The first lighted open-wheel race course in the U.S. might begin construction near the Pima County Fairgrounds by late 2014 or early 2015, according to successful Tucson architect and lifelong racing enthusiast Richard “Andy Anderson. The county Board of Supervisors is expected to consider whether to approve the project in January.
The proposed Southern Arizona Raceway would be a class 2 certified track, meaning that it could be used by Indy Cars, NASCAR, sports cars, superbikes and just about anything with wheels other than Formula 1, which was the initial idea floated earlier this year.
Charles Quiroz, operator of the Musselman Honda Circuit, 11800 S. Harrison Road, and Anderson’s SAR project partner, said the strict regulations required for a Formula 1 certification would exponentially increase the cost of construction. Quiroz said the nation’s first Formula 1 track that opened in Austin, Texas, in 2012 cost a whopping $475 million to build and has much higher maintenance costs than the $15 million track Anderson has proposed.
SAR would be a 2.8-mile track with 14 turns and multiple track configurations. Anderson was a principal in the national architecture firm Anderson DeBartolo Pan, which designed the master plan for the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, the 1994 World Cup, which was held in stadiums around the country with the final at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., and multiple NFL Super Bowls.
After the big firm was sold, Anderson started his own firm in 1997 and had a hand in the redesign and renovation of Laguna Seca Raceway in Monterey, Calif., and several other tracks around the country.
But before he can start building a track, Pima County has to OK it first, since it will be built on county-owned land.
Tom Moulton, Pima County director of economic development, said a county selection committee is reviewing Anderson’s proposal, the sole bid on the county’s call for proposals. Anderson and Quiroz created Arizona International MotorSports Museum in 2012 to bid on the track. The committee recently sent Anderson a request for more information about the project and its business plan, Moulton said.
The project would be built in three phases over 10 years. The first phase will cost about $15 million to get the track open. Subsequent phases will add on additional facilities and seating and should end up costing $70 million at completion, Anderson said.
Anderson said he hopes the track will be drawing 250,000 visitors a year by the end of the third phase.
“We believe the methodology behind the business plan was well thought out,” Moulton said, adding that the partners spent three years consulting with other track owners and road courses around the country in developing the SAR plan.
Once all of its questions are answered, the selection committee will vote on when to start lease negotiations and if all goes well, Moulton said the bid could go before the Board of Supervisors in January.
County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry said he supports the raceway because it will make use of 400 acres of unused public land and since it’s a private investment, it won’t cost county taxpayers any money.
“That translates to economic development,” Huckelberry said. He added that should the operators fail to make their lease payments, which are expected to be about $140,000 a year, the county would inherit the improvements on the property at no cost.
The track is planned for land just south of the fairgrounds and adjacent to or near four existing race courses:
• Tucson Speedway, a three-quarter mile paved oval typically used for stock car racing.
• Merle’s Southwestern International Raceway, a 1.4-mile drag strip
• Musselman Honda Circuit, a paved circuit used by cars, motorcycles and go-karts.
• MC Motorsports Park, a dirt course with jumps used for motocross racing
The county chose the site because of its proximity to the other tracks and because of its distance from residential areas that might be concerned about noise, Moulton said.
Racing has been up and down the past decade, especially open-wheel racing, leading local critics to question whether the proposed track can attract enough fans to make it viable.
Big-time auto racing, like most industries, has been in decline the past few years, with NASCAR attendance off nearly 25 percent from its 2005 high, and IndyCar has struggled to rebuild the open wheel racing fan base after it formed out of the aftermath of the IRL CART split in the 1990s.
The one-mile oval Phoenix International Raceway in Avondale got its start and its claim to fame as the fastest one-mile oval in the world as an open-wheel course. But after the fall of CART, PIR has become home to two NASCAR Sprint Cup races every year.
Another Phoenix track, the multi-turn Firebird Raceway on the Gila River Indian Reservation near Chandler, closed in April after years of struggling to turn a profit.
The Musselman Honda Circuit regularly draws small crowds of about 200, Quiroz said, but when it hosts international events such as the Rotax Challenge of the Americas, go-kart racing’s premier event held the last weekend of January, the track can draw thousands of spectators.
“We think there’s ample people to support (SAR),” Anderson said.
He said about 1.3 percent of the U.S. population are race fans and SAR expects to draw most of its spectators from within a one-hour flight or two-hour drive radius, which would include Los Angeles and parts of northern Mexico.
“It would be a huge attraction,” Supervisor Ray Carroll said.
The fairgrounds are in Carroll’s district and he said some constituents have asked him about track’s noise potential.
“Sound can be a killer of a race track,” Quiroz said.
In fact, Anderson said most of his projects never come to fruition because of noise, traffic or light issues. But he said he also thinks the fairgrounds and existing tracks are “large and loud enough” that one more track couldn’t hurt.
Besides the track, the partners also plan for the track to have a racing school, host sports car clubs and an historic racing museum. Anderson said they’re also talking to the University of Arizona and technical schools about using the track to test engineering concepts. They’re also talking to auto manufacturers about using the track for testing.
“We feel like we’re going to bring a lot clean and high-tech industry into Tucson,” Quiroz said. “The engineering aspect is huge in what Andy and I are doing. It’s going to lead to a better and healthier environment.”