Interstate 10 was much busier than I'd expected on Sunday as I was driving through Tucson, but after looking around, I realized why: The snowbird migration was in its final stages.
Flocks of Lincoln Town Cars and Cadillacs with license plates from the upper Midwest were driving almost in formation (i.e., 62 mph in a 65-mph zone, in the left lane), heading out of town for parts still unthawed.
Along with the so-called breaking of the ice on the Rillito, the snowbird exodus is one of the most significant ways to tell that summer is about to poke its hot, sweaty head out from behind the mountains and settle in for what will seem like the next 10 years. It also means the options for local sports entertainment are about to dry up.
Or does it?
Without the overt presence of University of Arizona sports, it might seem like Tucson is an athletic wasteland when school is not in session. But dig around a bit and you'll see there are choices that don't require wearing red and blue.
One of Tucson's longstanding summertime offerings is auto racing, which has been around here in one form or another since at least the 1960s. Probably the most notable of the local racing venues is Tucson Raceway Park, which nowadays goes by Tucson Speedway.
When I started writing for the Tucson Citizen in the mid-1990s I became very familiar with that track, and its "three-eighths mile paved oval," where it seemed like racing was held every Saturday night. One of my jobs at the Citizen was to compile and lay out the statistics page (known as the agate page) in the sports section, and every week I would type in the results from the Factory Stocks, Super Late Models and other divisions.
That was during the track's heyday, when it was affiliated with the NASCAR Craftsman Truck and Winter Heat series. But that relationship ended in 1999, marking the start of a gradual decline in quality of both the racing and the track's operation.
TRP even shut down for two years before the current owners got the place up and running again and resumed racing in 2013. Most weekends feature a set of races, such as last Saturday, when the Super Late Models, Pro Stocks, X-Mods and Hornets divisions all competed. (The next racing is May 17.)
The work John Lashley and his staff have done to refurbish Tucson Speedway reaped some major rewards last week when the track became a NASCAR-sanctioned oval, and therefore eligible to hold races associated with NASCAR's Whelen All-American Series competition. This grass-roots level is for short-track racers (major tracks are at least a mile long, if not longer) and provides an opportunity to compete for state, national and international titles at what now includes 58 tracks in the U.S. and Canada.
No specifics were announced during a press conference on April 30, but it is expected that races counting toward Whelen All-American Series standings will begin at Tucson Speedway in July.
I've gone to the track once or twice over the years, and though auto racing isn't really my thing, I can see the allure. And because the Tucson track is smaller, the venue is much more conducive to a positive family experience (admission is just $12 for adults and $6 for kids 11 to 16) than navigating the sea of humanity that envelops Phoenix International Raceway for its NASCAR Sprint Cup races.
Call it a minor league racing venue, if you will. And that's actually pretty accurate because several racers who got their start at TRP and Tucson Speedway have moved on to the big leagues, including Alex Bowman, who is now racing at Daytona, Talladega and other big tracks.
If watching souped-up sedans tool around a track over and over isn't your thing, might I suggest a couple of other summer sports options that also have a grass-roots feel to them. One is indoors; the other outdoors.
The first is the Tucson Summer Pro League, which is set to begin its 11th season of basketball at St. Gregory College Prep on June 21. Games over six weekends will pit teams made up of former college stars, local street legends, guys still trying to make a career of hoops and anyone else who can make a team. It's sanctioned by the NCAA, so there's always a chance that a UA player will drop by for a game or two.
The league's Open Run (also known as an open tryout) is May 17 at St. Gregory. You can register online at tucsonspl.com, and for $10 you get a chance to show your stuff and possibly make a team. There's also a youth Open Run that day, with the same cost, for spots in TSPL's youth league.
The other summer sports option I recommend is FC Tucson, the closest thing we have to a professional sports team around here. Although they're all amateurs, which is required in order to be a part of U.S. Soccer's Premier Development League, they're still a pretty talented group. Players are culled from the college ranks, with high school stars occasionally making the cut.
The club had its final exhibition tuneup last Saturday, playing the University of New Mexico to a scoreless tie. It will begin its third year of competition on Thursday, May 8, starting a two-game road trip against the BYU Cougars in Utah, followed by a match Saturday against the Las Vegas Mobsters.
The home opener is Saturday, May 17 against the Orange County Blues FC, the first of seven PDL matches that FC Tucson will host in the swanky 1,800-seat stadium that Pima County built for the team on what used to be baseball fields on the north side of the Kino Sports Complex.