As NASCAR’s traveling circus rolls into Northeastern Pennsylvania this week, the cars and stars of the Sprint Cup Series are facing an entirely new Pocono Raceway experience. First of all, the challenging 2.5-mile triangle is sporting a new coat of pavement – the first to be laid down in almost twenty years. Secondly, this weekend’s running of the Pocono 400 Presented by #NASCAR 400 (a name inspired by NASCAR’s newly-minted relationship with Twitter) will be 100 miles (or 40 laps) shorter than previous events. The same will be true when the Sprint Cup cars race there again in August. One hundred fewer miles – according to public opinion – means 100 fewer headaches for teams and fans alike, but it also shows the lengths to which the folks at Pocono Raceway are willing to go to better meet the demands of their audience.
Not that track administrators listen to all criticism and comments. If that were the case, Pocono Raceway likely would have been plowed under and returned to its original state as a piece of premium farmland (the track sits on the location of what was a spinach farm many years ago). Denny Hamlin – a multiple race winner at Pocono – and other Sprint Cup drivers have stated publicly that events at “The Tricky Triangle” have been some of the most boring in NASCAR and that races there should be reduced to only 200 miles. Such criticism matches the often-hushed comments heard among members of the media, many of whom skip Pocono events in favor of taking a much-needed weekend off.
Having grown up less than 40 miles from the speedway, and having spent many weekends at the track in a variety of capacities (as a fan, as part of the media, and as a pit crew member), I have a natural bias in favor of Pocono Raceway and all it has to offer. Getting to races there was easy since I could stay at home and drive quickly to-and-from the track. Lodging was never an issue – as it always seemed to be for teams and media folks – and neither was transportation. Even when I had to fly into the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Airport from Michigan, I could always count on getting a ride from my father to my childhood home. Renting a car was never a problem, nor was wrestling with that perpetual question of Pocono logistics: do I get a hotel room in Wilkes-Barre, Mount Pocono, or Stroudsburg? Events at Pocono Raceway for me have always been part work, part homecoming, and anticipated with great excitement.
The problem is that Pocono Raceway seems to be the Rodney Dangerfield of NASCAR; the unique triangle gets no respect from NASCAR Nation, nor has it ever been sincerely regarded as what it is: one of the sport’s most difficult and truly competitive facilities. The superspeedway that drives like a road course has been much-maligned for years, despite the heart and soul poured into it from its family of dedicated owners. Indeed, one of the late Dr. Joe Mattioli’s many strengths was his honest approach to racing and his willingness to change things around to better suit the needs of fans and competitors.
Pocono Raceway has always been central to meeting the needs of race fans in the major markets of New York City and Philadelphia. In fact, the track’s location enabled it to draw crowds from such other far-flung, regional cities as Boston, Pittsburgh, and Washington, D.C. As such, Pocono Raceway was regarded as “the Indianapolis of the East,” especially during the years (from 1971 until 1978) when it hosted the Schaefer 500 for USAC Champ Cars. USAC stopped racing at Pocono in 1984, at which time CART took over as the sanctioning body. CART ran open-wheel races at Pocono until 1989, when the track was dropped from the Champ Car World Series schedule because it was considered too rough and possibly unsafe.
During those open-wheeled days of the 1970s, such legendary names as Mark Donohue, A.J. Foyt, Johnny Rutherford, and Al Unser all visited Victory Lane in Long Pond, a place of honor graced by other notables as Rick Mears, Bobby Rahal, Mario Andretti, and Danny Sullivan during the CART era at Pocono. Champ Car events held there were one-third of a Triple Crown of 500-mile races, joining the Indianapolis 500 and a similar event at Ontario Motor Speedway in California. Back when Champ Car racing was seen as the pinnacle of American motorsports, Pocono Raceway was regarded as an important part of the high-speed, high-profile racing division. As big-time, open-wheel competition imploded through various mergers, leadership changes, and team owner infighting (Wait! These aren’t this week’s headlines, are they?), Doc Mattioli and family looked to NASCAR for brighter days and bigger crowds.
NASCAR’s legacy at Pocono Raceway is a long and rich one, dating back to Richard Petty’s victory in the 1974 Pocono 500. Prior to that season, USAC stock cars competed on the triangular-shaped track, bridging the difference between the Schaefer 500 and the Grand National events yet to come. USAC brought famous hot shoes like Butch Hartman, Roger McCluskey, Paul Goldsmith, and A.J. Foyt (him again?) to eager racing fans in Northeastern Pennsylvania – including a little kid from the small town of Dallas who loved everything related to going fast and turning left (and who hasn’t changed much in the decades since, although he’s grown more cynical with age and experience).
Weekends at Pocono Raceway allowed me to watch IMSA races featuring drivers like Brian Redman and Paul Newman. Another celebrity driver who ran at Pocono was the musician John Oates (of the group Hall & Oates) who struggled mightily with a sweeping right-hander near the exit of Turn 3 that made his sports car look like a merry-go-round. Apart from IMSA and SCCA events, it was through hosting club races of all kinds that helped Pocono Raceway grow its audience; the layout of the infield was designed in such a way that multiple car clubs could use the track simultaneously on a single weekend when the big dogs (like NASCAR) weren’t in town.
Pocono Raceway’s relevance within the world of NASCAR is a blend of the tragic and the triumphant. For every driver who suffered injuries at the speedway, including Hall of Famers Dale Earnhardt and Bobby Allison (whose career ended in a 1988 accident with Jocko Maggiacomo), there have been moments of greatness. Highlights include Bill Elliott’s sweep of both Cup races in 1985, Tim Richmond’s three consecutive wins between 1986 and 1987, and sweeps at Pocono by both Bobby Labonte and Denny Hamlin in 1999 and 2006, respectively.
NASCAR champions who have excelled on the Pennsylvania 2.5-miler include such past Cup drivers as Dale Jarrett, Rusty Wallace, Dale Earnhardt, and Alan Kulwicki, as well as such present-day Cup drivers as Kurt Busch (once he’s able to race – and control his language – again), Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon, and Jimmie Johnson. With all the recent success at Hendrick Motorsports, a trip north to the Pocono Mountains is most likely highly anticipated. Pocono Raceway was also the site of Brad Keselowski’s return to Victory Lane – just three days after being injured in a violent wreck during testing at Road Atlanta.
But despite its diverse history and significant position in the evolution of motorsports, Pocono Raceway has been relegated to something akin to also-ran status among other NASCAR tracks. Maybe this degradation is because the facility is neither owned nor operated by International Speedway Corporation or Speedway Motorsports, Incorporated. Because Pocono is still possessed by members of the Mattioli family (now in its third generation of track administrators) perhaps its role in the great scheme of “official” NASCAR speedways has been diminished.
Pocono Raceway does not have the high-speed banking of Talladega, nor does it have the posh suites and condominiums of Charlotte. Pocono isn’t as established in NASCAR history as a Darlington or a Martinsville, nor does it fill a unique niche on the annual schedule of races, as does Daytona, Watkins Glen, Indianapolis, or Homestead. As far as racetracks go, Pocono Raceway walks the rather fine line between socioeconomic classes; while the audience at Pocono has a definite blue collar and rural sensibility, it’s not unusual to find many fans of a decidedly urban nature. Being so close to large, multicultural and economically-diverse population centers often draws such a crowd. And if there’s one thing Pocono Raceway has endeavored to accomplish over the last 41 years, it’s to provide all fans with a memorable and meaningful racing experience.
Those efforts, however, go far beyond events on and/or around the track. Much has been said and written about the 25-acre Solar Farm at Pocono Raceway, but such attention to community needs (especially in a mostly-rural region seemingly so far removed from global industry and innovation) has given the facility newfound relevance. Not only does the track collect enough solar energy to power the entire speedway, but extra energy generated is used to supply around 1,000 nearby homes with clean, efficient electricity. This project may have nothing to do with NASCAR competition on the track, but it speaks volumes to the relationship between Pocono Raceway, its community, and its vision for the future. The distance of Cup races there may have been reduced, but Pocono’s overall impact on the region has increased greatly in recent years.
So, with all this success in mind, how is Pocono Raceway being presented to fans from NASCAR’s Sprint Cup stage this weekend? Prior to Kurt Busch’s one-race suspension for his actions at Dover last Saturday, the big news surrounding this week’s Pocono 400 Presented by #NASCAR was focused on three stories: 1) the new pavement, 2) the debut of NASCAR’s very public relationship with Twitter, and 3) the announcement that Vanilla Ice (yes, that Vanilla Ice) would be the “honorary pace car driver” for Sunday afternoon’s race.
It’s a brave new world at Pocono Raceway, is it not?
It’s not that having Vanilla Ice as an honorary pace car driver is horrible news, it’s just that if the intent is to feature an actor who’s appearing in Adam Sandler’s new movie (That’s My Boy – coming to a theater near you on June 15th), why not go with an actor in the film who has more direct ties to NASCAR? Also starring in this comedy (alongside Adam Sandler, Andy Samberg, and Vanilla Ice – aka Robert Van Winkle) is the venerable James Caan, who plays a priest (huh?) in this forthcoming Sony Pictures release.
So how does James Caan trump Vanilla Ice as a more appropriate choice for an honorary pace car driver? Simple.
Back in 1965, James Caan starred as a NASCAR stock car driver in the motion picture Red Line 7000, which was directed by the legendary Howard Hawks and featured the No. 28 Holman and Moody Ford Galaxie driven by Fred Lorenzen (to whom Caan bore a slight resemblance). Does such attention to relevance matter? Apparently not, even though Caan’s appearance alongside Will Ferrell in the 2003 hit film/Christmas classic “Elf” returned him to pop culture prominence. Caan was later on hand as the Grand Marshal of the 2006 Daytona 500, issuing the command to start engines.
Maybe it’s not about what’s prominent, proper, or more appropriate? Perhaps it’s not all about being memorable and meaningful? If 40 fewer laps/100 fewer miles at Pocono Raceway are what race teams, race fans (and the media) want, then maybe they deserve having the field honorarily-paced by a rapper/actor whose true glory days were more than two decades ago. Maybe it has nothing at all to do with Pocono Raceway, its history, its improvements, and its importance… maybe it’s simply about filling a weekend on the Sprint Cup schedule. The situation could be worse, I guess; one of Pocono’s race dates could be given to another, “much more deserving” track.
There’s always next year…
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