Should IndyCar Say No To Pocono?

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I have to admit that I didn’t tune into yesterday’s NASCAR race at Pocono until the re-start after a rain delay with twenty-three laps to go. It was just in time to see Sam Hornish relinquish the lead to Greg Biffle, before settling for eleventh. I’ve never understood why the two NASCAR races at Pocono were so close together. They were there less than two months ago, before returning this past weekend. I’ve always found the NASCAR races at Pocono to be exceedingly boring. Five hundred miles is too long for stock cars on a track where braking is an art form.

The shallow banking at Pocono is much better suited for the IZOD IndyCar Series. Track president Brandon Igdalsky was recently quoted as saying that he would be interested in trying to bring the IZOD IndyCar Series to his 2.5 mile triangle shaped track in Long Pond, PA. To my knowledge, nothing official has been discussed. But if Pocono does come calling, should Randy Bernard and company actually pursue it?

Contrary to popular belief, NASCAR didn’t invent Pocono Raceway (formerly known as Pocono International Raceway). In fact, they didn’t even run the first major event there. USAC ran Champ Cars there in 1971, with Mark Donohue taking the victory. NASCAR began running 500-mile races at the Tricky Triangle in 1974 when Richard Petty took the checkered flag.

Indy cars ran at Pocono under the USAC/CART banner from 1971 to 1989. Emerson Fittipaldi still holds the track record he set in 1989 (211.715 mph). For a comparison, Rick Mears sat on the pole at Indianapolis that year with a speed of 223.885 mph. Throughout the seventies, Pocono made up one leg of the Marlboro Triple Crown – a series of three 500-mile events that also included Indianapolis and the now-extinct Indy clone; Ontario Motor Speedway.

But Pocono came off of the CART schedule after the 1989 season. The surface was considered way too rough and there were also safety concerns, just as there are today in NASCAR. The unique triangle configuration is more like a road course with three completely different turns. Legend has it that each turn was designed after turns at three famous tracks. Turn one is supposed to resemble the fourteen-degree banking at the now-defunct Trenton Speedway. Turn two is a ninety-degree turn that has the nine-degree banking of Indianapolis Motor Speedway, while turn three features a wide sweeping turn with only six-degrees of banking similar to Milwaukee. The configuration is much more inviting to the nimble IndyCars than the bulky and cumbersome stock cars of NASCAR, but is it such a good idea for the IZOD IndyCar Series to renew its ties with the track?

There are many arguments that would support the series returning to Pocono. First and foremost, it is an oval – which is certainly lacking from the current schedule. More importantly, it is an oval which is not controlled by International Speedway Corp or Speedway Motorsports, Inc. It is owned by the Mattioli  family and would be much more willing to promote an IndyCar race at the family owned facility. There are also very few ovals that are actively pursuing the IZOD IndyCar Series to race at their facility. If Pocono is actually interested, it would make sense to talk with them.

But Pocono Raceway is still in need of major improvements before it could be considered a suitable venue for an IndyCar race. In June, Kasey Kahne’s car went airborne. There are certain sections between turns one and two that have no catch fencing, only a line of trees along the track’s outer retaining wall. An IndyCar being launched into the nearby countryside not only sounds like something from the movie Driven, it could also have lethal consequences.

Long Pond, Pennsylvania is also not exactly the metropolis that IZOD covets. In fact, it’s in the middle of nowhere. The largest nearby city is Wilkes-Barre, PA while the closest metropolitan area is Newark, NJ. This would also make three new venues in the northeast – along with new races in Loudon, NH and Baltimore to join existing venues Toronto and (for the moment) Watkins Glen. Granted, this is a heavily populated area – but logic would dictate that they spread out more.

Many fans are clamoring for another triple crown. I’m all for that, but I don’t think it will be between three 500-milers. Except for the Indianapolis 500, I don’t think you’ll see any races exceeding four hundred miles. It’s too hard on equipment and the attention span of the casual fan is too short these days. There are too many alternatives on summer Sunday afternoons than sitting in front of a TV all day. That is reserved for fall Sundays and the NFL.

I think there are other venues that the IZOD IndyCar Series should explore before Pocono. It’s doing business with the devil (ISC), but Michigan is a much more attractive facility. The economy is bound to rebound in that area. If one or more US auto manufacturers badge an IndyCar engine in the future, this is a much better showcase for speed and competition than Belle Isle.

John Pemberton of JP’s IndyCar Blog has an interesting idea. Dover Motorsports is on the verge of shuttering Gateway International Raceway in Madison, Ill – just across the river from St. Louis. I have never been to Gateway, but it does not have a great reputation. Last Thursday night, Curt Cavin stopped just short of calling it a dump – perhaps because it sits adjacent to an actual dump. From what I can tell, the surrounding area is not great (I have been to East St. Louis, Ill, by accident. I got lost and ended up crossing the bridge. I’m lucky to still be alive.). According to Curt, the facilities need a total makeover. But the track was a favorite among many drivers. It is a 1.25-mile egg-shaped oval, similar to Motegi and Darlington. CART raced there from 1997 through 2000 and the IRL raced there from 2001 through 2003.

So back to John Pemberton’s idea…he suggests that the Indianapolis Motor Speedway buy Gateway from Dover Motorsports – that ingenious company that has already closed Memphis Motorsports Park and has the great concrete white elephant here in Nashville. JP contends that if the Speedway were to pick up Gateway for a bargain basement price, they could spend money to reconstruct the pits along what is now the backstretch. The current seats are metal high school style bleachers. They could be dismantled and have a more permanent grandstand be built along the “new” front-stretch where spectators could have a scenic view of downtown St. Louis rather than the aforementioned dump.

John reasons that this gives the IZOD IndyCar Series a stress/drama-free venue without the hassle of dealing with ISC or SMI. It is a relatively short drive from Indianapolis and would make for a natural lead-in for the month of May, much the way the soon to be departed Kansas Speedway was supposed to do but never did.

Quite honestly, I like the idea – but then again, it’s not my money. But if Randy Bernard is serious about embracing ovals, he needs to have some options other than the two controlling entities that he is forced to deal with. Las Vegas, an SMI track, is rumored to be added to the 2011 schedule. Randy Bernard has many connections in Las Vegas and swears he can make it work. I like what I see from him so far, so I’ll take him at his word. He would also love to get the series back to Milwaukee. So would I, but that seems to be at least another year away.

But there is a need to have some alternative oval venues that aren’t controlled by three-letter companies. Milwaukee fits that bill. So do Gateway and Nashville. So does Pocono. I love the history of this sport and Pocono is a part of that history. I’m just not sure that Pocono should be near the top of the list for new venues. I think Pocono needs to remain in the rich past of this sport – not in its future.

George Phillips

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25 Responses to “Should IndyCar Say No To Pocono?”

  1. The Mattiolis (or, at least, their new track president) seem interested in making the track much safer in time for next year’s first NASCAR date. They’ve recently spent a bunch of money on a new solar power station to power the track, so that might free up money that would otherwise be going to the power company. If the management is committed to making the place more modern in terms of safety, I’m all for bringing the IndyCars there. It’s such a delightfully different track that it would be fun.

    A couple of things: NASCAR’s dates are so close together because the weather in that part of the world can be pretty treacherous — remember CART’s snow day at Nazareth? That’s a total black mark against the venue, unfortunately. Another thing is that I think Baltimore, Pocono, and Loudon can coexist together on the schedule, assuming they’re marketed right; Loudon goes to the Boston crowd, Baltimore goes to the DC/Baltimore crowd, and Pocono goes to NYC/Philly/northern PA crowd.

    The thing about Gateway is a great idea, by the way. My only concern is that the new, penny-pinching IMS regime might not share the enthusiasm of fans like us. IMS Corp. has never seemed interested in turning into a track-owning conglomerate, but perhaps they’ll have a look at it seeing as they’ve seen firsthand how beneficial owning a collection of tracks can be.

  2. I’m not sure the IIRS should be in the racetrack-buying business. They’d put a lot of money into a “dump” to run one race a year? Who takes care of it the rest of the year? And does Bernard join the line of owners begging Nascar for races in an already overcrowded schedule?

    On the other hand–I like the Pocono idea. It could take the place of Watkins Glen, which is all but gone. I’m not sure that’s too many races in that region–there’s a whole lot of people who live/vacation in that area. Besides–it’s different racing–a street course in Baltimore, an oval in New Hampshire and a “road-oval” in Pocono. I also like it because of the historical aspect–it was basically built for Indycar. I like the idea of dealing with private ownership too, and supporting them. Of course, that would totally depend on the safety upgrades and on when and if you could schedule the race with both Nascar races so close.

  3. Scott Simmons Says:

    “great concrete white elephant” – i like that phrase. It’s so sad that Indy’s sponsor sits in town and yet we have no race here. Even sadder is that track sits there and doesn’t seem to do anything. I know NASCAR fans in town who don’t attend their races there because they’re not fans of the track. Sigh.

  4. “I have been to East St. Louis, Ill, by accident.” – George Phillips

    Did you ask your kids if they were noticing all the plight?

  5. One slow day at work, I ranked all the tracks that IndyCars in all their iterations have raced on over the years by number of starts. Then I looked up which are still in operation. Two things jumped out: 1) road and street courses ARE a MAJOR part of IndyCar history and 2) IndyCar BELONGS at Milwaukee, Phoenix, Michigan, and Pocono. I am all for ANY effort to get back to any of those four tracks. However, Saddler’s crash would have looked an aweful lot like Gordon Smiley’s in an IndyCar. Of the four tracks I listed, Pocono is the least equiped to handle IndyCars. If someone is willing to make the investment, or if IndyCar can take advantage of the improvements NASCAR will force them to make, then Pocono needs to be HIGH on the list of potential “new” tracks.

  6. Ron Ford Says:

    George, I would not go anywhere near East St. Louis in anything other than a humvee.

    My vote(s) would be for Milwaukee and Phoenix. Racing at Milwaukee is never less than exciting. You would be hard put to find any drivers, owners, league officials and fans who do not like Milwaukee. The problem there is not lack of fans, but rather with an inept State Fair Park board. That board has little or no experience with promoting races and they have an unfortunate history in recent years of hiring inept promotors. The last so-called promotor there has not even paid vendors, in addition to not paying the IRL and Nascar.

    Randy Bernard-ya gotta love this guy-recently made a trip to Milwaukee and floated a generous proposal to help restart IndyCar racing there. Open-wheel fans in Wisconsin are working hard to light a fire under the State Fair Park officials.

  7. On Pocono: I think given the current situation, “can Indycar afford to say no to any non-ISC track that is seriously interested in them?” is the real question. I’d rather see a well promoted race at Pocono, than tumbleweeds in the stands at Homestead. Given, (as you rightly point out) that the necessary safety upgrades are made.

    On Gateway: I’d no sooner build or buy a track in East St. Louis, than the South Side of Chicago, for the exact same reasons. The folks you want to come spend money just don’t feel safe there.

    On another topic, while listening to the podcast of last week’s Trackside, Tony Cotman mentioned that his track consulting company is currently working on a project for a 1 mile oval, and road course in Denver. Anyone aware of this project? I know Denver has been talked about for years. I’d be curious to know if this is a project with real $$$ behind it, or just a developers pipe dream.

  8. Savage Henry Says:

    I live in the suburbs of Philly and I can get to Pocono in about 2 hours. It probably isn’t that much farther from NYC – maybe 2 1/2. The track is very accessible to the most populated area in the country being more or less at the intersection of Route 80 and the PA Turnpike NE Extension. I think that they always draw a good crowd for their NASCAR dates.

    I like that Pocono is one of the “interesting” tracks that requires a different skill set than the others. I also agree that its layout is more suitable for Indycars than NASCAR. So with The Glen possibly on its way out, having a good oval event in the Northeast seems to be a good idea. There won’t be that much overlap with Loudon, which caters more to the Boston crowd or Baltimore which is a street course.

    I’d love to see Pocono back on the schedule (provided they make the necessary safety upgrades) and Michigan. However, I doubt that the Mattiolis are going to be able to scrape together the cash to make those improvements, especially if there’s going to be a repave involved. I think I’ve read that they’re barely holding on as it is.

  9. On Gateway, one no passing egg shaped oval is one to many!!!! So no, if IMS want’s to buy a track, either buy Nazareth, or buy Milwaukee,. On triple crown, what makes the most sense is actually 4 major races, Indy, Texas, Road America, Long Beach.

  10. I’ve always thought Gateway had some positives; was a great location in the US, a non-ISC track, a non-D oval, but also never have seen the place, so I assume Cavin’s description is accurate. Too bad because I’d like that to be a stop on the IndyCar circuit, especially if Kansas is a goner.

    I’d also love Pocono for it’s history, location, and unique shape certainly, but can understand why IndyCar would deem it unsafe to race there.

    Nazareth I understand has been partially or mostly dismantled since ISC purchased it.

    So what’s left?
    My heart likes Phoenix, Michigan, and Milwaukee.
    My head says we’ll never get a fair shake in promotion from an ISC track, especially when NASCAR ticket sales are dropping, which means ‘no’ to Fontana (nobody goes anyway), Michigan, Phoenix. Vegas and Nashville would both be a ‘maybe’ for me, which leaves Milwaukee as my vote for next best available (if they can get it together up ‘dere in dairyland that is).

  11. After a long time of debating and weighing the pros and cons of the perfect location/track to add to the 2011 schedule I come up with Nashville every time. ;)

  12. Rockingham (NC) & Rockingham (UK).

    A classic track in the south that Nascar deserted. And the UK has an oval track–who knew? There are a couple drawbacks. It might be easier to get to the track in England, for one. And I’m not sure about the 22 degree banking in NC but I like the sound of two Rockinghams–it rocks!

    I also like Milwaukee, Phoenix, Vegas and Nashville. And the street race in Portland and the roadie at Road America.

    • Hey Redd – Just to inform, Portland isn’t a street course, it’s a real roadcourse. A pretty fun one, at that. One really good and one fairly good passing zone, plus another ‘potential’ one.

  13. Ron Ford Says:

    Road America would also be a good choice. It fast, scenic and charming, aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaand there are many places to pass without Brian’s Rule.

    During this lull between IndyCar races, I have occupied my time watching video of USAC midget, sprint, and silver crown dirt track races on dirt. Most of them are pretty damned exciting (the leaders don’t just step aside), so I am just going to throw this out. How about just for grins, each year the IRL would hold one race on dirt? Wouldn’t you love to see what Will Power, Tony Kanaan, Paul Tracy, Mrs. Hospenthal, and all the others could do in a sprint car?!!

    • Absolutely…plus giving Darland, Boat, Wise, Sweet, Jones, et al, a chance to show how well they can compete against “the best drivers in the world”.

  14. Ron Ford Says:

    I guess “dirt track races on dirt” is a bit redundant. Sorry ’bout that.

  15. SkipinSC Says:

    Pocono is a “proiject” I’d love to see, but it is exactly that: A project. Somewhere, someone is going to have to comne up with a prtty substantial suim of money to m ake it workable. Now, if NASCAR mandates this, (and after the Sadler accident yesterday, they might,) I don’t see how they could discourage the ownership from seeking addodtional revenue to halp pay for the improvements.

    Above and beyond the catch fencing and SAFER barriers, in order to accomodate Indycars, this track will have to re-paved. Probelm is, if you diamond grind the surface, as they did Indy, you’ve got the NASCAR crowd bitching and moaining about how tough it is on tires. (Remember the Brickyard of a few years back?)

    Frankly, I did not realize until yesterday how few of the safety improvements so common at tracks today are in place at Pocono. NASCAR is fortunate that the Sadler incident did not have tragic consequences, especially when you look at the pix of the barrier Sadler hit almost head on. A similar contact with an Indycar would probably have resulted in worse.

    All that being said, Indycars were the ORIGINAL show there, and could really be that again given the necessary improvements. And, while there seems to be some concensus against using long weekends for IIICS races, Pocono has ample camping facilities and would be an ideal replacement for Watkins Glen for the Independence Day weekend, (in addition to sitting in the “middle” of the Pennsylvania “summer.”)

    I’ve made no secret of my desire to see a return of the Triple Crown of 500’s, but George might have convinced me to have two 400’s and Indy.
    In actual fact, there could be two triple crowns: one for ovals (Indy plus Michigan, Texas, Pocono, Vegas, or whatever,) and one for twisties (Long Beach, Road America, Mid Ohio, Cleveland, Brazil, or whatever) on that side. In order to ensure as many participants as possible, these races could have an “enhanced” points payout, something I think should be happeneing with Indy at the very least.

  16. People really need to stop wishing for a triple crown, you know the irl doesn’t allow any 500 milers outside ims.

  17. After watching yesterday’s crash at Pocono involving Elliott Sadler, I would be very reluctant to have an IndyCar race at Pocono unless-as mentioned by others-significant safety modifications are made by the Mattioli family. Sir Jackie Stewart had a great thought about racing which I truly believe-this may or may not be a direct quote: “The purpose of racing is to display one’s skill, not to risk one’s life unreasonably.” And IndyCars right now racing at Pocono is risking the lives of the drivers unreasonably, in my opinion.

    As for the others, it would be nice to see Milwaukee, Michigan and/or Phoenix back on the IndyCar schedule, but that is predicated on a variety of things. We’ll just have to wait and see.

  18. I’m not so sure about Michigan’s economy coming back anytime soon. I think they were saying that back in the days when Clark Griswold got lost in East St. Louis. Anyhow, I do like the track a lot. However, I would rather see Milwaukee or Phoenix back on the schedule. As for Pocono, there are only 2 things I don’t like about that idea: 1) what you pointed out about 3 new East coasters 2) I hate following Nascar around (I know open wheel was there first, but America has a short memory and has become “Nascarized” at many of those tracks (see Watkins Glen)). My wife is telling me to get off the computer now, so my comment is over!

  19. Maybe “Nas-scarred” is better than “Nascarized”

  20. Curt C is spot on Gateway was a dump & a cookie cutter 1.5 mile track. Pocono has not seemed to change much since I visited the track for CART events in 1985, 1988, & 1989. It too was a dump. Track owners are always talkin’ about what they are GONNA do :idea:

    Pocono was too bumpy for CART 20+ years ago & NAPCAR boys still mention the bumpy surface for their 3600 pound taxis. The “upgrades” the track is promising is NOT repaving… just joining the 21st century with SAFER barriers

    Unique tracks are in much nicer markets… Phoenix, Milwaukee, or Road America. Forget crap-holes like Gateway or Pocono

  21. I just want more races. 25? 30? If were taking fantasy, I’d like a race every weekend from late feb and crown a champ on labor day. Miss little or no football and I can ignore baseball. The more variety of tracks the better. Pocono fits that.

  22. As a race fan, I love the idea of Indycar coming back to Pocono. As everyone else has mentioned, safety has to be improved. Note that the same Armco Sadler hit also sawed Davey Allison’s car apart in 1992. As an armchair businessman, I’m not sure it would work-but I’m not familiar with the geography of the area, either.

    I have fond memories of Michigan, so I’d like to see that again, but I really have to put my vote behind Milwaukee. And Road America. I might even cough up Road America’s exorbitant ticket prices if Indycar came back. I really enjoyed Milwaukee in ’09 and the stands looked full-even if half of those there were Marlboro or military folk. The fact that they are equidistant from my house is pure coincidence…

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