I must admit, as a guy who has called Pennsylvania home for going on four decades now I feel a great deal of affection for the Pocono track. I won’t claim it’s the best one on the circuit (that honor belongs to either Darlington or Richmond) or that it provides the sort of constant side-by-side excitement that once was Bristol. But I have witnessed some outstanding races at Pocono. I remember in particular Bobby Labonte and Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s last-lap land-rush finish in 2001, Jeremy Mayfield knocking Dale Earnhardt the original aside on the last lap in 2000, and Tim Richmond’s emotional comeback win in 1987. (Unfortunately, I’ve also seen some terrible crashes there, too, including wrecks that almost killed Bobby and Davey Allison, Harry Gant, Earnhardt and Jeff Gordon.)
Naturally, my recollections and reflections of Pocono are colored by the fact I attended a lot of race weekends there with my friends, as chronicled in the infamous 1313 Turkey Court column a few years back. By and large, I believe the statue of limitations is up on those shenanigans, so I’ll admit those were some of the best weekends of my life. It was male bonding at its best and beeriest, irresponsible operation of various types of off-road vehicles in pursuit of no trophy or points but mere bragging rights, campfires, raw in the center burgers, tall tales, outright lies and that now taboo taste of a first beer at breakfast. Growing older is a wonder after all those weekends. Growing up sucks. Yeah, Pocono race weekends and those memories still make me grin.
But based on my email and comments from readers on my columns, Pocono is not universally beloved. (Let me state one basic truism; any race you attend live is better than the same race watched on TV). There are constant complaints from various members of the media that the 500-mile race distances are way too long and they need to be shortened to 400 or even 300 miles. A lot of Pocono races start off well and end well, but do tend to drag in the center as teams and drivers battle attrition rather than each other. Others argue that Pocono should lose one or both race dates.
Pocono is just about equidistant from two of the largest and most coveted TV markets in the country: New York City and Philadelphia. Other attempts to break into the NYC market, most recently the ISC’s proposed Staten Island track, have failed miserably. Perhaps NASCAR ought to just steal a page from Joliet and rename Pocono “New York-Land Speedway,” thus being able to boast they have a track in the market. I’m told by people paid to understand and care about such things that the Pocono track has the largest potential pool of race attendees within 300 miles of any NASCAR track other than Fontana. And let’s face it: Fontana well and truly sucks. That track is always going to suck until they level the place to the ground, turn over every last teaspoon of earth, and start over with an oversized Richmond layout.
I think any reasonable person would also agree that Pocono is not the only Cup track where the action tends to die down during the middle stages of the event. In fact, that phenomenon has become almost universal in Cup racing everywhere, from Martinsville to Talladega. Most weekends, it seems all but a handful of drivers are on cruise control until the final 50 miles of the race before they finally get down to getting after it. As I’ve said before, it’s difficult for the MTV generation to devote three-and-a-half hours to a sporting event that really only sizzles in the final twenty minutes. I don’t know how to fix that, though no less an authority than Humpy Wheeler proposes a points system that awards points for each and every pass of another driver. (I have my doubts as to how that would work, with teammates letting each other pass and repass, but I’m willing to study any written proposal the inestimable Mr. Wheeler might put forth.)
So no, I don’t have a definite answer on how to fix the product. But I do know this much: if the end of the race is the best part of the race, two ends to the race beats one.
So how about this? We take the two 500-mile Pocono races and split them into four 250-mile races. (Or, OK, maybe two 200-mile races). I’m open to awarding either full points or half points for each event. After the first race, the teams get a half-hour break during which they can change springs, shocks or any other such work that can be accomplished in a half-hour period. After that, the field lines up in the reverse order of how they finished in the first race, with the exception of those drivers and teams who failed to finish the first race. They’d line up in the rear of the field in their backup cars. Then, everyone would have back at it again.
Think about it. If your favorite driver failed to win the first race, maybe he’d fare better in the second. We’d have twice as many beginnings and ends to races – the best part – and half of the middle-stages, the parts that tend to drag. Casual fans might choose to watch only the first or second race, not both, but that’s still going to help TV ratings if they watch one or another. A special points or cash bonus could also be reserved for the driver with the best overall finish in both races, giving the fastest drivers with the fastest cars extra incentive to get to the front and stay there. The system works very well in motocross, and I think it would work just fine in Cup racing. As an added benefit, the TV networks could offload a lot of their advertising breaks during the half-hour of downtime, leaving them more time to cover racing action live.
Yeah, I know this idea is controversial. Some of you are going to despise it altogether, and are already salivating at letting me have it in the comments section below. I admit this is a break from the norm for me, a normally hidebound traditionalist. I’ll happily sit through a 500-mile race at Pocono; the problem is, I fear there’s not enough other hidebound traditionalists left to sit elbow-to-elbow with me in the two tiers of grandstand seating and the massive infield of the track. The way I see it, any type of racing at Pocono beats none at all….
In baseball, doubleheader tickets are among the most coveted by the fans. Maybe it holds true for stock car racing as well; and if the idea works at Pocono, there are some other tracks that could look at Daily Doubles to reinvigorate interest in their events.