NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Beside the Rising Tide: Pocono, NASCAR’s Problem Child Speedway

Say what you will about Pocono Raceway and the “unique” challenges it offers both racers and meteorologists, but I’ve never heard it called a “cookie cutter” layout like all those 1.5-mile tri-ovals modeled after Charlotte that now dominate the Cup schedule the way dandelions take over a spring time lawn.

I’ve been following this sport long enough. I have old fan and media guides that show the track having four corners with what we now refer to as turn 1 labeled as turns 1 and 2. If that turn is in fact just one turn, a reasonable argument can be made that Martinsville Speedway has just two 180-degree corners. But again, if it is nothing else, Pocono is unique.

The track is claimed (blamed) to be designed by Indy 500 winner Roger Ward. Turn 1 (or 1 and 2 if you prefer) was modeled after the long-since-defunct Trenton Speedway (a bit unique in of itself as it was kidney bean-shaped), turn 2 — the infamous Tunnel Turn — was modeled after Indianapolis and turn 3 after Milwaukee’s Magic Mile.

Pocono first hosted a USAC (then the sanctioning body for what we call Indy Cars today) race in 1971. Local fans could either cheer on the Andretti clan from nearby Nazareth (as in Pennsylvania, not the Holy Land) or the Penske bunch out of Newtown Square, PA, about 70 miles southwest of the track (and my hometown, coincidentally). Mark Donahue, driving a Penske McLaren/Offenhauser, won that first Indy car-type race at Pocono, and the partisan crowd left delighted … at least until they got caught in the hopeless traffic nightmare that was then the Lehigh Tunnel of Pennsylvania’s pockmarked, much disliked and overpriced turnpike.

The tracks founders, Drs. Rose and Joe Mattioli, entered into talks with Bill France about hosting a NASCAR race at the track. France, under whose tutelage NASCAR was thriving, was delighted to have a premiere race in the heavily populated (and relatively affluent) northeast, and the Cup regulars began racing at Pocono on Aug. 4, 1974.

Richard Petty won that race and no one was greatly surprised. In that era, predicting Petty was going to win a stock car was like saying that likely it would get dark out after sunset. In 30 starts at the track, Petty won twice, posted 12 top 10-finishes and led 497 laps. David Pearson, Petty’s closest competition in that era, won at Pocono in 1975, and the King claimed top honors again in 1976. Petty suffered a horrific crash at Pocono in 1980 that left him with a broken neck that could easily have paralyzed him.

In 1982, Pocono started hosting two Cup dates a season, known at least locally as the June race and the July race (which sometimes took place in August). There was some consternation as to whether the two races — held typically about six weeks apart — were too close together to allow for good ticket sales as the bruising to a race fan’s wallet after buying June tickets hadn’t subsided much by July.

Records indicate that both those races in 1982 entertained 68,000 fans a piece. If they were Bobby Allison fans they were well entertained, as Allison swept both races at Pocono in 1982, and went on to back those wins up with a win in the June race of 1983. A first-lap crash (he had tire going down) at Pocono in 1989 ended Allison’s career as a driver and almost took his life.

The late Dale Earnhardt Sr. won just twice at Pocono. Earnhardt was battling for Rookie of the Year honors at Pocono in 1979 when he lost his brakes going into turn 1 and slammed into and over Tim Richmond’s car. Injuries he suffered in that wreck kept Earnhardt out of the next four Cup races and any possible title contention.

A less recalled incident involving Earnhardt occurred at Pocono in 1999. Earnhardt was leading on the last lap of the June race that year, but Jeremy Mayfield put a bumper to Earnhardt in the final turn, getting the seven-time champion sideways enough that Dale Jarrett and Ricky Rudd got around him for second and third, respectively, as well. Mayfield won the race and Earnhardt finished fourth.

In Victory Lane, Mayfield said he hadn’t meant to spin Earnhardt, he just wanted to “rattle his cage a little,” parroting Earnhardt’s comments about a similar incident with Terry Labonte during the Bristol Night race. That race at Pocono was held on a Monday after Biblical downpours forced the race to be delayed on Sunday. Trust me, the weather that Sunday at Pocono was about as miserable as any I have ever endured at a race track, perhaps because I was standing atop a platform mounted to my old F150 in the infield hoping my dumb ass (or Coors Light can) wasn’t about to get struck by lightning. Of course, they called the race and an hour later the sun was shining like we’d been transported to Narnia.

One of the politer terms I’ve heard used to describe Pocono is “unconventional.” Odd as the layout might be at Pocono, some drivers seem to have no problems adapting to it. Denny Hamlin won his first career Cup race at Pocono in the June 2006 race, backing up that win with another in the July race of the same year.

One of the challenges facing young drivers heading into Pocono (whose last names aren’t Hamlin) is they’d often not turned a single lap at the track prior to that race weekend. Pocono didn’t start hosting Truck Series races until 2010 and didn’t start running Xfinity-style races until 2016, so rookie Cup drivers had no personal experience to fall back on at Pocono.

Some tried to learn about the track’s unique challenges by moonlighting in the ARCA Series, which began running races at Pocono in 1987 and has hosted two ARCA events annually since the following year. Then up-and-coming Penske driver Ryan Newman won an ARCA race at Pocono in 2000. To do so, he had a lay a bumper to and wreck ARCA series regular Bob Strait. The move was so blatant that Roger Penske felt compelled to buy Strait a new race car.

It wasn’t just rookies that decided to slip in a practice run prior to their first Cup race at Pocono, either. On July 29, 1973, Pocono hosted a stock car race sanctioned by USAC, not NASCAR, the Acme Super Saver 500. With Pocono rumored to be on the following year’s Cup schedule, Petty ran in that event. He must have figured out the nuances of the triangular track rather quickly because he won that race. 

Newer fans to the sport may not realize that USAC (the folks who ran what we now car the Indy Car series) ran their own, somewhat successful stock car racing series there for a while. During the Ford and Chrysler NASCAR boycotts of the mid 1960s, and NASCAR banning the aero-cars (think Ford Talladegas, Dodge Daytonas, and Plymouth Superbirds) in 1971, USAC was popular enough that it could have overtaken NASCAR racing if the people in charge played their cards better. Bill France was never a big fan of competition to his sanctioning body. The USAC stock cars never ran at Pocono again once France gave the track a NASCAR Cup date. 

Since its early days, traffic is a problem that has bedeviled fans who attend races at the Pocono track. Things got markedly better in 1991 (at least for fans who lived south of the traffic in Philly and its suburbs) when a second tunnel was opened in the Lehigh Tunnel Complex. Prior to 1991, the sole tunnel had one northbound lane and one southbound lane through the same tunnel separated by little more than painted lines and a few traffic cones for a while. Even on winter weekends, skiers headed to the slopes in the Poconos often found themselves in gridlocked traffic at the tunnel, to say nothing of the madness that transpired on the two race weekends.

I’ve read polls where a lot of fans feel Pocono should be cut back to a single date annually or not be able to host a NASCAR race at all. A lot of those fans seem to indicate race day traffic as one of the reasons they choose not to attend races at the track. Obviously as “a local,” I’d prefer to see the track keep both dates, and I’d point out race day traffic is no picnic at any NASCAR sanctioned track I’ve ever attended. As far back at the 1980s, racing visionary T. Wayne Robertson of RJR (a.k.a. Winston, as in Winston Cup) warned Bill France that traffic headaches would kill off or at least greatly hinder the sport’s then explosive growth eventually.

Perhaps Pocono came along a few decades too early. In later years, the track would have been dubbed “the New York-land Speedway,” to highlight its relatively close proximity to the one of the biggest and most populous cities in the country. If you’ve ever made the trek from the Windy City to the Joliet race track, you know it’s no hop, skip and jump between Chicago and Chicagoland. Tracks were constructed and given dates because of their proximity to LA, Dallas and Miami as well. But in the end, New York City is the one place in America that doesn’t seem to have a love affair going on with the car like most places from sea to shining sea here in the US of. The costs of owning a car, getting a place to park it and the sheer hassle of constantly fighting gridlock have sent generations of New Yorkers curbside waving for a bright yellow taxi, or nowadays typing madly on their cell phones for an Uber. Given New York’s politicians’ extreme environmental agenda, I don’t see the city ever welcoming a race track there (though a few have been proposed) or adopting a car-crazy culture like LA.

While I’m sure they’re doing their best, I have been less than impressed with Pocono’s marketing efforts. It used to be in the days and weeks leading up to the Pocono race, even non-fans couldn’t escape the fact the circus was coming to town. There were ads during Action News 6. There were posters and specials all over the Acme grocery stores (with some promotions offering discounted tickets) and in the Wawas. They seem to be hanging their hat on it, but personally, I’ll never refer to the Pocono track as the Tricky Triangle. The Tricky Triangle sounds like a track where Dick Dastardly might put the chrome horn to Penelope Pitstop in the Tunnel Turn.

To whatever poor individual got the job of running around victory lane dressed in a furry fox costume and headpiece proclaiming himself “Tricky the Fox” in the heat of Pocono summer weekends, you poor son of a bitch. We’re approaching full employment, there must be some other job that pays the same but allows more comfortable working conditions, and perhaps allows you at least a shred of dignity when asked what you do.

Like I said, I don’t have the answers. Perhaps a marketing strategy that tells people, “Pocono race traffic doesn’t suck near as badly as it used to. Based on police statistics, you’re 10 percent less likely to get shot in a road rage incident fighting over a parking spot at the Wawa before the race. And the Lehigh Valley Hospital’s trauma unit is eons better at treating traffic accident injuries and gunshots than it once was. Practice makes perfect.”

As of yet, Pocono hasn’t lost a date, much less both of them. But starting in 2020, both of Pocono’s Cup races will run not in consecutive months but on consecutive days, one on Saturday and one on Sunday. If nothing else, that’s a bold experiment (not the first term that comes to mind). Throw in the NXS race, the Truck race and a pair of ARCA races and you’ve got six races over the weekend, not to mention practice and qualifying for each event. Weather permitting, naturally.

I find it interesting that NASCAR decided to hold the bold experiment at Pocono. Perhaps it’s worth noting that Pocono is one of three race tracks currently on the Cup schedule that’s not owned by either the ISC (read the France family) or SMS (read Bruton Smith and clan). The other two are Indianapolis and Dover. You have to wonder why the France family (which runs NASCAR as well as the ISC) didn’t decide to conduct the experiment at one of their tracks — I’m thinking Michigan or Phoenix — rather than Pocono. I can tell you they wouldn’t dare run that sort of schedule by the powers that be at SMS. If they did, there’d be platoons of lawyers from Charlotte parachuting into Daytona Beach by dawn the following day armed to the hilt ready to have turn some habeas into corpses.

We’ll just have to wait and see how things turn out with the doubleheader weekend. Obviously, there will be some people who benefit from the change. For the teams it means one less haul up north (presuming they don’t have to send a truck back to the shop overnight on Saturday to pick up another backup car) and an extra weekend off. For the TV folks, they can set up at the track once to capture two races. Owners of nearby hotels, motels and campgrounds, which typically have minimum night stays anyway, will likely not be pleased, nor will folks I know up in the Poconos who rent out their homes on race weekends. Logistics as far as law enforcement overtime, vendor restocking, supplies, EMTs and traffic control will likely take a few years to perfect for potential doubleheader weekends.

Presuming that the experiment or in fact even NASCAR racing at Pocono continues past next year. Starting in 2021, NASCAR has more freedom to change or delete tracks from the schedule (and to redesign the cars). As always, my main concern is with the fans themselves. While ticket sales were said to be up for this weekend’s Pocono race over last year’s June race, at a track as big as Pocono, there were still obvious large swathes of unsold seats. Sunday’s race received poor marks from fans who voted in Jeff Gluck’s weekly “Was It a Good Race?” poll. TV ratings for the event, which went off without a hitch from the weather causing any delays despite a dire race day forecast, were down again at Pocono to 1.4 from a 1.6 in 2018, and less than half or what the ratings were five years ago when the race was on TNT.

There’s an old Arab curse, “May you always live in interesting times.” It might seem a blessing at first but the gist of the sentiment is may you live in constant uncertainty, turmoil, upset and unexpected circumstances. These are in fact interesting times up at Pocono.

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Bill B

I hope there is always at least one race a year at Pocono. It is unique and I think it would benefit NASCAR if there was only one race at every track (although I will selfishly exclude Martinsville, it isn’t that close to me but I love those races). So if they want a 36 race season have 36 different tracks. I’d even accept a “roval” type deal at tracks that can and allow those tracks to host two races.

BTW… nice move there showing you’re not too old to be out of touch with modern times by mentioning Uber.

Was this article supposed to be released last Tuesday? It seems a week late.

iceman202290

Watch NASCAR’s best conquer 36 tracks over 36 weeks, who will be crowned champion?

I like that idea and to me you can really market it. I like Pocono too, it’s a different type of race. It involves a ton of strategy and luck by the team to win a race at the tricky triangle. Although with stage breaks that has kind of killed some of the strategy regarding fuel mileage, however, still lot of strategy play. We had guys Sunday take no tires, 2 tires, 4 tires prior to that final caution all hoping to have the right strategy. It looked like Harvick may have had the race winning calling with 2 tires till his pit crew failed him yet agian….boy they are lucky a mechanical failure occurred on that 4 car. SHR really needs to do something to correct that teams pit woes.

Bill B

With regards to going back to a 36 race season (and ditching the chase) they could also market it by calling it “Classic NASCAR”. Hey, it worked for Coca Cola.

iceman202290

History does like to repeat itself

DoninAjax

Bobby’s career ended in 1988. There are some dates you don’t forget, like April 7, 1968 or October 24, 1985.

Tony

Without using “The Google”, Jim Clark and Richie Evans, right?

DoninAjax

Yes. F1 hasn’t been the same and the day the Modifieds died, at Martinsville of all places.

Carl D.

Pocono is a race I can take or leave. Yeah, it’s unique, but it rarely puts on a barnburner of a race. Maybe I’m just not remembering any. Regardless, like Bill B. I do hope that they do keep at least one race at Pocono. Despite the traffic, the Poconos are a nice escape from the summer heat here in famously hot SC.

wildcats2016

love the idea of going back to “NASCAR classic” for the championship and laughed quite a lot at the line “Dick Dastardly might put the chrome horn to Penelope Pitstop in the Tunnel Turn”.

SMIFF TV

Earnhardt’s crash with Richmond was in ’82 and Allison’s career-ender was in ’88.

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