Monday, March 14, 2016

The History and Mystique of Rattlesnake Hill

Credit: Carol D'Agostino for Skirts and Scuffs
By Carol D’Agostino

Each NASCAR track has a bit of historical significance with some tracks, such as Talladega International Speedway, boasting a noteworthy infield. But none come close to Monument Hill at Phoenix International Raceway -- better known as Rattlesnake Hill.

PIR was the dream project of Richard Hogue, a Scottsdale real estate developer and amateur road racer who wanted to build a venue that would be reminiscent of the great circuits of Europe, such as the Nurburgring, Spa-Francorchamps and LeMans. His wife, a member of a longstanding Arizona family, supplied the financing. 

Credit: Carol D'Agostino for Skirts and Scuffs
It took months for Hogue to find land that had dramatic changes in topography. Finally he located a 314-acre parcel of land and purchased it for $1,000 per acre in 1963. Construction soon began on a 10-turn, 2.75-mile road course that incorporated a quarter-mile drag strip as the return straightaway. When the Board of Directors of the Arizona State Fair decided to end racing at the one-mile dirt oval at the Fairgrounds, the promoter, racing legend J.C. Agajanian, approached Hogue about adding an oval track to the venue.

After Agajanian recruited Clarence Cagle, track superintendent at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, to design and oversee construction of the oval, Hogue agreed to add an oval to the track. PIR’s quirky “dog leg” resulted to compensate for the addition of the oval.

With so many changes, the project became more expensive than originally anticipated, so the only fan seating area created was a grandstand a mere 12 rows high. The lack of adequate seating motivated many early fans to sit on the slope of Monument Hill because it provided an unobstructed view of the entire oval. The area was quickly nicknamed Rattlesnake Hill because track staff had to walk across the hillside on race days to clear away the dangerous snakes. 

By 1965, nearly half of the track's patrons were purchasing general admission tickets to sit on the hill. Unfortunately, there was no fence to prevent people from climbing over the hill from the neighboring Indian Reservation. When Hogue noticed that the number of fans on the hill outnumbered the amount of money generated from ticket sales, he donned a Stetson hat, cinched up a holster with a pair of Colt .45s and patrolled the hill on a horse looking for gatecrashers. 

Today the hill’s unique visual perspective still draws news fans each year. This weekend Randy Camden from Linden, Wisconsin, drove 1,900 miles to watch racing from Rattlesnake Hill.

“It’s been on my bucket list for a while,” Camden said. “My friends thought I was crazy to come here alone, but the nice thing about NASCAR is there are no strangers."

Shortly after Camden walked up the hill, he met Orel Semenza and his wife Carla, who invited Camden to watch the race with them. The Semenzas are from Lompoc, California, a nine-hour drive from PIR, and this is Orel’s 10th race at the track.

“By the second day of race weekend we are all family here on the hill. In the grandstands you may meet the person next to you, but here you’ll know everybody,” Orel said.

Orel Semenza, left, and  Randy Camden, right, on Rattlesnake Hill.
Credit: Carol D'Agostino for Skirts and Scuffs
Special thanks to John Chuhran of Phoenix International Raceway for sharing his extensive knowledge of the history of the track.


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