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Bobby Allison, A.J. Foyt reflect on 50 years of racing at Phoenix

Mar 2, 2014, 2:45 PM EDT

Phoenix Getty Images

This weekend’s NASCAR activities at Phoenix International Raceway mark the beginning of the track’s 50th anniversary season.

To celebrate the occasion, PIR has brought in multiple racing luminaries that have had an impact on the track’s history, including former Sprint Cup champion Bobby Allison (a winner at PIR in 1982) and four-time Indianapolis 500 winner A.J. Foyt (who won the track’s first oval race in 1964).

Allison was a key part of NASCAR’s early history with PIR. Before the current Sprint Cup Series began racing there in 1988, the now-K&N Pro Series West staged eight races from 1977-1984; Allison himself was involved in seven of those races.

In comments made to reporters before today’s The Profit on CNBC 500, Allison said he took pride in being able to help cultivate NASCAR’s following in the Southwest.

“I did feel really good about that,” he said. “I was conscious of the crowds early on – you see, back in my early days, I bought the promoting rights to Birmingham [Ala.] International Raceway and I really learned what it meant to have people in the stands versus not having full stands.

“So it meant something to me to encourage people to come to the races [in Phoenix]. I made a lot of friends doing that, I had some success along the way, and I feel like I’ve really contributed to this.”

Foyt also talked with reporters about the impact that Phoenix had on his racing career and about claiming the facility’s first professional win 50 years ago in a USAC Champ Car race.

“In ’64, I think I won every race but one or two so we had a hell of a year going,” he said. “[George] Bignotti was my crew chief and we worked awful good together. We just came here, ran some tests, and everything just fell in line…I’ve had a lot of good times here, and Phoenix has been very good to me.”

He also took the opportunity to defend three-time Sprint Cup champion Tony Stewart‘s other racing activities outside of NASCAR.

Stewart had his 2013 season end last summer when he sustained a broken leg in a sprint car crash in Iowa (he recently grumbled about being asked repeatedly about his health), but Foyt believes his good friend won’t be affected by the incident.

“Tony’s a racer and he might limp or be crippled, but hell, look at me – it never affected me when I got burned or nothin’,” he said. “So I don’t think it’s gonna affect Tony…

“A lot of people bad-mouthed him for running a sprint car race with everything he had going for him but…Life’s short and if you can’t do what you wanna do with life, what the hell’s the use for living? I respect him for racing. Just because it was a little bullring racetrack he got hurt on – a lot of people have done that before. You’ve gotta respect Tony for what he’s doing.”