Why INDYCAR and Pocono Raceway need each other

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LONG POND, Pennsylvania – As the winner of Sunday’s rain-shortened ABC Supply 500 at Pocono Raceway, Team Penske driver Will Power may go down as the last IndyCar winner at a historic track that was designed and built specifically for Indy cars in 1971.

Ironically, the first-ever “Shaefer 500” at Pocono Raceway on July 3, 1971 was the first time famed team owner Roger Penske won an IndyCar race. It was also the late Mark Donohue’s first-ever IndyCar win and the first IndyCar win for McLaren as Penske Racing and Donohue were running a McLaren that season.

It became a Pennsylvania sweep that day as the winning car was sponsored by the Sun Oil Company, located in Philadelphia at that time.

That it served as a launching pad and the first Indy car win for the winningest team in IndyCar history is historic unto itself. As the latest Team Penske driver to win perhaps the last IndyCar race ever at the 2.5-mile, triangle-shaped speedway, NBC Sports.com asked Power his thoughts on Team Penske opening and closing the IndyCar history at Pocono.

“I really hope it’s not the last Pocono race for IndyCar,” Power told NBC Sports.com. “I really, really hope it’s not the last one. I really hope we come back. Obviously, it’s something pretty cool that Roger Penske won the first and last race here at Pocono.

“Even if we took a year off, I can’t see us not racing at Pocono.”

Pocono’s contract with INDYCAR expired at the end of the ABC Supply 500. Pocono Raceway officials, led by CEO Nick Igdalsky and President Ben May, both enthusiastically want to remain on the INDYCAR schedule.

INDYCAR CEO Mark Miles, however, has never been satisfied with the attendance for the 500-mile race at Pocono and appears to be closing in on a deal to return the series to Richmond International Raceway. That’s a three-quarter-mile short track that hosted IndyCar races from 2001 to 2009.

Although there was promise for IndyCar in the Mid-Atlantic region during that time, the racing package at that time did not lead to interesting racing on the short track.

In 2003, Scott Dixon started on the pole and led every lap of a 206-lap race that featured zero lead changes. There was just one lead change in Sam Hornish, Jr’s Richmond win in 2006, two lead chances in Dari Franchitti’s win in 2007 and three lead changes in each of the final two IndyCar races at Richmond.

In 2009, second-place finisher Dario Franchitti actually opened his post-race interview by apologizing to the fans for sitting through the high-speed parade.

“That was not a race,” Franchitti said at the time.

Ten years have passed since IndyCar left Richmond and series officials believe the new aerodynamic package and engine combination will lead to a far more competitive race, similar to what the series produces at the 0.750-mile Iowa Speedway every July.

INDYCAR CEO Mark Miles arrived at Pocono early Sunday morning and was asked the latest on whether a final decision had been made regarding Pocono’s future by NBC Sports.com.

“Let’s wait and see what today’s crowd looks like,” Miles told NBC Sports.com.

It may have been the largest crowd to witness an NTT IndyCar Series race at Pocono Raceway since the series returned in 2013. Prior to that, Pocono had been dropped from the CART Series schedule following the 1989 race and track founder, the late Dr. Joseph Mattioli, vowed they would never return in his lifetime.

“Doc” Mattioli died in 2012 and grandsons Nick and Brandon Igdalsky were successful in bringing IndyCar back to Pocono in 2013.

Since that time, Pocono has been the scene of some spectacular and grim moments in racing. Justin Wilson was killed in the 2015 race after he was struck in the helmet by the nosecone from Sage Karam’s crashed race car. Robert Wickens remains paralyzed from the waist down after he was involved in a horrific airborne crash in Turn 2 at the start of last year’s IndyCar Series race.

Sunday’s race started off with another massive crash in Turn 2 that caused the race to be red flagged for the second year in a row. Although there were no injuries, it led to a flurry of negative comments saying IndyCar has no business racing at Pocono Raceway from, among others, Karam and Wickens.

The top three drivers in Sunday’s race disagreed with that sentiment.

“Honestly I feel bad for Pocono,” Dixon said after his second-place finish. “The group of people here that work, they work extremely hard. I felt the crowd today at the start of the race was fantastic. It was gaining some really good momentum. Hopefully it does continue.

“But down to weather, some mistakes that have happened on track, honestly, they could happen anywhere, if you look at Justin or Robby, those can happen anywhere. I feel bad that it gets a bit of a bad taste in that scenario. I think the drivers in a lot of situations can do a better job to help that situation.

“Honestly, I hope we come back. I just want to say a big thank you to everybody here at Pocono, the fans and everybody that come out, because it’s definitely a tough place. Will can tell you how rewarding it is to win here just because it is so difficult to get it right.”

Power’s victory on Sunday was his third Pocono win in the last four years.

“It’s a great oval for us,” Power said. “Obviously some unfortunate accidents here, like Scott said, that could happen anywhere. It kind of got a bad rap for that.

“The crowd is up 15 percentevery year we come back. It’s getting better. Like Scott said, the crowd was great today. It’s a good racetrack, man. A good track for racing. I really hope we come back; I do. I think the guys do a great job. A cool track for us. It’s hard for us to find good ovals these days that suit our cars.”

Third-place finisher Simon Pagenaud believes its location in the Northeastern United States is very important. According to Ben May, one third of the entire population in the United States lives within a 300-mile radius of Pocono Raceway.

If INDYCAR decides to leave, it would not have one single race in this part of the country. That means no representation in New York City, Boston, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh or Buffalo, New York.

“It is a fun track to drive on,” Pagenaud said. “It would be really unfortunate, because it’s close to New York, a great market for INDYCAR. It’s an opportunity to bring people from New York to the Indy car races. Really enjoy that.

“I love personally superspeedways. I think it’s been the best, like they said. Obviously when you’re traveling at such high speed, you know a crash is going to be a big crash.

“Hopefully we can come back and hopefully we can keep working with people at Pocono because it’s been a lot of fun. I’ve been racing here since 2012 in the series. I’ve enjoyed it more and more every year. So, we’ll see what happens next.

“As a driver, I really enjoy coming here.”

INDYCAR Vice President Stephen Starks arrived at the track spoke with Igdalsky on Sunday. Igdalsky later told NBC Sports.com that Starks 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.”

Although a three-race rotation sounds interesting, it would difficult to build momentum for INDYCAR in each of the three markets.

Plus, Pocono gives INDYCAR a much-needed superspeedway. This year, there are only three “big tracks” on the schedule including the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Texas Motor Speedway and Pocono Raceway.

Although the degree of danger increases dramatically at those high-speed superspeedways, Indy cars are thoroughbred race cars and are spectacular when running at that speed.

For people who think it’s too dangerous to race at Pocono, they need to realize Jeff Krosnoff and two track corner workers were all killed in a street race at Toronto and Gonzolo Rodriguez was killed on a road course at Laguna Seca. Any form of racing can be dangerous, but the series and tracks have made significant advancements in safety since that time.

With Pocono seeing another 15 percent increase in attendance this year, that could go up dramatically when the track has just one NASCAR Cup weekend next year instead of two. That could put more focus on an IndyCar race weekend for racing fans in this part of the country.

There are many reasons why INDYCAR and Pocono Raceway need each other. It’s hard to think of any reason why the two sides don’t belong together.

SuperMotocross: Ken Roczen urgently needed change

Roczen change
Feld Motor Sports/MX Sports Pro Racing/Align Media
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Change can be frightening, but it is often exhilarating and Ken Roczen, a rider in his ninth season on a 450 bike, it was urgently needed.

Roczen ended the 2022 Supercross season with his worst performance in five years. After finishing outside of the top five in seven of his last eight rounds in the stadium series, well down the points’ standings in ninth, he decided to put that season on hold.

How it ended was in stark contrast to how it began. Roczen’s 2022 season got off to the best possible start. He won the Supercross opener at Angel Stadium in Anaheim, California by more than seven seconds over the 2021 champion Cooper Webb.

That would be his last podium and he scored only one more top-five in the Glendale, Arizona Triple Crown.

MORE: Ken Roczen sweeps top five in Anaheim 2 Triple Crown

Before 2022, Roczen was a regular challenger for the championship despite being plagued by major accidents that required surgery in 2017 and 2018. On his return, he was diagnosed with the Epstein-Barr virus, which presents with symptoms of heavy fatigue, muscle weakness and loss of appetite and last year he tested positive for COVID-19.

Against those odds, he finished second in the outdoor season in 2019 and third in 2020. In the Supercross series, he finished third in 2020 and second in 2021.

But the abbreviated season of 2022 signaled a need for change for Roczen.

“I needed the change urgently,” Roczen said in last week’s post-race press conference at Angel Stadium. “I did a pretty big change in general.”

Those comments came three races into the 2023 with him sitting among the top three finishers for the first time in 10 Supercross rounds. It was the 57th podium of his career, only six behind 10th-place Ryan Villopoto. It was also the first for Suzuki since 2019 when Chad Reed gave them one in Detroit 63 rounds ago.

Taking time off at the end of the Supercross season had the needed effect. He rejoined SuperMotocross in the outdoor season and immediately stood on the podium at Fox Raceway in Pala, California. Two rounds later, he won at Thunder Valley in Lakewood, Colorado. The relief was short lived and he would not stand on the podium again until this year.

Roczen Motocross Round 3
Ken Roczen won Round 3 of the outdoor season in 2022 at Thunder Valley after finished second in Moto 1 and first in Moto 2. Feld Motor Sports/MX Sports Pro Racing/Align Media

Winds of Change

Roczen’s offseason was dramatic. Citing differences over his announcement to compete in the World Supercross Championship, he split with Honda HRC and declared himself a free agent. It wasn’t a difficult decision; Roczen was signed only for the Supercross season.

That change had the desired effect. Roczen won the WSX championship in their two-race, pilot season. More importantly, he proved to himself that he could compete for wins.

Late in the offseason, Roczen announced he would also change manufacturers with a move to HEP Progressive Ecstar Suzuki. He won the 2016 Pro Motocross title for Suzuki with nine wins in 12 Nationals and finished no worse than second. He easily outran the competition with an advantage of 86 points over second-place Eli Tomac.

“I just think change overall made it happen – and these overseas races – it’s really just a snowball,” Roczen said. “You start somewhere and you feel like something works out and I got better and had more fun doing it. Working with the team as well and working on the motorcycle to get better and actually see it paying off. It’s just, it’s just a big boost in general.”

The return to Suzuki at this stage of his career, after nearly a decade of competing on 450 motorcycles, recharged Roczen. He is one of three riders, (along with Cooper Webb and his former Honda teammate Chase Sexton), with a sweep of the top five in the first three rounds of the 2023 Supercross season.

But last week’s podium really drove home how strong he’s been.

“I think we’re all trying to take it all in,” Roczen said. “I wouldn’t say it came out of nowhere really, but before the season starts you think about – or I thought of how my whole last season went – and it’s been a long time since I’ve been on the podium.”

Roczen’s most recent podium prior to Anaheim 2 came at Budds Creek Motocross Park in Mechanicsville, Maryland last August in Round 10 of the outdoor season. His last podium in Supercross was the 2022 season opener that raised expectations so high.

Supercross Round 1 results
Ken Roczen raised expectations with his season opening win at Anaheim but did not stand on the box again in the Supercross series. Feld Motor Sports/MX Sports Pro Racing/Align Media

The change Roczen needed was not just a different team and bike. More importantly, he needed the freedom to set his own schedule and control his training schedule.

“It’s long days, but I’m really into it at the moment,” Roczen said. “Overall, I felt [that] throughout this off season and now my health has been really well, really good, so that helps. It’s needed to get to the top. I’m pretty confident that we’re, we’re doing the right thing – that I’m doing the right thing.

“I’m doing all my training on my own and I’m planning out my entire week. And I feel like I have a really good system going right now with recovery and putting in some hard days. Right now, I don’t really have anybody telling me what to do. I’m the best judge of that.

“It’s really hard to talk about how much work we’ve put in, but we’ve been doing some big changes and riding a lot throughout the week, some really, really late days. And they’re paying off right now; we’re heading in the right direction. We’re all pulling on the same string, and that helps me out big time.”