Pocono wants IndyCar to return but series hasn’t responded

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LONG POND, Pennsylvania – Pocono Raceway President Ben May and CEO Nick Igdalsky are emphatic that they want the 2.5-mile triangle-shaped speedway to remain part of the NTT IndyCar Series schedule.

INDYCAR officials, however, have not responded and as of Saturday night, have not met with either May or Igdalsky fueling speculation that Sunday’s ABC Supply 500 may be the last time Indy cars compete at the legendary track that was designed and built specifically for this type of racing.

IndyCar racing dates all the way back to the track’s opening in 1971.

Pocono’s time with Indy car racing has had several challenges. It was a major race on the schedule from 1971 to 1989, but after the ’89 race, the sanctioning body at that time, CART, dropped Pocono from its schedule.

It did not return until the current INDYCAR sanctioning body added it to the 2013 schedule.

“Nick and I would like to have IndyCar back and undoubtedly, it’s in their court right now,” May told NBC Sports.com Saturday. “If it’s not in the cards, we are ok. We hate it for the fans. That is the most disappointing part; if this was their last opportunity to see IndyCar racing, it’s a shame we wouldn’t have been able to tell them that.”

May and Igdalsky have said there has been double-digit growth every year in attendance. INDYCAR CEO Mark Miles and some series team owners, however, don’t believe the crowds of about 20,000 to 25,000 big enough to return.

INDYCAR is considering replacing this event with a race at Richmond International Raceway – a three-quarter-mile short track that hosted the IndyCar Series from 2001-2009.

“We’re a little bit up on attendance from last year and based on the forecast for Sunday, which looks decent,” May said. “I would anticipate the crowd to be up.

“The race is sponsored, and the crowd should be up.”

Next year, both of Pocono’s NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series races will be held on the same weekend in June, creating a double-header. That could make an IndyCar Series weekend even more attractive to Northeastern race fans in 2020.

“We treat all of our events equally,” May said. “We treat IndyCar, the same as we treat NASCAR. We’re treating the Air Show next weekend the same as we treat IndyCar. We don’t play that game. We treat everybody the same.

“If IndyCar is not in the cards, this company and this family won’t lay down and say, ‘Well, we’ll just have one Cup weekend and that will be it.’ Maybe it won’t be racing but something else.

“But we would love to have an amazing schedule with a race in June, a race in July and a race in August.”

May said INDYCAR has yet to request another meeting before Sunday’s ABC Supply 500 NTT IndyCar Series race. However on Sunday, both INDYCAR CEO Mark Miles and INDYCAR Vice President Stephen Starks arrived at the track. When asked about whether INDYCAR would return to Pocono, Miles told NBC Sports.com, “Let’s see what today’s crowd looks like.”

Igdalsky later told NBC Sports.com that he met with Starks and indicated that he was “sincere” in his attitude involving Pocono Raceway’s situation.

Pocono is even willing to be part of a three-race rotation in the Northeast including Watkins Glen International and Richmond International Raceway. Under that arrangement, each track would rotate a race date on the IndyCar Series schedule, meaning IndyCar would compete at that track once every three years.

“Stephen was asking me for more details on the rotation and wanted to talk to me some more regarding that,” Igdalsky told NBC Sports.com.

Starks also spoke briefly with NBC Sports.com and said, “We haven’t said anything yet because we haven’t made a final decision yet. The schedule remains to be finalized and we are in the process of coming to a decision.”

Some of the critics think Indy cars have outgrown Pocono Raceway and the speeds are too fast for safety. But auto racing has always had an inherent amount of danger, which is part of its dark allure.

“This is a very fast, very dangerous game that everybody plays,” May said. “The show is amazing. It’s a great show.

“Unfortunately, it has some very sad times.”

One of those came in the 2015 NTT IndyCar Series race when Justin Wilson was killed after the nosecone from Sage Karam’s crashed car hit him in the helmet. He died the next day.

Another came in last year’s ABC Supply 500 when Robert Wickens because paralyzed from the waist down after a horrific crash in Turn 2 that launched him into the tire fence. Wickens survived and had made remarkable recovery in his rehabilitation.

The drivers, however, look fear in the eye and don’t flinch at Pocono.

“I love this track,” said 2013 Pocono winner and five-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon. “We haven’t probably had the best runs in the last couple years, but that’s what makes it so good when you do get it right. It’s very difficult to get the combination with one and three correct, feel comfortable around the circuit.

“I hope we do come back. We just have to wait and see, I guess.”

Will Power is a two-time Pocono winner with back-to-back victories in 2016 and 2017. He was second at Pocono last year.

“I love the track,” Power told NBC Sports.com “I love it. Obviously, it’s always a proud moment when you win a race. If you win back-to-back 500-milers, it’s a big deal.

“It’s a cool track. I feel like the more ovals, the better for me. I really enjoy them. It would kind of be disappointing if it went away. Obviously, I had nothing to do with that. It’s obviously INDYCAR negotiating.

“Hopefully I can get another one.”

May believes that auto racing is unlike stick-and-ball sports because fans can attend a baseball or football game and still have part of the day to do other things. Auto racing, however, is usually an all-day affair where crowds travel from a great distance to get to the track, spend hours watching the race, then have to travel the same distance home.

“One-third of the US population lives within 300 miles of Pocono Raceway,” May said. “That is a fact. Why they are not here in droves? I don’t have that answer.

“Our marketing is strong. We put equal marketing in this race as we do the NASCAR race. No doubt, IndyCar has shown impressive growth and growth is real. And we like being part of it.

“All we continue to say is we would like to see them here next year.”

Newgarden, Rossi ready for a red-white-and-blue INDYCAR finale

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MONTEREY, California – In an international series that personifies diversity from all over the globe, the two main combatants in the 2019 NTT IndyCar Series championship are from the United States.

Josef Newgarden of Tennessee takes a 41-point lead over Alexander Rossi of Northern California into Sunday’s double-points season finale at WeatherTech Raceway at Laguna Seca. This year’s Indianapolis 500 winner, Simon Pagenaud of France, is just 42 points out of the lead.

It’s been quite a while since the two drivers entering the final race of the season were both Americans. Four of the top 10 drivers in the series are from the United States. Last year, five of the top 10 were from the USA.

All but one race in the 17-race NTT IndyCar Series schedule is contested in the United States.

Patriotism still matters in IndyCar.

“I think so,” said Andretti Autosport driver Rossi, who is the last American driver to win the Indianapolis 500 in 2016. “I know I’ve read a lot of things from other drivers saying, ‘It doesn’t matter, it’s not important, no one cares.’

“I can’t really get onboard with that.

“I think me as an American, growing up, being a fan of the Olympics and everything, like you cheer for Americans, right? That’s what you do as a patriotic person. Canadians cheer for James. We see the Swedish contingent that comes to the races for Marcus Ericsson and Felix Rosenqvist.

Getty Images“I think Americans will cheer for Americans. I would love to see an American to win the championship. I think it’s important for the young kids watching hoping to be IndyCar drivers one day, that they see someone who grew up in Tennessee or California or wherever. It’s like, there’s a lot of relate-ability to that for a young kid with aspirations of being a racecar driver.”

Since Sam Hornish, Jr. won the final of his three IndyCar Series championships in 2006, just two American drivers have won the title – Ryan Hunter-Reay in 2012 and Newgarden in 2017. During that span, Scott Dixon of New Zealand won four of his five NTT IndyCar Series championships and Dario Franchitti of Scotland won all four of his IndyCar titles.

The last time two Americans had a chance to win the championship in the final race of the season came in 2001 when Hornish won the championship over Colorado’s Buddy Lazier. Connecticut’s Scott Sharp was third and Arizona’s Billy Boat was fourth in the final standings that year.

That was a much different time and place for IndyCar. At that time, many of the top drivers were in CART while the old Indy Racing League featured a predominantly American lineup. Once unification brought the two sides together in 2008, the championships have been fought on American soil, but international drivers were victorious.

The last time two American drivers finished 1-2 in CART was 1996 when Jimmy Vasser of California defeated Pennsylvania’s Michael Andretti for the crown. In 1992, Bobby Rahal of Illinois defeated Andretti and Al Unser, Jr. of New Mexico for the CART title.

Prior to that, the IndyCar “National Championship” was dominated by drivers from the United States.

 

While Rossi openly choose to wrap himself in the American flag, it’s not as important to Newgarden.

“For me, it’s never been something I put a lot of emphasis on,” said the Team Penske driver. “I’m proud to have grown up in such a wonderful country as the United States, but what I’ve always loved about the IndyCar Series is that they bring the best of the best from around the world. That’s always been important to me.

“It means more I think when you have the best from all over the place coming to compete at the Indianapolis 500, during the whole championship. You really feel like you have that in the IndyCar Series. You get the best drivers from around the world.

“To pair with that, I think we need strong Americans running, as well. So for sure, having guys like Alex and Graham Rahal, some young guys coming up like Colton Herta, myself, it’s really great to have young American competition representing as well and running so strongly.

“What I’ve always loved is the great mix of talent from around the world. To me that’s just so important. If it was all Americans running in the championship, I don’t think it would mean as much. I like that we have that great diversity and that great mix from around the world.”

Although these two drivers are both from the USA, they are fierce rivals. They have mutual respect for each other, but they sure aren’t considered close friends.

“Josef and I honestly aren’t that close,” Rossi admitted. “He never lived in Indy when I moved here, or he was just moving. I actually never really hung out with Josef.

“We obviously have a lot of respect for each other. We raced together for a short period of time in Europe. We have a lot of mutual friends.

“Josef and I don’t talk or socialize really. So, it doesn’t have any impact.”

Newgarden agrees that these two men choose to embrace the rivalry.

“I think it’s just really business,” Newgarden said. “He lives in Indianapolis. I live in Nashville. I don’t see him too often outside of the racetrack. We go and we compete. He’s a great competitor. He’s definitely a tremendous talent, has done a great job in his career.

“It’s been a good, competitive relationship I would say.”

With the return of American drivers capable of winning races, championships and Indianapolis 500s, it has sparked a rejuvenation in IndyCar racing. With drivers from all over the world fighting it out for glory, this series that was born and bred in the United States can take pride in featuring some of the best racing in the world as the series continues to grow in popularity.

“I think we just need to continue a focus on our product,” Rossi said. “I think we have the best race product on the planet in terms of entertainment, the variance of winners that we have throughout a season, how many guys are capable, teams are capable of winning races.

“But that’s an ever-moving target. I think IndyCar has done a good job of placing the priority on that. I just think we need to continue doing that and everything will be moving in the right direction.”