By Cole Cusumano
AVONDALE, Ariz. – As young adults begin filing in through Gate 3, vibrant, extra-terrestrial-themed attire serves as a stark contrast to the traditional middle-aged male sporting a Dale Earnhardt shirt on race day and a precursor to the intergalactic party raging inside the one-mile track – Phoenix Lights music festival.
Stepping inside the track, you’re transported to another dimension. Where merchandise haulers would be, there’s a line of vendor tents and a lone Monster Energy trailer that doubles as a lounge. A roller skating rink is propped up beside the guest services building, which isn’t too far from complimentary water stations and a small stage modeled like a UFO.
Walking towards the massively constructed “superstructure stage” by Gate 5, colorful lights, lazers and visuals hypnotize the eager crowd. At the top of the staircase of the Bobby Allison grandstands, photographers give off the illusion of spotters: instead they’re documenting the inaugural festival at Phoenix Raceway.
The crown jewel in the desert has undergone a cosmic transformation since NASCAR teams hit the road on March 13. Beyond the grandstands from which a sell-out crowd witnessed 27-year-old Chase Briscoe celebrate his first win, over 10,000 eccentric individuals around the same age are consumed by rhythmic bass booming across the neon-drenched fan midway.
Since 2015, Relentless Beats has been hosting an electronic dance music festival paying tribute to the infamous “Phoenix lights” phenomenon, which occurred 25 years ago at a mountain range that sits adjacent to where Phoenix Raceway is nestled in Avondale.
The diamond in the desert has proven its $178 million renovation worth after successfully hosting two NASCAR Championship Weekends while withstanding the challenges of a global pandemic. Phoenix Raceway is now taking the next step in becoming a world-class, multi-purpose venue by hosting its first music festival.
“This is something that we’ve actually had in our sights since we renovated the facility in 2018 and we definitely had the vision to make Phoenix Raceway into an entertainment destination,” track president Julie Giese told NEWS FROM THE PITS. “This partnership with Relentless Beats provides us the opportunity to really showcase our venue and open Phoenix Raceway up to a new audience.
“We want to put our best foot forward and so does Relentless Beats and I think that’s what makes this partnership really great. We have common goals and we want to provide the best experience possible, whether that is a music festival or a race.”
Giese’s ambitions of breathing life into the one-mile track beyond motorsports began when she took over as track president in 2018. She’s had numerous conversations throughout the years with founder and CEO of Relentless Beats, Thomas Turner, but existing contractual obligations and COVID-19 prevented serious traction to materialize.
After putting on shows at Rawhide Event Center for nearly a decade, Relentless Beats’ contract expired and the venue determined they didn’t want to host large scale concerts for a lengthy, unspecified timeframe, leaving festivals like Phoenix Lights without a home in 2022.
Turner was given a list of 30 different venues to choose from in a 90-day span, but was immediately drawn to Phoenix Raceway, given the colossal renovations and prior conversations with Giese.
“The raceway presents an opportunity for us to grow that we were not going to be able to accomplish at the previous venues that we were working at around Rawhide,” Turner told NEWS FROM THE PITS. “With regards to Phoenix Lights, I always wanted to get it back into the city of Phoenix and just didn’t have the ideal home that would allow us to be as loud as we wanted to be and Phoenix Raceway presents that opportunity for us to not have an early curfew like a city space would have.”
Noise pollution aside, the core reasoning behind Turner’s decision to partner up with Phoenix Raceway was the logistics from a producer and patron standpoint.
Relentless Beats exchanged their 160-acre field of dead grass with a dingy warehouse for a level ground of asphalt and more condensed space. The field at Rawhide lent itself to less than ideal conditions for festival goers.
Endless hours of dancing would frequently lead to ditches forming and dust being kicked up and ingested. Inclement weather would breed mud, enhance humidity and even force event cancellations.
Being that Phoenix Raceway sits in between the Estrella Mountains and is surrounded by asphalt and desert landscapes, there’s a refreshing and consistent breeze flowing through the newly formed festival grounds. The vast, dry terrain also incites a significant temperature decrease throughout the evening compared to Rawhide.
Additionally, expansive parking lots and free standing structures allow for a more enjoyable and convenient experience for festival goers and employees. When hosting events at Rawhide, Relentless Beats would construct many pop-up concessions and vendor tents among other things to appease customers.
“It really makes use of the space in a sensible way versus us having to build everything and create a site,” Turner said. “We’re able to plug into existing resources structurally and have amenities and things that are much nicer than the more temporary things we would have to use at Rawhide.”
For Giese, there was an immediate turnaround following the NASCAR Cup Series race on March 13 to get the grounds cleaned and prepared for Relentless Beats to move in. She took inspiration from tracks like Las Vegas Motor Speedway in gearing up for their first music festival, but experience from Championship Weekends and other activities at the facility were applicable.
“At the end of the day, you’re hosting a large number of people that have chosen to attend your facility and there are a lot of synergies for sure,” Giese said. “There are a lot of similarities, but there are a lot of uniquenesses about a festival that we’re learning from Relentless Beats. They’re amazing at what they do and they’ve really helped us as we’ve gone through this, too.”
Turner worked closely with Giese’s team and Director of Business and Development for NASCAR’s West Region, Mark Bailey, to get Phoenix Lights ready for April 1. He was blown away by how accommodating and helpful the Phoenix Raceway staff was.
“They’ve all been outstanding to work with, they’re very receptive to our partnership and I think this is the start of a really cool era working with NASCAR,” Turner said. “I think there’s a model where live entertainment happens at raceways over the next 20 years more than it has the last 10.”
This should come as encouraging news, not only for Giese, but for the city of Avondale. LVMS has been hosting Electronic Daisy Carnival for over a decade and has generated $2.5 billion in revenue for Las Vegas and counting.
The 10,000 on hand for Phoenix Lights is a far cry from the 450,000-plus at EDC last year, but this is a great starting point for Phoenix Raceway, which has nearly as much usable real estate as the 1.5-mile Las Vegas track.
The only negative reception Turner heard leading up to Phoenix Lights was the proximity of the track from Rawhide. It turned out the 28-mile ride from Chandler to Avondale would be an afterthought, as praise of the venue ran rampant throughout the evening. The highest praise heard on multiple occasions was the event at the speedway “felt like EDC.”
Frequent Relentless Beats customer and music producer Tyler Othites attended Phoenix Raceway for the first time and echoed the widespread complimentary sentiments.
“I like [Phoenix Raceway] a lot,” Othites told NEWS FROM THE PITS. “Switching the Relentless Beats events from Rawhide to here, I think is a plus. It’s nice to be out on concrete instead of dirt. It’s a little bit further, but they still bring the same production value that they always bring, so it’s awesome.”
Othites was one of dozens of people surveyed who enjoyed their experience and would come back to Phoenix Raceway. Whether for another music festival or a NASCAR race remains to be seen, but hosting events such as Phoenix Lights open up the door to a diverse and younger fanbase.
“I think that’s a benefit to doing these types of events,” Giese said. “How do we expose people that are coming to these music festivals to the other things that happen at Phoenix Raceway?”
Speaking on the track itself, newcomers are awe-struck as they drive over the bridge and Phoenix Raceway comes into view. Courtesy of backstretch grandstand demolition that was part of the renovations in 2018, patrons are treated to an open-faced view of the stadium-style venue, complete with a silhouette of Rattlesnake Hill and the scoring pylon.
Inside the one-mile track you could hardly tell it’s a functioning racing facility, but the hints are there. Championship Weekend souvenir cups are being handed out at concessions, beverage carts feature nine-time Phoenix winner Kevin Harvick and checkered-flag designs border directories and menus. If you look closely, you can also see a painted Kyle Larson peering from behind a merchandise tent on the guest services building.
“The NASCAR Championship would be a great weekend for new fans to attend a race for the very first time, but I think there’s a lot of other things that we can do as a facility outside of the races,” Giese said. “That’s our hallmark, that’s truly always going to be what Phoenix Raceway is about, but the more we can reinvent the venue and the way it’s used, the more people we expose to this facility to the wonderful renovation that we’ve made.
“We want them to know that we’re their entertainment destination for whatever they’re looking for.”
Phoenix Lights should be a great stepping stone for Giese and Phoenix Raceway in what’s sure to be a lasting relationship with Relentless Beats. Turner was pleased with the festival’s debut at the new venue and expressed optimism in the return of multiple stages and various different genres for the event in 2023.
Phoenix Raceway is set to host more shows throughout 2022, the next being Zeds Dead on April 22.