For better or worse, the first NASCAR doubleheader Cup weekend races are now in the rearview mirror, presumably closer than they might appear. Given the novelty of the idea of hosting two Cup races at the same track in a single weekend, it seemed that NASCAR and their network “partners” went out of their way to confuse the fans concerning what in blazes was going on at the track I will always and forever refuse to call “the Tricky Triangle,” a name simply too cartoonish to bear repeating.
First, NASCAR decided that the Saturday and Sunday races should be of different lengths, with Saturday’s event 325 miles in length but Sunday’s event a 350-miler. In their defense, NASCAR officialdom didn’t choose to run Saturday’s race in the traditional counter-clockwise direction but throw the teams a curveball by making the drivers compete in the opposite direction on Sunday.
OK, a 25 mile difference in race length is only 10 laps at Pocono. No big deal. But recall it was only in 2012 Pocono shortened their races from the traditional 500-mile events to 400. (Weather permitting, of course.) If you’re a high school student, eight years may seem a long time, but for folks of my age, it’s like last week … whatever the hell day this is. The change to 400-mile events was nearly universally lauded back when it happened, and in this age of ever-declining attention spans (How much longer does it actually take to type “laughing out loud” rather than LOL? NE1?), making them even shorter isn’t the worst idea.
Saturday’s Pocono Cup race was scheduled for 3:30, while Sunday’s event was slated to take the green flag at 4:00. Neither started on time. They just got to full distance in Sunday’s race before darkness would have forced them to call the race. Perhaps many of you have never attended a Pocono Cup race. (I’ve been to dozens of them as Pocono is one of my two “home tracks,” with Dover being the other.) Back in the day, what was snidely referred to as the 24 Hours of Pocono was how long it seemingly took to exit the track’s parking lot and make it back the Northeast Extension of the Pennsylvania Turnpike, or I-80 to get back to New York.
The fact that they could clear Saturday’s fans from the lot before Sunday’s fans started arriving indicates there’s been some improvement in that sense. In all seriousness, soul-sapping race day traffic is one of the leading factors fans have cited to me as their chief reason for no longer going to races. (That, ticket prices, boring races, and the quality and prices at the concession stands. It takes a special sort of indifference and ineptitude to screw up a plastic cup full of draft beer. Skimping on ice around the kegs is a great way to start.)
Not only could the powers that be not agree on a start time, but they also couldn’t agree on what channel would present each race. Saturday’s race was on the Mothership of FOX, while Sunday’s race was regulated to the cold, icy, distant planet of FS1 where programming goes to die unmourned as more and more people cut the cord. I have in on good authority (no less than Bruce Wayne) that to generate good ratings, fans must be able to find the races at the same Bat Time on the same Bat Channel. It’s a wonder the current jokers at the networks haven’t figured that out.
Again, Pocono is one of my home tracks, so I’ve always felt a measure of affection for it, and as such over the years I was surprised to learn that a good many fans don’t like the track at all. I mean, come on. If nothing else, Pocono is unique, but I suppose the 1981-83 Chrysler Imperials (The Hunchback of Highland Park) were unique as well, and they proved to be practically sales-proof in the day. Some owners insisted that in addition to the golly-gee-willikers George Jetson-era fuel injection on the Imperial’s “wow factor,” they expected the car to actually run occasionally and avoid the local dealership’s service lot for upwards of a week at a time.
It’s not like NASCAR and the track didn’t have a rich fan base to attempt to mine. Pocono is the closest track that hosts Cup races to the New York City metro area, one that includes the relatively wealthy bedroom communities in North Jersey. From most parts of the Philadelphia suburbs, it’s a tossup if a potential fan could drive to Dover or Pocono faster (except on race weekends, when the correct answer is “None of the Above”). As one of the three remaining independent tracks on the Cup schedule (the others being Dover and Indianapolis, one of which is losing a date next year and the other of which damn sure ought to), Pocono track management often seemed indifferent to marketing, as if such exercises were a bit tawdry and pedestrian.
For years, Pocono chose not to have presenting sponsors for their races, instead labeling them things like “The Pocono 500” or the “Pennsylvania 500.” If you recall watching a “Van Scoy Diamond Mines”500 at Pocono, you are now officially ancient. Pocono only had one race date annually to promote from 1974 to 1982, when the Cup schedule added a second date for the track. Few people seem to recall that full-bodied stock car racing at Pocono actually started on July 29, 1973, a year before NASCAR came calling. Some cat named Richard Petty won what was considered an exhibition race. AJ Foyt finished seventh on a day that just finishing the race was no mean feat. More than half the 40-car field failed to do so. 20,000 fans watched Petty defeat Butch Hartman by 10 seconds, then presumably headed for their cars afterward hoping traffic getting back the Turnpike wasn’t too bad. Bobby Allison was the only other big-name NASCAR driver to compete in that event, earning a 25th as a result of a broken strut rod in his No. 22R(!) Chevy. Don’t you hate when that happens? Oddly enough, the race was dubbed the Acme Super Saver 500. Acme in this case was a chain of grocery stores here in the Northeast, not the purveyor of anvils and rocket-powered roller-skates to one Wile E. Coyote.
So how did Pocono wind up such a platypus of a track with three uniquely different corners? Turn 2, the Tunnel Turn, was cut and pasted from the granddaddy of them all, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Turn 3 was modeled after the turns at the infamous Milwaukee Mile. Turn 1 (which was originally dubbed turns 1 and 2 because people just expected an oval racecourse to have four turns) was modeled after a race track that existed during that era in Trenton, N.J. Yes, there was once a big race track in Trenton, and it was a bit of a mutt itself. NASCAR held races at Trenton in 1958 and ’59, then again from 1967 to 1972 as part of the annual “Northern Tour” to escape the brutal summer heat of the southeast for a few weeks.
One issue Trenton track management faced was when they wanted to increase the track’s length from a mile to a mile and a half. The property owner next door refused to sell. Thus, Trenton was reconfigured into a kidney-shaped race track. As drivers exited turn 2, they’d hook another left toward the infield and then take a right to return to the main oval component of the track. Nowadays, the property has been repurposed into a giant UPS processing facility.
For whatever reason, the Northeast is just a magnet for oddly configured race tracks. From 1949 until 1957, the NASCAR Cup series visited a track called Langhorne, sometimes twice a year. Langhorne is best recalled as a circular race track, dirt in composition for most of its life, and a mile in length. To add to the hilarity, the frontstretch (OK, there are no stretches on a circular track, so call it the right side portion of the track) was downhill while the opposite side was uphill. There was one part of the portion of the track between what would have been turns 1 and 2 where the track leveled a bit then went slightly uphill. That portion of the track earned the charming nickname “Puke Hollow.” But racing at Langhorne was no joke. 27 drivers, spectators or race officials lost their lives at Langhorne events of various disciplines and series at the track. Larry Mann became the first driver to die while racing in NASCAR’s top division at Langhorne in 1952.
What’s up with Dover? The track started out as a fairly conventional one-mile, high-banked asphalt race track. Then someone got a hankering to repave the joint with concrete, a move that wasn’t universally applauded. Concrete is harder to level than asphalt. I only drove 20 laps at Dover as part of a Cup driving school and that was plenty to loosen every filling in my mouth. I had to sleep sitting up a bit because I couldn’t lay down for a week. The concrete surface gave Dover its then-nickname “White Lightning,” which I prefer to “the Monster Mile,” though either beats the “Tricky Triangle.”
Various Random Notes
NASCAR’s much-ballyhooed if completely inadvertent first tripleheader Sunday turned into something out of the Goldilocks fable for the fans. The day’s opening truck race was just a bit too hot with nine cautions, two red flags and fully half the race run under caution. The race started with a first lap, first corner wreck. For many fans, the Xfinity race was “just right” as long as you routinely use ground pepper on your porridge (or trespassing child burglars). The squabble between Masters Haley and Herbst probably caused them to be sent back to their coaches for a time out and nap, though. The day (into twilight) ending Cup race proved to be a bit too tepid for my tastes. The fact the closing laps featured a battle between the same two drivers in almost identical circumstances as Saturday’s content couldn’t make up for another lengthy lightning and rain delay to get the festivities started, despite NASCAR eventually re-starting the race while it was still raining. You can bet whoever made the call had never strapped himself into the driver’s seat of a race car running on slick tires.
As for lightning delays, they are an awkward but necessary procedure. Does anyone remember the name George Zimmerman? No, he’s not Bob Dylan’s younger brother. For some of you, the name will be familiar but you just won’t be able to place it. Zimmerman was the fellow killed by a bolt of lightning outside of Pocono back in 2012 just after the Cup race ended. Nine other individuals were also injured by the bolt of lightning that day. No, there were no fans at Pocono this weekend, but in this case, it’s still better to err on the side of caution as the standard operating procedure.
Talk about one of those ABC Wide World of Sports “Thrill of Victory and the Agony of Defeat” moments. A little over an hour after Brandon Jones scored his career first truck series win at Pocono, he was eliminated from the Xfinity race by a first-lap crash. So other than that how was Montana, General Custer?
Atco Dragway debuted in South Jersey in 1960. By coincidence, I debuted in the same area a year later. My parent’s first house was about a half-hour from Atco, and some of my favorite childhood memories involve my dad taking some of my friends and me to that track, particularly to see such local favorites like Jungle Jim Lieberman or Bill “Grumpy” Jenkins. Atco opened at the dawn of the muscle car era, a well-intended gesture to get the racers off the street and onto the strip. (Ultimately, Front Street and Bartram Avenue in South Philadelphia remained packed. Some drivers eliminate in early rounds at ATCO would trailer their race cars to the JFK parking lot and run them on Front Street.) When Bruce Springsteen wrote, “When the strip shuts down, we run ’em in the street, from the fire roads to the interstate” in his epic “Racing in the Streets,” he was likely thinking of Atco as another product of New Jersey.
Sadly, this week the Atco Dragway and its surrounding property were sold. The new owner has no interest in running a racetrack. Instead, the property will be used to store and eventually auction unsold new cars and rental cars. The same fate befell Englishtown in northern New Jersey not all that long ago. A sad part of the aging process is dealing with the loss of longtime friends and favorite hangouts. I’ve had to add Atco to that list this week.