Should IndyCar Say No To Pocono?
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.