Random Thoughts on Pocono

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I said this would be Random Thoughts, but it is really just a couple of thoughts. Since I posted my last post after the race, there has not been a lot of time transpire. Since then, we essentially went to dinner near the track with Paul Dalbey and his wife Kelli. Then Susan and I made the near-thirty mle drive back to our hotel. It was on that drive that I really started thinking about what to write about and only one thing really kept coming to mind – that the NTT IndyCar Series needs to return to Pocono Raceway in 2020 and beyond.

Don’t get me wrong, Sunday’s race was not the greatest race I’ve ever attended. The time between the restart after the red-flag and Spencer Pigot’s crash on Lap 40 was very processional and boring. I don’t know if it’s the aero package or if no one was interested in making a move that early in the race. After all, it was scheduled to be five-hundred miles. No one had much motivation to take too many chances in the first one-hundred miles.

But Will Power confirmed that around Lap 75, his crew let him know that rain was coming in around twenty minutes. I’m sure all crews let their drivers know the same thing because it got very racy all of a sudden.

Once the field stretched out a little bit, it was hard for cars to stay in contact with one another. After all, after the opening lap crash there were only seventeen cars stretched around the two and a half mile oval. That’s almost half the amount of cars that start the Indianapolis 500 stretched out over the same amount of distance.

But the last fifty or so laps were much different, when drivers realized that the race would most likely come to an early and rainy end. Will Power made a textbook pass on Scott Dixon heading into Turn One on Lap 115, and that turned out to be the winning pass.

But this isn’t about whether or not Sunday’s race was a classic or not; it’s about whether or not the NTT IndyCar Series should return to Pocono Raceway. It’s a no-brainer…they should. While Pocono is thought of as a NASCAR track, it was designed for Indy cars and there is a lot of open-wheel history involving Pocono.

But there is a vocal bunch that seems intent on giving Pocono a bad rap on some bad crashes there since 2015. Robert Wickens posted immediately after the crash on Instagram “How many times to we need to go through the same situation before we can accept that an IndyCar should not race at Pocono? It’s just a toxic relationship and maybe it’s time to consider a divorce…” I admire the heck out of Wickens and how he has handled his injuries from his terrifying crash one year ago. But I’m afraid he may be just a little biased and cannot make a rational judgment about the track where he sustained those injuries.

Beccy Hunter-Reay, wife of Ryan Hunter-Reay who was involved in last year’s crash as well as yesterday’s last night posted a photo of yesterday’s clean-up and captioned it “Yep, I hate this place”. That’s funny, I don’t think he hated it when he won there in 2015. But because he hasn’t lasted more than two green-flag laps over the past two races there, the track is suddenly a bad place.

When Kenny Bräck crashed on the backstretch at Texas in the fall of 2003, there was a lot of hand-wringing over Texas. That brought a response from then-Chief Steward Brian Barnhart of (paraphrasing) “It’s not a track problem, it’s a driver problem.” Both of the bad accidents over last two seasons at Pocono took lace on the first green-flag lap of the race. They both involved drivers being way too ambitious early on in the race.

This will upset some, but Wickens was way too optimistic when he tried to pass Hunter-Reay in Turn Two last year. Some are pointing the finger at Takuma Sato for yesterday’s crash. Honestly, I haven’t seen enough angles, but it sure sounds like he initiated the contact that set everything off. And this isn’t the first time that Sato has caused problems due to his impatience. I heard some at the track on Sunday say “It isn’t a track problem, it’s a Sato problem”. I agree.

Former IndyCar driver Jimmy Kite opined on Facebook Sunday night saying that he always had a problem with drivers blaming tracks for crashes. He likens blaming a track for crashes is like blaming a teacher for kids failing a test. Why don’t drivers learn to be patient on tracks that are challenging? I don’t recall seeing the great Rick Mears crashing out on the first lap too many times.

People also like to bring up Justin Wilson’s 2015 fatal injuries there as another reason to leave Pocono. That incident could have happened anywhere, because it was so fluky the way it happened – with the nose cone from a crashed car flying straight up into the air, before falling directly in the path of the oncoming car driven by Wilson. The trajectory of the nose cone was straight down onto Wilson’s helmet. No protective device other than a full canopy would have prevented the tragic outcome. That incident probably could not be replicated again, no matter how many times one would try. But the Pocono detractors say that the place is unsafe. I’ve got news for you – any track is unsafe when you have drivers attempting ill-advised moves on the first lap of the race. Drivers make foolish choices, then when it doesn’t work out, they say it’s the track’s fault.

There are many reasons to keep Pocono on the schedule and few, in my eyes, to remove it. With the proximity to New York and Philadelphia, you are within two hours of the largest and fourth largest markets in the country. Attendance has been a problem, but this weekend – I talked to several people that live in the Philadelphia area. They say they’ve never seen an ad promoting this race. This is a new day. You cannot depend on word of mouth to promote an auto race.

Sponsors like the idea of a race in the northeast with the size of the markets and the proximity. It makes sponsorship selling a lot easier when they know a race will be in the northeast.

I don’t pretend to know what all has gone on behind-the-scenes between IndyCar and Pocono Raceway. But as I said on Friday, if the two parties can’t work something out and they part ways – I put this all on IndyCar, since Pocono has made it clear they want this event to return.

With better promotion and a fuller weekend with lots of on-track activity, you could see a huge spike in attendance. But the crowd I saw yesterday was much bigger than the other two times I was here in 2016 and 2017.

If the NTT IndyCar Series decides to drop Pocono from the schedule, please just admit it was a financial decision. But blaming the track and using that as an excuse is ridiculous, just because some drivers wanted to try and win the race on the first lap. I don’t think I’m the only fan that wants Pocono to return. I just hope the series is listening.

For those that didn’t read my post from last night, here was the crash video from my vantage point on top of a media perch in Turn Two.

Again, thanks for following along this past weekend. We get to do it again four days from now at Gateway. And thanks for bearing with me while I strayed from my usual Random Thoughts format.

George Phillips

33 Responses to “Random Thoughts on Pocono”

  1. IMHO it’s a driver thing, not a track thing.

  2. 100% agree with you. Where I was sitting in the stands every single person was saying the accident this year and last year was purely based off of poor driving decisions. It’s a sad day when drivers get on Twitter and complain the entire time. Especially when it comes to the track. Imagine back in the day if Foyt, Ward, Ruby or Parnelli for that matter had a Twitter and complained. The drivers back then knew the dangers and the challenges of every single race and every single lap. Not saying the current drop of drivers at all are unaware of the danger, however, there are some drivers that take way too many risks and for very little benefit. Sato was lucky no one was seriously injured. It looks like he came down. Hope IndyCar makes an example of avoidable contact penalties.

    Being at this race reminded me of the last race at Trenton which was a 200 mile NASCAR Modified race. That race ended early due to rain. Somber way to end a series at a track with so much legacy and history. Robin Miller said in the Paddock he wishes IndyCar would race here and do 2 250mile races since it’s only 22 cars. It would work since there’s so much track time for the series. It was exciting watching the 2 hr practice session though. All in all a great weekend and I hope I can continue going to Pocono annually to watch this race. Went every year except 2018. Would really hurt the Northeast if there’s no IndyCar race.

  3. Love the tradition and history of Pocono. Would hate to lose another oval. But another car getting up into that fence again was very scary.

    Sato was too reckless, but him crawling unharmed out of that car was a credit to safety improvements.

    Maybe Indycar could refund some or all of the sanctioning fee to tracks as long as they spend it on local promotion?

  4. As usual I’m too in the middle to have a firm opinion. The crashes last year and this year were caused by driver’s not using their heads, no doubt about that. The nature of Pocono means the crashes when drivers don’t use their heads are usually more spectacular and scary. If drivers can’t use their heads then maybe they shouldn’t be allowed to race there, but it’s hard to place blame on the track for driver ineptitude.

    I pulled the trigger on Gateway, got a hotel room for Friday and Saturday nights so I’ll get to enjoy the full day of track action this year. Maybe I’ll finally have time to hit up that go-kart track in the infield. You up for a kart race George?! 🙂

  5. Pocono Raceway’s fence isn’t safe, and the management doesn’t attract many of the millions of persons who reside within easy driving distance.

    • You may recall boilerplate steel was used where the concrete is now. Unfortunately the Matioli’s were/are not big in reinvesting in the facility

  6. Robbie made an emotional knee-jerk post and then everyone else in the world jumped in and it immediately got out of hand. That’s the problem with Twitter and Facebook. They have been turned into something they were not originally intended to be. Back in the beginning I thought social media was supposed to be fun but it didn’t take long for the human race to ruin it.

    • billytheskink Says:

      I was quite disappointed in Wickens’ post, though I suppose it is an understandable reaction in the moment. I would be curious to hear from him after he takes a day or two to think about everything that happened. He may still hold the same opinion, but I doubt he would toss out silly and inflammatory rhetoric (whatever describing Indycar’s relationship with Pocono as “toxic”) as he did yesterday.

  7. When you see all the replays, it’s obvious Sato, and his spotter, were not paying attention. Just plain bad driving and they were lucky more of the field wasn’t caught up in it.

    Also, I think penalizing Hinch and RHR 10 laps for repairing their cars under Red for an accident that was not their fault was over the top. Two, maybe three laps ok, but ten?!

    • Apparently the spotters have a very difficult time seeing the cars in that section of the track because they’re nearly a mile away. They tried to alleviate this by putting a second spotters’ stand inside turn 2 but it looked to only be about three feet off the ground so it doesn’t accomplish much.

      The penalty was for working on their cars under red flag, and the reason it was 10 laps was due to the length of time they did the unapproved repairs, which was fairly lengthy. Rules is rules, and this particular rule is written in a way (“…no fewer than two lap penalty”) that it can be applied in various degrees of severity depending on the severity of the offense.

    • Lutking Kiwi Says:

      I think they were worried that if the red lasted long enough that those cars got back on track before the restart, with a couple of wave-arounds you could see a once-demolished car at or near the front at the finish. This would be a bonus not available to other crashed cars where it didn’t go red.

  8. Paul Fitzgerald Says:

    I disagree that RHR loved Pocono when he won. That was the year of Justin Wilson’s accident and he was near death as RHR won. I’m quite sure he wasn’t very happy.

  9. Brian Rossney Says:

    I thought the crowd looked great! We met lots of families from all over the country, and many for their first time. I’m with you, Indycar needs to make the deal to come back here. It’s not the tracks fault that drivers are making stupid decisions on the first lap. With only 2 hours of practice compared to weeks at Indy, it’s a recipe for disaster.

  10. The drivers in IndyCar hold themselves out to be some of the best drivers in the world and for some this is true. They race on a variety of race courses unlike other highly heralded series. The drivers skill in adaptation to the variety of tracks is one of the many reasons IndyCar is so popular. To blame the track is ingenious. If any track is too dangerous then do what Max Chilton did,don’t race there. I have never been to Pocono but someday would like to. It’s an interesting track in an attractive settling. Always enjoy watching the race on TV. I don’t understand why it doesn’t generate a larger crowd being so close to high population areas.
    If I lived closer I would likely go but just for race day. With the lack of support races hard to justify making it a weekend visit.
    I don’t understand calling for the demise of another oval as some are doing. Blame the gun and not the shooter,blame the track not the driver similar in my opinion

  11. Britindycarfan26 Says:

    While I think sato was most at fault and turned down far too early for a road course straight never mind on an oval I do wonder how much also the spotter situation and the the track seams played as well…… don’t think the track is unsafe but the fence that surrounds it is…… until they build safer walls as tall as the cars are long all ovals could have the luck poccono has had… fear indycar wouldn’t be back next year was is sad😞Only plus is everybody is ok thank god

  12. billytheskink Says:

    As before the race and the wreck, Indycar’s decision to come back to Pocono would likely be rooted in its financial aspects, as in an agreement on the sanctioning fee, rather than safety concerns.

    I would very much like it if the two sides came to agreement, even if Indycar has to bend a bit. However, if the series is getting more money from a potential “replacement” (like, say Richmond), then I can’t really blame them for taking a better offer. That’s what they did when swapping Sonoma for Laguna Seca.

  13. Been back to Pocono since 2013 and agree with your assessments. And the crowd looked the best I’ve seen it in all those years yesterday. We would love to see Pocono back for years to come. It is an INDYCAR track. It was built for open wheel cars and it seems that many of the drivers really enjoy the challenge of figuring out the three unique corners. (Which were all designed based on corners at 3 different open wheel tracks).
    Wickens feelings are certainly understandable. The memories and reminders of last years crash are so fresh, however I can’t imagine Hinch or Bourdais or any drivers saying that Indianapolis should be taken off the schedule because of serious crashes there. Cars going around a superspeedway at 215+ mph are inherently dangerous but so is racing anywhere, and what makes IndyCar so great is it’s track diversity.

    • It’s not a fair comparison.

      Indianapolis has a newcomers orientation, 4+ practice sessions, 2 qualifying sessions, multiple spotters per team, a month to prepare, 50+ years of shared wisdom and paddock culture around it, and most importantly, an incredibly professional operation that can fix a wall or a fence quickly and effectively.

      Pocono in 2019 had one two hour practice session, no qualifying, 1 decent spotter section and an awful secondary one, was just another weekend on a calendar, skipped two generations of drivers/owners, and, the worst, part, had photographers picking carbon fibre out of the fence.

      Hinch was right. Indycar really fumbled it this year. If they want to have 500 mile races at superspeedways, they have to prepare drivers and teams properly for them and have the infrastructure to keep them safe.

      • Bruce Waine Says:

        “infrastructure” to include enforced ‘wake-up call’ penalties for driving style that we witnessed yesterday.

        Sato walks away from Pocono with no ‘wake-up’ penalty or penalties being levied against him?

  14. I can understand George’s point. I’m not a fan of the track on TV, but there’s a lot more factors than “drivers v. track.:

    What disgusts me are the people tagging Wickens and acting affronted because he made a comment about scheduling a place where he was paralyzed at. The utter gall of people mouthing off about “muh ovals!” at someone who has actually driven an indycar at the track and suffered so much made me ill. People really need to lay off and get some perspective, it was a flashback to all the people complaining about foreigners in the 90s.

  15. Mark Wick Says:

    If a race track is to be removed from the schedule because serious crashed indicate it is too dangerous, The Indianapolis Motor Speedway should have been abandoned about 100 years ago.

  16. Thanks George and Susan for your coverage. I’d like to go back to Pocono someday. Am looking forward to your review of Gateway. It is on my list too.

  17. After reading Oilpressure.com I read Robin’s Millers article on Racer.com concerning Pocono. Clearly, today Robin is the “voice” getting us ready to lose Pocono, a track that wants to be in Indycar. To say I am outraged is an understatement.

    George, I hope you give me a chance to give my opinion to Indycar.

    Dear Indycar,

    I am tired of the war on ovals. And that is what this is. Killing oval races one at a time. INDYCAR, drop Pocono when they want to come back and after a good crown, and you will lose a lot more than you intended.

    I have been a fan of INDYCAR since 1970 and have attended almost 25 Indy 500’s, including the last 3. Attended qualifications beginning in 1978 and have not missed one since 1985. Have been to the INDY Grand Prix every year except this year. I even stuck with them during the Split.

    But I have had it with the F1 wannabee league and teams not knowing how to drive on ovals, so they don’t want to race on them. Ovals aren’t suddenly more dangerous than they were years ago. The drivers just have MUCH less experience on them. It’s not the drivers fault. I blame the owners, starting with Roger Penske and Chip Ganassi. They are in a large way hiring F1 or F2 drivers with very little oval experience. Why?

    Pocono had a great crowd yesterday. We had accidents two years in a row on the beginning lap of this race because of driver negligence. And yet we blame the track? Not working anymore. I have had people who post to Oilpressure.com disagree with me when I post about the lack of driver experience on ovals. But it is a huge concern, as two accidents like those of the last two years at Pocono show.

    I was very upset when you let Phoenix go last year. If Pocono is let go this year in spite of a good crowd and track ownership that wants to return, then I will think very hard about dropping my Indy 500 tickets. Realistically that track will be far too dangerous when the drivers are barely contending on ovals, especially super speedways. You think you will escape the criticism of ovals because its Indy? What happens when you have the next fatality at Indy and it’s because of driver negligence/inexperience?

    George family, you had better wake up before it’s too late.

    • Not sure how replacing one oval with another oval is a “war on ovals”? The driver most say caused Sunday’s crash was one of the oldest and most experienced in the field and has 10 years of experience racing on ovals, including a win in the Indianapolis 500. In fact, all three drivers that instigated the crash are Indianapolis 500 Champions. The driver who was involved in both this year’s and last year’s crash, RHR, is also one of the oldest and most experienced and is quite handy on ovals. So the argument of drivers not having enough oval experience doesn’t really hold up here, the only rookie involved in Sunday’s crash was an innocent bystander.

      • Because a) No one can propose anything or debate anything without it being a complete assault on someone’s identity and b) part of the fanbase is never going to be happy until it’s 16 races running around ovals with a 10% foreign driver cap.

      • Bruce Waine Says:

        Lack of on track time is part of the equation. Given the lack of on track time Saturday due to the on site weather conditions which did not allow the Medevac helicopter to land at Pocono, the drivers and crew did not have the opportunity to fully acclimate their cars to the track.

        Imagine what the INDY 500 race would be like if the drivers & crews were given just two or three hours of on track time to set up their cars for a 500 miles race.

        Accidents ?

  18. Davey Allison broke his arm, wrist and collarbone and suffered a concussion in 1992, Pocono ended Bobby Allison’s career,

  19. “There are many reasons to keep Pocono on the schedule and few, in my eyes, to remove it.”
    and that one removal reason is the biggest one of all.

  20. David D Gardner Says:

    The biggest problem with Pocono is the cars. Spec cars all are very similar and cannot get away from each other and have to be overly aggressive on starts and restarts to gain positions. Once the cars get in single file and up to speed the Aero wash makes it very difficult to pass. As long as cars are spec, which they always will be from now on this aggression problem will continue. However, when a driver makes one of these moves and pulls it off everyone lauds the driver as fantastic. It is racing, but once you are above 200 mph. Mistakes become to violent.

  21. Look, for IndyCar to succeed, (and I’m not talking about 25-35000 spectators,) the series HAS to give Joe Fan a REASON to shell out the money, time, and effort to attend a race at Pocono.

    As several of you have heard me rant before, IndyCar needs to offer more for the fan than a day of one practice and another day of half a race.

    Why in the Hell the series has not had ladder races there is BEYOND my comprehension. Here is a scenario I proposed on another site:

    Friday: All series practice day. Open to the public for FREE (or minimal admission,) Pro Mazda, USF2000, IndyLights, and IndyCar all having practice throughout the day.

    Saturday: Start with qualifying for the subordinate series, followed by races for those series, leading up to IndyCar qualifying. If you want an IndyLights “double header,”you can run race 1 on Saturday right before IndyCar qualifying.

    Sunday: IndyCar warm up, followed by the 2nd (or only) Indy Lights race, leading up to to the IndyCar race early-mid afternoon.

    The advantages of this plan are several. First, you expose the ladder series drivers to an oval. They get precious little exposure to them aside from the Freedom 100 at Indy. Second, you expose them to the fans. The more the fans learn who the up and coming drivers are, the better.

    Second, you’re providing more entertainment for the fan. By the time Sunday ends, they will have more than gotten their moneys’ worth.

    Third, while Pocono is not Indy, where merely turning an engine over can draw fans, if you keep them entertained, they will return. And, most likely in ever greater numbers.

    I firmly believe that this sort of idea can build far more interest in ovals than we’re seeing right now.

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