For the first time in 24 years Indycars will race next Sunday at the 2.5 mile Pocono Speedway in the Pocono Mountains in eastern Pennsylvania. Pocono is a very fast, three-cornered superspeedway once renowned for its rough, car-breaking surface. The track was opened in 1971 and hosted a 500-mile Indycar race for almost 20 years through 1989 but dwindling crowds and an infamously bumpy track brought an end to open-wheel racing at Pocono.
NASCAR first raced at Pocono in 1974 and the track added a second Winston Cup race in 1982. The NASCAR races were very successful drawing big crowds to the fast tri-oval. This enabled track owner Dr. Joe Mattioli and his family to begin rebuilding and improving the facility from the track to grandstands and toilets. A few years ago the track was completely repaved making it much smoother and faster. The NASCAR drivers love it, and so too do the IndyCar drivers, most of whom have tested at Pocono in the past few weeks.
I spoke to Dario Franchitti about Pocono a few months ago after his first test at the track and his eyes opened wide. “Pocono!” he declared. “You should be there. It’s going to be something. It’s very fast, very challenging.”
I began to tell him about some of the big accidents that had occured there in the past, including one in 1970 when Al Unser Sr’s VPJ Colt penetrated the boiler plate which masqueraded as a crash barrier in those days. “Please, don’t tell me anymore,” Dario grimaced.
Next weekend’s IndyCar race at Pocono will be run over 400 miles or 160 laps. It will be the middle leg of IndyCar’s revived ‘Triple Crown’, which also includes the Indy 500 and the season closing California 500. If Indy winner Tony Kanaan wins at Pocono he’ll earn a $250,000 bonus from Fuzzy’s vodka and will have a chance to win a million dollar Fuzzy’s bonus by winning the California 500 in October.
Will the Pocono 400 draw a crowd? NASCAR fans in the northeastern United States have been over-served for many years with races at Pocono, Watkins Glen, Dover and New Hampshire. In contrast, open-wheel fans in the northeast have been denied much of anything with a lone, failed attempt to revive Indycar racing in New Hampshire two years go, a failed six-year experiment at Watkins Glen from 2005-’10, and a new street race in Baltimore starting two years ago.
So the theory is that northeastern open-wheel fans are starved of action and will turn out at Pocono in big numbers on Independence Day weekend. Let’s hope there’s some truth to that theory because it would be good for IndyCar to have a successful superspeedway race in the northeastern USA.
Those fans who do go to Pocono next weekend are sure to witness a spectacular, closely-fought race without any obvious favourites. If nothing else, Indycar racing is entirely unpredictable with seven winners from this year’s first 10 races. Andretti Autosport drivers James Hinchcliffe and defending champion Ryan Hunter-Reay are the only multiple winners so far. Hinchcliffe has won three times and Hunter-Reay twice. Hunter-Reay lurks as the most consistently competitive driver, leading seven of the first 10 races.
But Penske veteran Hélio Castroneves leads the championship at this point through stealth and consistency. Castroneves has scored only one win so far this year but he’s the only driver to complete all 1423 laps run to date, finishing in the top 10 in all but one race.
Then of course, there are wild cards like Indy 500 winner Kanaan, Indy pole winner Ed Carpenter, Long Beach winner Takuma Sato and Hinchcliffe and Hunter-Reay’s team-mate Marco Andretti who hasn’t won a race so far but has enjoyed a pretty good year and is third in points between Hunter-Reay and Hinchcliffe.
And then there’s Dario Franchitti, Scott Dixon and Will Power, all three winless this year and each with too many lacklustre results. Can any of these guys turn their seasons around at Pocono or will they fall more deeply into the mire?
Competitive and unpredictable as IndyCar may be, it is struggling to draw crowds, TV ratings and much overall media coverage. So let’s hope Pocono’s revival turns into a successful, enduring addition to the Izod IndyCar Series calendar.