MILLER: End of an uncomfortable marriage?

Image by LePage/LAT

MILLER: End of an uncomfortable marriage?

Insights & Analysis

MILLER: End of an uncomfortable marriage?

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The marriage of IndyCars and Pocono has run the gamut of emotions since 1971. It started as the third leg of USAC’s Triple Crown with major coverage from the east coast media, and was a box office winner before being fractured by the USAC/CART war in 1981 that saw dirt cars fill out the field. That understandably infuriated track founder Dr. Joe Mattioli, and after some CART shows in the ’80s, the Tricky Triangle became strictly NASCAR country.

IndyCars were absent at Pocono from 1989 to 2013 before returning in 2014, and last Sunday’s race ended fittingly – stormy weather cutting things short and sending the loyal open-wheel fans home wondering if that was the last time they’ll ever see IndyCars in Pennsylvania.

And it was easily the largest crowd of this six-year run, which makes me think a lot of people heard this was going to be IndyCar’s swansong at the track and wanted to be in attendance.

The return to Pocono wasn’t a flop like Phoenix was for three years (2016-18), or a one-and-done dud like Loudon in 2011, and the crowds increased each race day, albeit minutely. Still, it was comparable if not better than Texas, larger than Iowa and rivaled Gateway, but was not in NASCAR’s neighborhood. Let’s guess 20,000-25,000, and let’s be clear – the folks who showed up here every year since 2014 were die-hards with IndyCar T-shirts who followed the series.

Track president Ben May told NBC Sports.com: “One third of the U.S. population lives within 300 miles of Pocono, so why are they not here in droves? I don’t have that answer.”

A combination of mediocre ticket sales and high-profile tragedies have made Pocono and IndyCar an awkward fit since the venue’s return in 2014. Image by LePage/LAT

Well, coming back after a long absence is a tough sell, especially on ovals, and Pocono had three major obstacles to overcome:

1) IndyCar was sandwiched between its two NASCAR weekends and people only have so much money to spend.

2) A 500-mile race with 22-23 cars isn’t a very good show, especially when you have multi-car accidents on the opening lap. This was the perfect venue for twin 150s with flat-out racing, no fuel saving and throw in a concert during intermission.

3) Expecting the paying customers to sit around for five or six hours waiting on the green flag with only the two-seater and a few vintage Indy cars to entertain them is either cheap or shows a real lack of caring about your customers. True, NBC’s 2:45 starting time wasn’t ideal but at least bring in Robby Gordon’s truck series to give the fans something to watch.

There’s also been the question of promotion. There were billboards for the ABC 500 in Allentown and Scranton, yet 15 minutes from the track at a restaurant that’s been around since Mark Donohue won the inaugural race, the proprietor had no idea an IndyCar was in town.

“We market the same for NASCAR, IndyCar and the air show – we don’t have a preference,” said Pocono CEO Nick Igdalsky. “People say we’re not giving it (IndyCar) the full shake – yes we are. It’s an issue of popularity at the moment. IndyCar is growing but NASCAR has been the most popular form of motorsports for 30 years.

“It takes a while to build that fan base back up, and we’ve had double-digit increases every season so it would be a shame to lose it now.”

There’s also a feeling that Pocono was ambivalent towards keeping an IndyCar race but got renewed interest a few months ago after it had one of its NASCAR weekends dropped for 2020 and now is only going with a Cup doubleheader.

And of course the elephant in the room are the tragedies this fast tri-oval has dealt out in the past few races. Justin Wilson lost his life in a freak accident in 2015 and Robert Wickens was paralyzed in 2018.

Are they trying to use a gate to patch the hole in the fence? Yes, apparently they are.

“I feel bad for Pocono,” said Scott Dixon, who finished second to Will Power on Sunday. “If you look at Justin or Robbie, those things can happen anywhere and I think the drivers in a lot of situations can do a better job to help that situation.”

But prior to the race several drivers admitted they felt trepidation coming to Pocono. And, during the latest red flag when Pocono was trying to repair the fence with a gate before IndyCar took control of the situation, a veteran driver said: “If you ask everyone right now, none of them would want to get back in their cars.”

Wickens tweeted: “How many times do we have to go through the same situation before we can all accept that IndyCar should not race at Pocono? It’s just a toxic relationship and maybe it’s time to consider a divorce. I’m very relieved that everyone is OK from that scary crash.”

Unlike Robert, rookie Felix Rosenqvist was lucky to walk away from his air show in Turn 2 on Sunday. “Just a little back pain and a headache,” he reported as he boarded his flight back to Indianapolis.

Open-wheel racing is dangerous. That’s part of the attraction. Yet there was always a feeling of relief if you left Michigan or Texas without major injuries because of the high speeds and close racing. And it felt like that Sunday night as we flew out of Pocono – probably for the last time.

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