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Open Wheel Wednesday: Pocono Test Important For IndyCar’s Future

There is a rather important event happening today in the world of IndyCar. No, its not a race, and it’s not a promotional event. It’s a test, one that will have massive implications on the future of IndyCar’s relationship with major American oval tracks. That test will be held at the gorgeous and historically rich Pocono Raceway, and there is no shortage of reasons why this day needs to go off without a hitch.

Now, to all the NASCAR fans that comprise the majority of motorsports fans in America today, the words “Pocono Raceway” evoke images of strung out parades and five-second margins of victory. The oft-maligned motorsports facility located in eastern Pennsylvania is routinely listed as one of the tracks that the average fan would most like to see left off the schedule. Pocono is a track with which, by and large, motorsports fans these days have little admiration or respect for.

Yet, if you were to say those words, “Pocono Raceway” to the average IndyCar fan who knows a thing or two about the sport’s evolution, a much different response would undoubtedly be uttered. Pocono has an illustrious and storied history in the world of American open-wheel racing. For 18 years (1971-‘89), Pocono Raceway served as the second leg of IndyCar’s vaunted Triple Crown, sharing this honor with two other historic facilities: Indianapolis and Michigan.

The IZOD IndyCar Series is looking to add ovals to the circuit that provide racing both as exciting and as safe as they showcase on road courses. This week’s Pocono test is a big step in that direction. Credit: INDYCAR LAT USA

Pocono was long considered a mecca of motorsports for America’s racing-starved northeast. Those who could not make the trek to Indy and Michigan could rely on Pocono to provide the big-league, big-event open-wheel racing experience that only the aforementioned two other tracks could provide. With just the right amount of banking to provide for competitive wheel-to-wheel racing, three unique driver-sensitive corners, and long straights that allowed the downforce-heavy IndyCar machines to pull slingshot passes, Pocono was perhaps the perfect open-wheel oval track. Well, until it wasn’t the perfect open-wheel oval track…

In 1990, as tensions within American open-wheel racing’s leadership grew more and more intense, Pocono was axed from the CART schedule (CART was the dominant open-wheel sanctioning body at the time) amidst safety concerns and irreconcilable differences with Pocono track ownership. With the death of the Pocono-CART combination came the death of the Triple Crown, and soon after came the death of American open-wheel racing’s life in the world of mainstream sports.

But time has a habit of healing all wounds. Last season, in a miraculous effort by former INDYCAR CEO Randy Bernard and his team, the series managed to bury the hatchet with Pocono ownership, led by new President Brandon Igdalsky thus finally allowing for a return of major league open-wheel racing to the track. Coupled with Indianapolis and the new race at Auto Club Speedway, the addition of Pocono has created a new Triple Crown of sorts, one that evokes memories of the golden era of American open-wheel racing.

Perhaps more importantly, the return of Pocono to the schedule is a sign to other oval facilities that IndyCar is a viable, safe, and worthwhile series to partner with. After all, it was only due to the sterling safety record of the DW12 chassis along with capital improvements to the Pocono Raceway facility that this move was allowed to happen. It’s now pretty easy to see why this week’s test needs to go off without a hitch.

Today’s showcase, which will feature drivers Marco Andretti, Dario Franchitti, Simon Pagenaud, and Will Power, is by far the most important test of any kind that IndyCar has held since the 2008 reunification of the sport. Everything about this test must go off perfectly. IndyCar must take pains to develop an aero package based on this test in order to provide for the type of safe excitement we know is possible for this style of racetrack (see the 2012 Indy 500 to see what I’m talking about). The drivers have to give the teams razor sharp feedback to ensure that they have all of the necessary data needed to make the race competitive. Firestone must work with the teams to develop a safe and proper-wearing tire.

Does all that sound a bit harsh? Maybe a bit too demanding? It should, because that is what it is going to take to ensure the future success of this sport. The results of this test will determine what kind of race unfolds on July 7th, when the IZOD IndyCar Series returns to the facility for the main event, and the outcome of that race will determine whether or not other oval tracks follow Pocono’s lead in making a return to the IndyCar scene. If the July 7th race is exciting, competitive, and, most importantly, safe, it will act as a green light to oval circuits around the nation that IndyCar is worth working with again. A good, safe race will perhaps coax former tracks such as Michigan and Phoenix, who are both reportedly on the fence about a return to IndyCar, that they should in fact go through with making their return in 2014. If the big tracks return, the TV networks will take notice, and from there the benefits will only keep multiplying. Is this “domino effect” all starting to make sense now?

It’s not difficult to see that much is riding on today’s test. The ball is squarely in IndyCar’s court, and if this sanctioning body has any hope of returning to the many oval tracks that helped build the sport in the first place, anything short of a rousing success today will have to be considered unacceptable.

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