Justin Wilson

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.