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Even though they’re in Sebring, drivers still talking about Phoenix test

IRL Indycar Series Testing

PHOENIX, AZ - JANUARY 25: Danica Patrick, the driver of the #16 Rahal Letterman Racing Argent Pioneer Panoz Honda, is seen during testing for the IRL Indycar Series on January 25, 2006 at the Phoenix International Raceway in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Gavin Lawrence/Getty Images)

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Teams have moved on to Sebring Tuesday and Wednesday for additional testing in preparation for the March 13 Verizon IndyCar Series season opener in St. Petersburg.

But thoughts of last week’s successful two-day test at Phoenix International Raceway remain prominent.

It was the first time the full series has returned to PIR since its last race there in 2005. The test on the one-mile, low-banked track was in preparation for the Phoenix Grand Prix on Saturday night, April 2.

Only a handful of today’s drivers raced at PIR the last time 11 years ago, but Tony Kanaan remembers the venue quite well.

Kanaan won the 2003 and 2004 races at PIR, and finished second to Sam Hornish Jr. in the last IndyCar race there in 2005.

“When you have a record like that, it’s obviously nice to be back,” Kanaan said. “A slightly different configuration, but it’s still one of my favorite racetracks.

“One of my best recollections, I gave Michael Andretti’s team their first win when they got back to IndyCar. It was here in 2003. A lot of good memories about this racetrack.”

Indeed, PIR has reconfigured and eliminated the infamous Turn 2 dogleg heading into the backstretch, which will change up the racing somewhat than what it used to be like for drivers who remember the old track configuration.

“Obviously, the dogleg has a little bit more banking, little bit less racetrack for us because we cannot use the apron the way the NASCAR guys do,” Kanaan said. “But all in all, I mean, it’s not a huge difference.”

Defending IndyCar champ Scott Dixon has three races at PIR (2003-2005) on his racing resume, including a runner-up to Kanaan in the 2004 race.

He misses the old dogleg, yet understands why the track has undergone some of the changes it has over the last decade.

“It’s been NASCAR-ified,” Dixon said. “No banking, smoother. This track used to be quite fun because of turn two (dogleg). It really closed in on itself and made it hard.

“Once you kind of get through the middle here, you’ve got an easy exit. For Cup cars, that makes it much easier. But for us, a lot of people don’t have to try and finish the rest of the corner, whereas back in the day, if you had a really good car, your car would finish the rest of the corner and you’d have a real good run down the back straight.”

It will be interesting to see how the IndyCar aero package handles the relatively short PIR layout.

“I think the track’s a good track,” Dixon said. “It’s just averaging over 190 mph on a mile track is pretty damn fast for an Indy car.”

A lot is riding on IndyCar’s return to the Valley of the Sun. Not only do track officials have to attract longtime IndyCar fans, they also have to attract and educate a brand new group of potential IndyCar fans.

“Phoenix is a great area, it’s an area we need to be,” Dixon said. “I hope that the race is good. It’s all about advertising, marketing, and spending a bit of cash.

“You get what you pay for. So, I hope they market this race well, and if they do, I think they can build on a positive future. They’ve put a lot of time into this.”

The Arizona Republic estimated 5,000 fans for the Saturday portion of the test, which was open to fans for free, and NBC Sports contributor Robin Miller also estimated roughly the same in a column posted earlier this week.

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