two years later, midgets would replace FFs and in 1984 the event added a supermodified race, thus establishing the most common and revered four-class Copper World Classic format.
For the next 13 years the CWC was a winter staple for racers all over America, but especially those who lived in cold country. Phoenix’s balmy winter weather and the chance to compete for a decent purse lured drivers and teams from everywhere. It drew crowds and sponsorship and media attention.
The class menu changed over the years to also include USAC Silver Crown cars, Featherlite Southwest cars, Winston West cars, NASCAR Trucks and even IndyCars. But there were always two “for sure” spectacles at the CWC: the midgets would thrill fans by lifting their left front wheels through the turns and the supermods would rarely finish their 25-lap event due to crashes.
Back to the question of what caused its demise. In 1997 International Speedway Corporation bought the track and anything that was not NASCAR was deemed a parasite. They even showed Dennis Wood the door after his 30+ year investment of blood, sweat and tears in the track; a facility that was built primarily for open-wheel cars, to replace the dangerous dirt oval at the Arizona State Fairgrounds.
Yes, ISC gladly welcomed the IRL because it represented the best way to surreptitiously thwart the rising popularity of CART and then Champ Car, which had grown to threaten NASCAR in the mid-’90s.
The Copper World Classic thrived as an annual, stand-alone event in late January or early February. Young up-and-comers like Ken Schrader, Ryan Newman, Tony Stewart, and Jeff Gordon used CWC wins to get noticed and advance their careers.
The last few races, which were Copper World Classics in name only, were Thursday night support events for PIR’s November NASCAR weekends with just Silver Crown cars and midgets.
That exercise in futility mercifully ended in 2009. NASCAR did its job.
Bill Tybur, Tempe AZ
MP: And that’s why you rock, Bill.
Q: I watched as much as I could of the Rolex 24 last weekend. First off, it was a great race! I especially applaud IMSA for replacing GTLM with GTD Pro. There was a lot of participation in the new class (not to mention a barn-burner of a finish!) and it was great to see all-pro driver lineups mix it up with pro-am teams in GTD in equal equipment.
That said, is it time for IMSA to drop LMP3 from the WeatherTech Sportscar Championship? We had over 60 cars take the green this year and IMSA President John Doonan even mentioned during his interview that they had to turn teams away because of a lack of room on pit road.
LMP3 was introduced in the WeatherTech series last year to get the overall car count up after fewer than 40 cars showed up for the Rolex 24 the year before. But now that the LMP2, GTD Pro, and GTD classes are doing better and DPi (as GTP) is set for a big increase next year, I don’t see a compelling case for keeping LMP3 in the WeatherTech championship. The class has never really been that competitive since it was introduced and has kind of been regarded as an afterthought by fans.
I personally think in this case IMSA would be better off letting LMP3 drive into the sunset to make room for expanded participation in other classes.
Garrick, Huntsville, AL
MP: Turning small businesses away right after inviting them to participate in a new WeatherTech Championship class would be a heck of a signal to send to the paddock. I’d argue that DPi and GTD Pro are for the fans, and the Pro-Am classes are more for the participants, so I’m not sure I’d ever expect a training category like LMP3 to be a fan favorite. If we get to a point where the other prototype classes are oversubscribed, it might be worth considering whether LMP3 should continue in the top series, but we are nowhere close to that being a problem. GTP should have a strong opening next year, but LMP2 is far from overflowing, so the timing isn’t right to wind LMP3 down.
Q: In the Jan. 26 Mailbag about Jimmie Johnson testing, you said: Testing rules are very clear, and while I’m sure IndyCar would let the Ganassi team burn one of its four private test days on a skid pad with Jimmie’s No. 48 car, it would be an epic waste of time and resources, which is why I suggested pulling out one of the dozens of old CART/Champ Car/IRL machines CGR has in its inventory for Johnson to wheel.
The question is, over the last 20 years, and the various Split era series, there hasn’t been a lot of chassis changeover on a year to year basis since the glory days. But to your point, any insight on what the teams do with these old cars? I see a few “crapwagons” show up as show cars around town, but other than historic/significant wins a team might keep on display at the offices in the lobby, what do they do with them? I can’t imagine keeping shop space around for CART/IRL/CCWS cars that have long outlived usefulness. Any info about what most of the teams do with these sleek paperweights?
PS: Great job with the RM stickers. Got mine from TO Motorsports, and they are on the shelf right behind my Greg Moore Reynard model.
Ed in Westfield, IN
MP: Thanks for the kind note, Ed. We raised $20,000 for St. Jude’s Hospital for Children with the stickers. Softened the blow of Robin’s loss just a little bit. Most teams that are still active from the CART/Champ Car/IRL days hold onto them, preserve them for museum displays, have them sitting in shops, front lobbies of their shops or businesses, and/or dress them up in the colors and liveries of their current sponsors and use them for promotional purposes. In rare instances, the cars are kept in turnkey condition, ready to fire up and go whenever needed.