IndyCar's return to Pocono proves to be popular

Marco Andretti said Pocono Raceway is "so different every lap, and that's the fun about it." RUSS HAMILTON Jr. / AP
Marco Andretti said Pocono Raceway is "so different every lap, and that's the fun about it." RUSS HAMILTON Jr. / AP
Posted: July 08, 2013

It's been 20 years since Pocono Raceway hosted an IndyCar race. But it took only a chance meeting between two of racing's most influential figures to bring open-wheel cars back to the "Tricky Triangle."

"It literally took me being in the wrong place at the wrong time with [former IndyCar CEO] Randy Bernard," said Brandon Igdalsky, Pocono Raceway CEO and president.

Pocono Raceway will host Sunday's IndyCar Pocono 400, the Izod IndyCar Series' second leg of the Fuzzy's Triple Crown. The 2.5-mile track, with its three-turn design, annually hosts two NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races and hosted open-wheel races from 1971 to '89.

Igdalsky and Bernard informally met at last year's Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, Fla., and had a brief conversation about the idea of IndyCar returning to Northeastern Pennsylvania. A study gauging local IndyCar, NASCAR, and non-motorsports fans' excitement for the race followed last summer, from which Igdalsky said there was "overwhelming support" for the event.

Last October, Igdalsky and Bernard made the race official.

During the numerous phone calls Pocono Raceway has received from those purchasing tickets for Sunday's race, Igdalsky said, many fans have shared their memories from the famed oval track of watching past winners - including Danny Sullivan, who won the last IndyCar race here in 1989 - and racing legends such as Mario Andretti and A.J. Foyt.

"[Fans] are saying that, 'You know, my dad took me, and now I'm bringing my dad and my kids,' " Igdalsky said. ". . . The staff around here, some have been here for over 24 years, so they remember what it's like, and we have a lot of new people that have no idea."

IndyCar's drivers have similar takes on the track. Some, like Marco Andretti - Mario's grandson and a resident of nearby Nazareth - have stronger ties to Pocono than others. But James Hinchcliffe, driver of Andretti Autosports' No. 27 car, didn't quite know what to expect before arriving at Pocono.

"I really had no appreciation for what this place was like, even after watching it on TV and all the rest of it," Hinchcliffe said after a practice run. "The track is so different, and it makes it very difficult to set up an IndyCar there."

Marco Andretti won the pole in Saturday's two-lap qualifying session, leading the pack with an average speed of 221.273 m.p.h. That pace easily eclipsed the previous track record of 211.715 m.p.h. set by Emerson Fittipaldi in 1989.

The 26-year-old Andretti also finished the fastest in Thursday's practice session.

"I think this just became my favorite racetrack," Andretti said Thursday. "It's so much fun. I mean, it's so different every lap, and that's the fun about it. You don't know what to expect."

Andretti's teammates Ryan Hunter-Reay and Hinchcliffe rounded out the top three spots in qualifying, marking the first time since the 1988 Indianapolis 500 that one team swept a three-car front row in IndyCar racing. This year's Indy 500 winner, Tony Kanaan, the only driver eligible to win a $1 million bonus for capturing each of the triple crown's three races, qualified fifth, and IndyCar Series points leader Helio Castroneves will start in the sixth position.

The phrase "They don't call it the Tricky Triangle for nothing" has been used by a handful of drivers this week when asked about attacking the track.

What makes Pocono perplexing for drivers is its three turns with bankings of various degrees. Each turn requires a different approach and modifications to a car's setup.

With its lengthy and wide straightaways, Pocono has drawn comparisons to Indianapolis Motor Speedway. That considered, the IndyCar Series chose to implement a three-wide start at Pocono that was used there during the 1970s and 1980s and has been a staple at Indianapolis since 1921.

That spacing has drivers anticipating plenty of passing in the track's challenging turns, just another reason anticipation has continued to grow for Pocono's return to the IndyCar spotlight.

"It's going to be a heck of a race for the fans," Marco Andretti said. "It's going to be an awesome show."

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