If you were to take a poll among most IndyCar fans before this season started about what was their most anticipated race of the upcoming season, the Indianapolis 500 would probably be ranked Number One. My guess is that just behind it would be the open-wheel return to Pocono Raceway for the first time since 1989.
Think how long ago that was. Ronald Reagan was only eight months removed from his presidency. Joe Montana and the San Francisco Forty-Niners were in the midst of their glory years. When Harry Met Sally and the original Batman were box-office hits. Phil Collins, Janet Jackson and Madonna ruled the charts. My son was about two weeks away from being born. How times have changed.
The starting grid for the 1989 CART race at Pocono, contained names that make up a Mount Rushmore of open-wheel racing. Emerson Fittipaldi, Mario Andretti, Michael Andretti, AJ Foyt, Rick Mears, Al Unser, Gordon Johncock, Bobby Rahal, Johnny Rutherford, Arie Luyendyk and Al Unser, Jr. Of course, there were some very forgettable names in that last race at Pocono as well. Names like Dominic Dobson, Tero Palmroth, and John Jones filled out the grid. It should also be noted that Dale Coyne drove in the 1989 Pocono 500 – finishing twenty-seventh out of twenty-seven cars. Oh, by the way…that race was won by Danny Sullivan. Other notable winners at Pocono include Mark Donohue, Joe Leonard, AJ Foyt, Johnny Rutherford, Al Unser, Bobby Unser, Tom Sneva, Rick Mears, Mario Andretti and Bobby Rahal – talk about a who’s who in racing.
CART chose to leave Pocono after that race, amid criticism that the surface was way too rough to handle cars at those speeds. The pole speed that year was 211.715 mph, a track record set by Emerson Fittipaldi that stands today, but will surely be broken this weekend. Practice speeds from yesterday’s open-test saw Marco Andretti post a top speed at 220.963 mph.
When the track opened in 1971, it immediately became part of USAC’s Marlboro Triple Crown, which consisted of the Indianapolis 500, the Pocono 500 and the California 500 that took place at the IMS “clone” in Ontario, California. The only driver to win all three 500-mile races in one season was Al Unser, who turned the trick in 1978. When Ontario closed in 1980, the Michigan 500 was made part of the Triple-Crown. When Pocono came off the schedule following the 1989 season, the Triple Crown ceased to exist.
When former CEO Randy Bernard was able to get Pocono back on the schedule for this season, he also saw to it that the Triple Crown was reinstated. This was a direct result of him listening to what fans wanted – what a unique concept. The new Triple Crown will consist of the Indianapolis 500, the Pocono 400 and the MAVTV 500 at Fontana. My only objection is that this second leg of the Triple Crown is only 400 miles. I’m not sure why that is. By way of his winning this year’s Indianapolis 500, Tony Kanaan, who was second in yesterday’s test with a 219.123 mph lap, is the only driver eligible to win this year’s Triple Crown. Since Randy’s departure, Fuzzy’s Ultra-Premium Vodka has been named as the title sponsor for the Triple Crown. The handsome Triple-Crown trophy was on display at IMS in May.
The “Tricky Triangle” at Long Pond, Pennsylvania is very unique in design. Rick Mears coined the phrase “Roval” to describe Pocono as a combination of a road course and an oval. Of course, Darrell Waltrip has since taken ownership of that phrase to go along with everything else invented by NASCAR.
Mears came up with that phrase to note how the three corners of the triangle are all completely different from each other. Supposedly, each turn was designed to replicate turns at other famous tracks. Turn One is meant to be like the old Trenton Speedway. Turn Two, or the Tunnel Turn is designed to replicate the nine-degree banking at IMS. Turn Three is set up after Milwaukee with only six degrees of banking. Setting up the car for one corner means a compromise for the other two. The engineers will be kept very busy this weekend.
As far as this weekend’s race goes; Andretti Autosport is back on quite a roll. They dominated the Month of May and came up just a bit short. Then, after going winless at Belle Isle and Texas, they got back on track by winning at Milwaukee and Iowa. Although they have no more data than anyone else at Pocono, you would expect them to be strong this weekend. It’ll be good to see Pippa Mann back in the CyclopsGear-sponsored car for Dale Coyne. She never got a chance to perform after her engine let go at Texas. It’ll also be interesting to see if the time off helped Chip Ganassi Racing regroup.
The long straightaways make for excellent passing zones – especially with the added width of the main straightaway. With the racing we’ve seen from the DW12 at other tracks, I expect nothing but an outstanding race this Sunday.
So which driver will be fortunate enough to join that list of open-wheel greats that have won at Pocono? I can tell you, that distinction is very important to today’s current crop of drivers. The significance of the first to win in IndyCar’s return to the Tricky Triangle is not lost on this group of drivers. Not that they don’t want to win every race, but this win would be special. Unfortunately, I don’t think Tony Kanaan will extend his hopes of winning the Fuzzy’s Triple Crown this season beyond this weekend. But I predict that the honor will go to his countryman and the current points leader, Helio Castroneves. It should be a great race.
On a personal note, just to brag – Susan and I will be traveling back from Louisville on Sunday and should be back home in time to catch the full race broadcast on ABC. I’ve never been a huge concert-goer, but we are making one in Louisville tomorrow night that is on my very short list of must-see concerts – The Eagles. Between what I expect to be an outstanding concert and a great race, it should be a very memorable weekend.