Those that have said they want to attend a Verizon IndyCar Series race at Pocono Raceway sometime, should probably head there this weekend. Conventional wisdom says that this could very well be the final year that the series will be there for quite a long period of time.
I would say that’s a shame, but I’m part of the problem. Since the Indy cars returned to Pocono in 2013 after a twenty-four year absence – I’ve been saying I want to work in a trip to the Northeast where I can also take in a race at an historic venue. Three years later, those plans have failed to materialize. Like most, I’ll be watching Sunday’s race at Pocono from my couch instead of sitting in the stands.
If I need an excuse, I live 850 miles from Long Pond, Pennsylvania. Those that should feel a little more guilty are those IndyCar fans that live in the New York City/Philadelphia area. Those two metropolitan areas account for over twenty-five million people. Surely there are enough IndyCar fans among that many people to make the two-hour trip to Pocono Raceway to at least make a dent in filling the 76,000 seats along the mammoth main straightaway.
To say attendance has been abysmal at the previous two IndyCar races is almost an understatement. Last year’s race appeared to have more support people milling around behind the pits than there were in the stands.
It’s unfortunate that the first two races that Indy cars ran since 1989, were held over the Fourth of July weekend. Watkins Glen proved earlier that the Independence Day weekend is a crowd killer. Personally, I couldn’t think of a better way to spend the Fourth of July, but apparently not everyone agrees with me.
This year, the race was moved toward the end of the season to help bolster attendance. From what we are hearing about ticket sales, it doesn’t sound like the change has worked. We could make an argument about date equity and how the date would need to stay in this new slot for several years and allowing it to grow, but track owners aren’t willing to wait. They operate on such thin margins that they need to turn a profit quickly and can’t afford the luxury of growing an event over time. That’s why I’m sadly predicting that this will be IndyCar’s last visit to the Poconos for a while.
The sad thing is; I think over time it could grow into a good event. Although neither of the two previous races thus far have been as riveting as the last race at Fontana – I’ve enjoyed them. The track is very unique and sits in a picturesque setting. From what I hear, the facility is in the middle of nowhere – but that’s the Poconos. I’m not far from the Great Smoky Mountains which are also in the middle of nowhere. That’s the charm of going to the mountains. If you’re looking for nightlife or five-star restaurants during the race weekend – go to New York!
The unique layout of the “Tricky Triangle” is part of the allure of Pocono. Each of the three turns is different and is fashioned after turns at other famous tracks. Turn One, with its 14-degree banking, mimics Trenton Speedway, which closed in 1980. Turn Two, sometimes known as the Tunnel Turn, was modeled after Turn One at Indianapolis. Turn Three, with its almost flat banking, is very similar to Milwaukee. Although it is most certainly a two and a half mile oval, many say that it drives more like a road course.
Open-wheel racing has a long history at Pocono. From the time the track opened in 1971, USAC and then CART held races there from 1971 through 1989. Drivers like Mark Donohue, AJ Foyt, Johnny Rutherford, Al Unser, Bobby Unser, Rick Mears and Mario Andretti are just a few of the iconic names that have visited victory lane at Pocono. The Verizon IndyCar Series returned in 2013, with Scott Dixon winning that year and Juan Montoya taking the checkered flag last season. Unless attendance increases dramatically from last year, this could be the end of their short-lived return.
The points race has really heated up. Honda has performed better on ovals than road courses. Graham Rahal currently sits in second place, just nine points behind points leader Juan Montoya. He has already said he considers Pocono to be more pivotal than Sonoma. I’m not sure I follow his thinking, since Sonoma pays double-points – but he has to do well at Pocono before having a shot at Sonoma. Perhaps he’s thinking he needs to win Pocono and hang on for a good finish at Sonoma; since Sonoma plays more into Chevy’s hand than Pocono.
The weather forecast for Sunday is iffy. That could hamper attendance, but increase performance if it is cool but doesn’t rain. The weather will just be another factor in a weekend filled with storylines. So who is going to win on Sunday? I’m going with the driver with the hot hand. My prediction is that Graham Rahal will win the race, with Scott Dixon on the podium. Juan Montoya will have a rough afternoon and be overtaken by Rahal in the championship. But next weekend, Rahal will struggle at Sonoma and Scott Dixon will jump in and steal the championship, while Montoya falls to fourth behind Rahal and Helio Castroneves in the final standings. We’ll see how it plays out.