Legendary Wild Horse raceway will be closing next February SanTan Sun News

Legendary Wild Horse raceway will be closing next February

April 10th, 2022 SanTan Sun News
Legendary Wild Horse raceway will be closing next February

By Paul Maryniak
Executive Editor

After four decades of racing thrills, Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park will be closed forever next year as the Gila River Indian Community’s development arm takes a giant step toward creating a 3,300-acre entertainment-retail-office complex.

The Wild Horse Pass Development Authority announced March 25 the former Firebird International Raceway would hold its final National Hot Rod Association race (NHRA) next February  at the 440-acre complex that includes a drag strip, road course and 2.4-mile oval motorboat racing lake.

“For nearly 40 years, the NHRA, in conjunction with the Wild Horse Pass Development Authority, has wowed Arizona spectators and fans at the fastest quarter-mile in Arizona,” its brief announcement on social media stated. “Wild Horse Pass Development Authority is excited to celebrate the final race of this storied racetrack, February 2023.”

Authority Interim General Manager Elizabeth Antone added, “Arizona has been an incredible supporter of the NHRA and Wild Horse Pass Motorsport Park for the past four decades and we are very grateful for this tremendous fan support. We know this final race will be a celebration that NHRA fans are famous for.”

Neither tribal nor authority officials returned phone calls and emails seeking further comment.

Also not commenting was Sunbelt Holdings, a Scottsdale development company that was charged by the GRIC early last year with leading the creation of a mega-complex that would include additional hotels, wellness and event centers, an outdoor amphitheater for concerts, sports facilities, outdoor recreation and parks, restaurants, retail establishments and an office park.

When the tribe and Sunbelt announced the development plan in January 2021, Sunbelt President John Graham said, “The stuff we do is long term in nature,” he said. “Our first plan is kind of a 10-year plan but I would believe between this land and other tribal land around it that it’s a 30-year build-out.”

The Wild Horse Pass Authority has been promoting that development on its website as a federal Opportunity Zone, where companies can secure big tax breaks for developing new properties and upgrading existing ones in areas designated as economically distressed.

“Where Interstate 10 Meets Loop 202, Opportunity Meets Its Destination,” the authority states, noting the “3,300-acre master planned commercial development (is) offering sites for: entertainment, retail, office and themed attractions. Available sites range in size to accommodate from 1,000 to 1,000,000 square feet with no real-property tax.”

Phoenix Rising, the state’s largest professional soccer team, last year opened a new 6,200-seat stadium on the site. The tribe also had made a pitch to host the 2021 Arizona State Fair as the pandemic threatened its usual Phoenix site, but fair officials decided the site lacked sufficient infrastructure to accommodate hundreds of thousands of fair visitors and that time was too short to address major issues there.

While the raceway is going away, an adjacent school that teaches racing and other sophisticated driving techniques isn’t moving.

 “The recent announcement regarding the future of the drag racing track at Wildhorse Pass Motorsports Park will not have an impact on our operations or course offerings,” said Mike Kessler, general manager at Radford Racing School.

“Our legendary 1.6-mile racetrack is the heart and soul of our school, and we’ll continue to be a world-class driver training facility and motorsports destination for performance enthusiasts worldwide,” Kessler added.

Radford Racing School takes its name from Radford Motors, a legendary British car manufacturer with brands like Rolls Royce and Bentley. The school’s four owners  bought the property after the 50-year-old Bondurant School of High Performance Driving tanked several years ago in a multimillion-dollar bankruptcy case.

Following the Wild Horse Pass Development Authority’s announcement, the racing fan website dragzine.com said the Motorsports Park closing was related to a pending overhaul of the Wild Horse Pass Exit on the I-10.

“Wild Horse Pass officials shared rather unceremoniously via its social media channels that a new overpass/roadway for the I-10 extension will use the space now occupied by the track, with construction presumably set to begin sometime in 2023,” dragzine said.

“Mind you, this highway overpass was not part of the The Wild Horse Pass Development Authority plans shown to the public last January (2021), so this is clearly a recent development, and one that vastly shortened the time that Arizona locals thought they had left to enjoy the facility.”

The only problem is that there are no existing plans to overhaul that interchange in the near future, according to the Maricopa Association of Governments, a leading agency for transportation development in the county.

That reconstruction at this point has yet to make the drawing board, according to John Bullen, MAG transportation economic and finance program manager.

“It’s still in the planning stage, if you will,” Bullen said. “We’ve been working with Gila River Indian Community a lot over the last several years, quite honestly. And, there’s been some discussion – I would say, there’s been interest for a new (interchange) sort of in that vicinity.”

Bullen said MAG also has been discussing improvements to State Route 347 along the southeastern edge of the proposed mega-development site.

“Right now, we’re sort of waiting for information from them: what their concept is, what those plans are, what that development is,” he said. “There’s this acknowledgment, and commitment that, ‘hey, we’re going to improve access to the Wild Horse Pass area, but we don’t know what that looks like.’”