Manzanita’s Run Comes To A Sad End
By Mark Armijo
Special to RacinToday.com
It ended Sunday with one final checkered flag at historic Manzanita Speedway in Phoenix, a lasting reminder that a slice of dirt track heaven had indeed come to an end.
Manzanita Speedway, widely regarded as one of the top dirt tracks in the country and also one of the fastest half-mile ovals in the world, closed its doors following a 58-year run.
“A sad day for auto racing,” longtime “Manzy” announcer/public relations manager William “Windy” McDonald said.
Environmental issues stemming from dust and noise complaints ultimately led Manzy’s ownership to cut the umbilical cord a few years earlier than they had intended, deciding only several weeks ago to accept an offer believed to be about $15 million to sell the 38-acre facility to Southwest Industrial Rigging, a local crane business.
Still, how do you say goodbye to a race track that helped spawn the careers of so many great drivers and champions, a Who’s Who list of talented wheelmen that eventually rose to the pinnacle of the sport?
Legends such as A.J. Foyt, Mario Andretti, Bobby Unser, Roger McCluskey, Bill Cheesbourg and freckle-faced Al Unser Jr. all graced Manzy’s dirt oval at varied times in their careers, at one point a pivotal stopping point for racers seeking to hone their skills en route to the Indy car circuit.
Although technology eventually changed the Indy car landscape and future drivers chose different racing venues to polish their talents, Manzanita still was considered an ideal training ground for emerging drivers such as J.J. Yeley.
But for every top dog such as an Andretti or Unser that raced at Manzy, there were umpteen more drivers who became local legends such as gentleman Hank Arnold, Gene Brown, Billy Boat, Lealand McSpadden, Ron and Billy Shuman and the “Wild Child,” Buddy Taylor.
More than that, Manzy provided a heralded training ground for drivers through the Valley and Southwest.
Its departure was felt nationwide.
“I’m not happy about it,” said NASCAR star Tony Stewart, whose driver Levi Jones clinched the 2007 U.S. Auto Club Sprint car title two seasons ago at Manzy. “Nobody likes to see a track with that kind of history go away. You’re just saddened by it. It’s not like there’s people building new racetracks every day. Manzanita was something that was always a big part of my Phoenix (NASCAR) weekend, especially in the fall.
“I only got to race there once as a driver, but it was the first time I got to know about (Yeley) and that led to a great friendship with him and a championship with him. I’ve been there to watch the season finale every year and our partners from Chevrolet have always been there and enjoyed the weekend.
“It’s going to be hard to near hear Windy’s voice announcing at Manzanita now. It’s a part of our sport that we’re all going to miss.”
During its lifetime, Manzy has been the site of several World of Outlaws races, including its first ever in 1978 won by McSpadden.
Outlaws great Steve Kinser holds the record for most WoO wins with 11 and Kerry Madsen holds the circuit’s half-mile record with a blistering 15.255-second lap (118.149 mph) two years ago.
USAC events also have made many appearances along with a Joie Chitwood thrill show, motorcycle races, a circus and even an Alice Cooper concert.
“(Country singer and Glendale, AZ native) Marty Robbins used to come out whenever he was in town, and I remember Waylon Jennings brought James Garner one night,” McDonald recalled. “Linda Day George was here for something, and Mickey Spillane came once and wanted to race. His publishers wouldn’t let him.”
Andretti only made one career appearance at Manzy, a USAC sprint car start he turned into a win in 1966, a week after winning an Indy car race in a Dean Van Lines machine for Clint Brawner at Phoenix International Raceway.
“One thing I remember clearly is Bobby Unser was out there operating the grader and telling the water truck guy where to soak the corners,” Andretti said. “I figured that (Unser) was trying t o get the track the way he wanted it.
“I blew his doors off anyway.”
Unlike Andretti, Foyt would suit up at Manzy as often as possible.
“I always liked it,” Foyt said. “I raced against a lot of greats at that place. I remember you really had to stay on the throttle if you wanted to win.”
Boat, a USAC star who eventually drove for Foyt in the Indianapolis 500, isn’t certain he would have made it as far as he did without the chance to cut his racing teeth at Manzy.
“It’s pretty common knowledge that if you could drive the half-mile at Manzanita when the cushion was six inches o ff the wall, then you could go anywhere in the country and race well,” Boat said. “You learned car control at Manzy and you learned the amount of nerve it takes to run against the wall.”
Now Manzy has hit the wall, its hallowed dirt oval soon to be bulldozed into little more than a memory.
But what a memory it will be.
– Mark Armijo is a frequent contributor to RacinToday.com