For centuries, the Bermuda Triangle has proven a graveyard for the best of man and machine, both in the air and on sea. Some 1,100 miles to the northwest, the Pocono Raceway is doing its best impression of its more famous brethren, rendering the best efforts of some of the most proactive promotion and management in NASCAR racing utterly moot.
This weekend marked the first time in seven years that I’ve covered races at the Tricky Triangle, and much has changed. Fortunately, one thing that hasn’t is the hospitality through which Doc Mattioli made the place famous. The signage entering the track under the tunnel turn reads “Welcome to Doc’s Place,” and the staff at Pocono still lives up to that moniker. Be it the credentials staff who proactively aided me through a paperwork error Friday, to the security that hold the door for those of us entering the media center, one would easily mistake themselves for being down South despite being within mere hours of Philadelphia.
But for all that Mattioli did to make Pocono a fixture on the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series circuit, the efforts of Brandon and Nick Igdalsky have demonstrated a proactivity and anticipation that have brought Pocono into the 21st century. Under their watch since 2011, much of the facility was modernized; large expanses of SAFER barrier were installed on the Long Pond Straightaway where they were sorely needed (just ask Steve Park), solar panels were installed to handle the track’s demand for power during race weekends and, on a personal note, I can confirm that the WiFi has greatly improved both in terms of speed and reliability.
What’s more, each of the Igdalskys have demonstrated a recognition of need to address what has often been a lacking on-track product. Brandon led the track through a well-received change to 400-mile Cup races during the 2012 season that ended more than three decades of annual 500-mile events. Fast forward to this season, and Nick was proactive in dealing with a poorly received June race that was arguably the worst of the package era, implementing advancing rubbering and use of the PJ1 traction compound throughout the track’s three turns.
Sadly, for all those efforts, two races into the July race weekend and there’s been no discernible improvement on the track. Despite having two 150-mile races under its belt that could not have been more different (Friday’s ARCA Menards Series race went green the entire way and saw two cars light years ahead of the field, while Saturday’s Gander Outdoors Truck Series event proved an early wreck-fest that saw half of the first stage run under caution), the track prep did nothing to improve the racing seen on track.
Christian Eckes won Friday’s event by more than 10 seconds over Todd Gilliland, who ran away from the field for the first 30 laps and was derailed only by a driver penalty. Ross Chastain proved untouchable out front on Saturday despite, as the FOX booth noted, not being on the radar screen of anyone in the garage.
Both races resembled parades, which raises real questions as to whether tomorrow’s Gander RV 400 will show any improvement over June’s disappointing Cup race.
Those on-track observations cast a shadow over Saturday’s announcement of the 2020 Cup schedule for Pocono Raceway, a much-anticipated doubleheader that will be a first for Cup racing in the modern era.
Pocono 2020 schedule. First Cup race tentatively 350 miles: pic.twitter.com/Sw4XilZRLb
— Bob Pockrass (@bobpockrass) July 27, 2019
That this doubleheader is coming to Pocono is again a testament to the leadership of CEO Nick Igdalsky; with the 2021 schedule likely to feature revamping that could easily see Pocono lose a second race date, the track instead is rolling the dice that a jam-packed ticket that will feature ARCA, Truck, the NASCAR Xfinity Series and two Cup races will bring the fans in. In terms of value, if it gets the pricing right, it’s a solid idea.
The problem, though, is not the schedule, the intent or the track management. It’s the track itself.
Because for all its quirks and the brilliant #WhatTurn4 marketing slogan, the reality is that Pocono is not built to put on the entertainment-first type of stock car racing to which the Cup Series is catering itself.
This is hardly surprising. Look at the three tracks that Pocono was built to resemble. While Trenton Speedway featured sufficient banking for stock cars, the other two-thirds of the racetrack resemble the Milwaukee Mile, a 1-mile flat track that’s hosted only one stock car race of any kind in the last eight years, and Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the track that hosted without debate the worst Cup Series race ever run that didn’t involve a driver fatality.
The brutal truth. Indy has never played nice with stock cars. Trenton doesn’t exist anymore. And the ability to use the bumper that made racing at Milwaukee work doesn’t exist at Pocono, thanks to the speeds that come along with a track over two miles long. Not to mention the inherent issue a triangle poses to a grandstand (Note to those that haven’t been to Pocono before, sit as high as you can and bring binoculars).
Pocono is a truly unique racetrack, and any driver will echo that. Speaking to Grant Enfinger before Saturday’s Truck Series race, the former ARCA winner at Pocono noted the track “is so different than everywhere else that we run on the schedule… you don’t run it like the other tracks. You have to have points that you constantly look at.”
While that creates a truly unique driving challenge, what it doesn’t do is jive with NASCAR’s new move toward full-throttle, high-downforce racing. The track’s narrow tunnel turn and flat corner in turn 3 rendered the Cup cars’ package unable to provide the close-quarters racing that has thrived on cookie cutters such as Kansas Speedway and Chicagoland Speedway.
What’s more, Enfinger speculated that the PJ1 that proved to be a saving grace for New Hampshire Motor Speedway last weekend may never work at Pocono. While stressing he’s not an expert, Enfinger hypothesized that the length of the Pocono track, combined with the width of its racing surface, would make it very hard for sufficient heat to be built into the compound to make it activate. Two races into this weekend, he’s looking sufficiently expert.
With viable questions raised as to whether the tapered spacers and track compounds that have defined Cup racing in 2019 can ever put on a show at Pocono, let’s come back to the 2020 doubleheader schedule that was announced this weekend. As expected, the Cup Series race distance has been shortened, with the weekend’s Sunday race confirmed as being 350 miles in length.
This is not a bad thing. For one, Pocono, as with any other track with multiple dates, should host races of different distances. The problem is it’s hard to imagine cutting the race distance to 350 miles is going to make any difference in the on-track product. After all, Friday’s ARCA race and Saturday’s Truck race were short 150-milers plagued with the same problems June’s 400-mile Cup race had. The first stage of the Truck Series race strung out to the point the top 10 was separated by nearing 10 seconds despite being green for only eight laps before the stage break. Friday’s ARCA race saw the only viable challenge to the leader being passed on the track come on lap two. There likely isn’t a race distance out there that’s going to create more side-by-side racing on this triangle.
There’s also the added problem that any urgency NASCAR hopes to capitalize on with shorter race distances is going to go out the window next year at Pocono, because the teams are going to be required to use the same car for both races (FOX’s Bob Pockrass tweeted that teams involved in a wreck would be allowed to use a backup for the second race). How is any driver going to be expected to run balls to the wall in the first Cup race on Saturday if it means their team is going to have to overnight prep a backup for Sunday? Besides, the Cup Series ain’t ARCA; I don’t think it’ll be as forgiving as ARCA was with Wayne Peterson Racing on Friday.
— Frontstretch (@Frontstretch) July 26, 2019
The field inversion that NASCAR is going to utilize between the two Cup races is also likely to ring hollow, though that one won’t fall on Pocono’s shoulders. For one, I can’t count on my fingers and toes the number of times I’ve seen Kyle Busch, Kyle Larson and Martin Truex, Jr. find their way from 40th to the top 10 in less than a stage worth of racing. And second, as I observed at Kansas a few months ago, the backmarker cars in the Cup field are already voluntarily dropping to the back of the pack with the blessing of race officials. Inversion will mean nothing at this level of racing.
I don’t want to rain on this announcement too much, because as much as I find the doubleheader diminishes the feature race concept, Pocono and NASCAR both deserve credit for trying this out. It mirrors long-standing short track practices and has the potential to deliver real value for race fans that deserve bang for their buck. The problem is I don’t think there’s a race format out there that’s going to create the show NASCAR or fans want on the Tricky Triangle.
If the goal is to challenge drivers, Pocono is the definition of mission accomplished. If the goal is a show to rival what’s been seen at Kansas, Charlotte or Chicago this year, it’s time to find Pocono a turn 4 and adopt an oval configuration more conducive to side-by-side racing. At the very least, it’s time to shorten the triangle down and reduce the width of the straightaways, bringing the cars closer together and the fans in the stands closer to the race.
I’m saying it now: the Tricky Triangle needs a makeover.
Saturday’s announcement set the 2020 Cup doubleheader in stone. Fortunately for all involved, Pocono Raceway is not. Set on an enormous campus with enough space for its infield to constitute back-country hiking, there’s ample room for Pocono to innovate and renovate the racetrack itself.
A massive undertaking, no doubt. But there’s not a track management team in NASCAR racing I’d rather have taking on such a task.