Pocono – The Other 500

(c) 2017 LAT Photographic – Abbott

While other tracks have cheekily claimed 500 or 550 or 600 in their event titles, Pocono remains the only other true, old-school, 500-miler on the schedule. With the news that Pocono is considering signing for Indycar events beyond 2018, fans of this unique and legendary palace of speed will certainly be relieved if and when it happens.

What is it about ‘500’ that adds a certain cachet in automobile racing? As a number, it was rather basically developed over a hundred years ago to provide an “all-day” event in Indianapolis each May. Ever since, the 500-mile distance still remains a race that tests team and machine and driver more than most any other race, and most typically at storied venues like Pocono. Of course the 24-hour sports car races are much longer, but also utilize multiple drivers and crew members during their events. Those races, however, have also become more like a 24-hour sprints, rather than paced endurance races.

Maybe it’s the speeds attained and maintained during these races that add to their lore and attraction. In 2014 at Pocono, the top-10 drivers (all finishing on the lead lap) averaged over 202 miles per hour for the entire race distance. This currently stands as the fastest race by average speed for a 500-mile race in the history of Indycar.

It truly takes something special to win a 500-miler. Pocono also boasts a who’s who of Indycar legends as its winners. Among them you will find the legendary likes of Donohue, Leonard, Foyt, Rutherford, Sneva, Unser, Mears, Andretti, Rahal, Dixon, Montoya, and Power. 

In past, venues like Ontario Motor Speedway, Michigan International Speedway, and California/Fontana Speedway all hosted 500 mile events for Indycar. Aside from Indianapolis, the only 500-mile race distance venue remaining on the schedule is legendary Pocono.

Pocono stands alone in many ways.

Currently, it can list the following titles among all Indycar ovals; the farthest east, the fastest, most unusually shaped, “tricky”, widest straightaway, longest straightaway, remote, camper-welcoming, and “green” (100% solar-powered, 75% event waste stream diverting). All of those features combine for a modern Indycar fan’s delight, deserving Indycar’s support whenever possible.

(c) unknown – aerial

While some bemoan the lack of support races found in it’s current format, it’s noteworthy to remember that this is the only other 500-mile event on your Indycar calendar. If you enjoy outright speed, history, legend, majesty, scenery, camping, or any combination thereof, you will find it difficult to match the allure of Pocono on the Indycar schedule.

Let’s hope Indycar and Pocono can secure this storied and worthy venue and the 500-mile race distance for years to come. 

Not Good Enough

It doesn’t seem so very long ago when we were all left in stunned disbelief following the death of Dan Wheldon, October 16, 2011.

Maybe it’s because it hasn’t been that long really. 

Now resigned to the terrible result of another all too fateful moment on Sunday, I finally had to take a moment away from my work duties this morning to read what I wrote in the hours (of shock and disgust with the sport) and days (of ‘Indycar family’ and hope) following Wheldon’s death. 

Seeing the television footage of the helicopter rising from its mid-track perch at Pocono on Sunday was an all too familiar scene and one that left me suspended between disbelief, despair, and hope. 

I told my kids this morning about Justin dying before they left for school. Certainly far from ideal timing but I also I didn’t want them to not hear it from me. 

Nick, Justin, Ellie. Milwaukee 2012.
Photo: (c) Lynne Zehr
My daughter is a casual fan who could name several drivers and recognize a few by face. My son has a bit of deeper interest and knows most every car and driver visually. In the case of Justin Wilson, he represents a rare moment that they both shared with him in Milwaukee back in 2012. 

He had just finished a TV report of his riding the Milwaukee Indyfest ferris wheel with a young fan and was heading back to the paddock. We just happened to be walking nearby and asked for a quick photo opportunity with him which he so graciously, and so ridiculously-commonly, obliged. 

That was over three years ago and while my kids have grown so much when compared to the picture, they both remember this moment quite vividly and fondly. Both were saddened to hear the news I had to share with them this morning. 

I was equally sad to have to deliver it.

Having just surpassed my recent “Gurney Eagle/Jerry Karl/Foyt’s third entry” birthday, each year seems to bring more energy into my brain for more existential pondering – “what, if any, is the purpose and meaning of life?”

You may have also read my recent post with the same question bent specifically toward the sport of Indycar. Having little remaining hope that Indycar will ever be any sort of genuine ‘innovative and working future-thought laboratory’ for auto manufacturers as I’d dream, I have finally come to grips that this sport is set-up primarily as an entertainment vehicle which sells thrills and tradition and nostalgia in direct support of the Indianapolis 500 and the benefit of those who own the event and property.

“Duh.” might be your response. 

Fair enough, but I bought in early and heavily into the ideals found in automotive innovation found in the golden years of auto-racing (c. early-1960s to mid-1980s). Giving up on that ideal has been difficult for sure as it represents, to me, all that is good about people – the unfailing human desire to achieve and progress – working together to improve the things in our lives and the world around us.

That flicker of optimism found in human nature as reflected in the form of automotive racing has finally been extinguished for me. So what is left is simply a sport as entertainment vehicle. 

What is left is simply not good enough. 

This sport, as we are all too-well aware, is horrifically brutal. There are moments of thrilling performance to be sure, but when things go wrong, it seems it is always in spectacular fashion. I’ve written before about the ‘the long dark thread’ woven into the fabric of autosport. Sunday was evidence that thread is long and continuous. 

And so here we are again.

Another death. 

Another widowed family. 

Another horrible event in a long list of horrible events. 

It seems that only numerous, and somewhat random factors, align to produce these darkest of events which often leave us with nothing else to ponder but “why?” Could every single death of every single racing driver and fan have been prevented somehow? Of course, but it’s always that strange alignment of wrong thing, wrong place, wrong time. 

In pursuit of something so uncommonly amazing, such as landing a human on the moon, the risks are significant and great and their achievement stands as incredible historical human events. People lined up to be selected for those ridiculously dangerous roles because their desire was so great to risk their very essence to be a part of that history.

For me, Indycars racing around tracks on a sunny, summer Sunday afternoon for the benefit of thousands watching in person or on broadcast are not of such gravitas. Likewise nor do I think the similar risk of life is worth the paltry sums of either glory or riches we have today in autosport, and Indycar specifically.

Therefore, I simply find no good, remaining excuse you can give me why the safety of the competitors (and crews and fans) isn’t paramount anymore. You may want to argue with me whether safety is or isn’t paramount, but following and understanding what has happened in this sport over the last 40 years, I’m of the informed opinion that cost-containment, not safety, is at the forefront. That isn’t to say that the current cars aren’t amazing in how they protect drivers and fans, but that safety needs to be at the forefront of autosport design now. 

The time for making only reactionary improvements in safety has long passed. These people aren’t sound-barrier or moonshot pilots, they’re highly skilled drivers of cars for entertainment purposes. I have no desire to see people on either side of the fence get maimed or killed for a paltry bit of entertainment. 

What we have is simply not good enough. 

Justin Wilson knew all too well the risks involved. By most all accounts he also was a very thoughtful and genuine person who spoke often of his concerns for the safety of fans and drivers alike. We know there are significant risks that have existed for several years and still need to be addressed as evidenced by the most recent injuries and fatalities from cockpit intrusion in autosport, and especially over the last seven years. I call for this issue to be addressed now via development of the full enclosure of the cockpit from all manner of intrusions. End of story. It will take nothing away from the sport and it’s enjoyment. 

Not just incrementally better but BEST driver protection should be the new hallmark.

No amount of tradition, nostalgia, or perception of danger is worth this. No excuse you can give me for not immediately pursuing, testing, and incorporating designs fully-enclosed cockpits in Indycar is acceptable. Anything short of this is not acceptable and I’ll go one further and propose that NO MORE Indycar racing should occur after Sonoma until this is properly done. 

What we have is simply not good enough.

I’m telling everyone in the positions of power and rule over the sport of Indycar – I will not watch people die anymore for the sake of mere entertainment. 

No reason you can give me, or Susie Wheldon or Julia Wilson or whomever the next is to be widowed by this brutal sport, is good enough.

What we have today is simply not good enough.

Right now, this sport is simply not good enough to go on.

Pocono – An ‘On The Grounds’ Review…

(this is a copy of the track review post I did for my friends over at Indycar UK, please check them out)

Pocono is set in the pastoral rolling hills of the eastern Pennsylvania, approximately 2 hours drive and triangulated nearly equidistant from the mega-metropolitan centers of New York City and Philadelphia.  For me however, this was a journey of 24 years and 9 hours..
The Tricky Triangle Triangulated
Growing up and living in the mid-west of the US has been quite convenient when one is an Indycar fan. Of course Indianapolis Motor Speedway, despite being 135 miles away, would be considered my home Indycar track, but several prominent and historic Indycar ovals are only a partial day’s drive away. Michigan, Milwaukee, Chicagoland, Kentucky, from 2 to 4.5 hours by car ride, and I’ve seen Indycars race at each of those. My list of places I’ve never seen Indycars race, however, is longer than of those I have. Of course the great and defunct tracks (such as Langhorne, Trenton, Ontario, and Nazareth) I will never see, but my list was gladly reduced by one this past weekend.
Speaking of Rodger Ward – his 1966 Lola was on display in the paddock.
It is difficult for me not add the word ‘historic’ before using the name Pocono Raceway because of its stature in Indycar’s timeline. With design input from Indycar great Rodger Ward, a most unique triangular oval was built and first was host to Indycars in 1971. After many great and legendary races over the years, some intense bickering between ownership of the track and the then-current CART sanction regarding safety and track condition finally lead to Indycars not returning to historic Pocono in 1989. Now, 23 years beyond, in the fall of 2012, and after $Millions in renovations underway, Indycar CEO Randy Bernard and Pocono family ownership lead by Brandon Igdalsky struck a deal to put this fan-favorite track back on the schedule for 2013 and beyond, while also reviving the Triple Crown for Indycar.  Having never seen our beloved Indycars racing there in the prior 24 years at this great track, I knew the 9 hours drive to the track was still a “can’t miss” opportunity. 

The Track: 
Its deviously different 3 corners have confounded drivers and engineers since inception which is why it is a favorite of mine. Long before the 1.5 mile, high-banked and dreary cookie-cutter ovals featured prominently on the US racing landscape, track owners seemed to want to use their imaginations to create a unique racing experience for teams, drivers, and fans alike. Pocono is a great example of this. The region around the track property is hilly and wooded and somewhat remote from cities which lends a bit of serenity to an otherwise tempestuous locale. Its chosen setting also makes track access by car less than ideal, mass-transit non-existent, and most hotel inventories over 20 miles away but any fan worth their salt will gladly realize the extra hour either arriving earlier or waiting to enter the property is well-worth it when the green flag flies.  Having never seen any previous iterations, I found the permanent fan amenitites modest, welcoming, and well-thought out.  The extra personnel from cheery ticket-takers to the bathroom attendants that keep the facilities tidy and well-stocked help to ensure the fan feels well-regarded by the track. The premium Paddock Club seating is the central (seen on TV as the black and white checkered color) of the Main (and only) Grandstand in which each ticketed seat is a plastic, molded chair seat and back which makes a multiple hour event more tolerable than the remaining aluminum bleachers. 

The Patron-Race Experience: 
Making such a long trek, I wanted to be sure to give myself some time to experience the garages and fan village, so I purchased the $20 Saturday General Admission (required for track access) to catch practice, qualifying, vintage cars lap, and the Indy Lights race. I also opted to add the $20 Paddock Pass for the infield garage access Saturday only.  The Paddock Pass was well worth it for me to be able to chat with crew or drivers between practice sessions, grab a picture or an autograph, or just to see the garage happenings up-close.
Hundreds of fans took advantage of the Saturday Paddock Pass and the great access it provides.
You never know whom you might meet in the Paddock…
Sunday’s raceday ticket placed us one section before the Start/Finish line approximately halfway up which is fairly close to my ideal location. I have found that my Indycar viewing is enhanced by being as close as possible to the track as opposed to the common thought for NASCAR fans to sit as high as possible.  I enjoy the increased sensation of Indycar speeds being lower and closer to the racing action. There are also the uppermost levels of enclosed or shaded sections in the long main grandstand which provide premium service and amenities for a premium price. All told my Saturday GA ticket ($20), Paddock Pass ($20), and Terrace Platinum level seat ($75) set me back a very reasonable $115 total for nearly unlimited access and a great vantage point for the race. Parking at the track is free, and the camping area fees also look to be fairly priced. 

The view from Section NB, Row 24 – approximately halfway up the grandstand
Fans can bring a modestly-sized cooler into the track stocked with food and beverages in non-glass bottles or cans provided it meets with the track’s size restrictions. Generous since the food and drink for sale is priced at a premium typical of a sporting event. 

Exiting following the race was a fairly typical 2-hour wait so we spent some of that time taking in the post-race awards and festivities, walking about the grandstand reviewing other vantage points, buying souvenirs (anything referencing this year’s race was sold-out prior to the end of the race), an passing time with a futbol in the grassy lot. Once exiting traffic seemed to be freed up, we made our way to the interstate and back to our hotel in Stroudsburg for the evening. 

For international fans traveling to the US for this race, I imagine several advantages in seeing the Pocono race: 1. the proximity to NYC or Philly for better prices on airplane service;   2. the relative bargain prices for lodging; 3. the historic nature of the oval. 4. The simple dedication to fans’ enjoyment by the ownership. For those reasons and also including getting to see ‘the fastest, most versatile drivers on the planet’, Pocono is a good destination for International Indycar fans if Indy has already been crossed off their lists.

I can say without doubt that, of all the tracks that share both Indycar and NASCAR dates, I’ve never felt as welcomed as I was at Pocono Raceway. The amenities are good and I will easily consider this race again next year, most likely with more race fans in tow.

‘Nostalgesic’ and Home Remedies

Hanging On
Here in the middle-west of the USA, winter has seemingly clung all too desperately, truncating the typical spring rhythms. I’ve been guilty of staying too late at a good party myself, not listening to the signs that tell me “you’re done here”.  I often find it interesting how the subconscious / universe / nature / mysterious higher powers so often whisper hints. So often those hints are helpful, if we can be bothered to listen.

Looking Back

I enjoy nostalgia as many of you tens of readers are well aware. I, almost daily, saunter down to the Indycar clubhouse pool, with my white 80s sunglasses, checkered Vans, neon-colored zinc-oxide on my nose, corduroy OP shorts, and faded Spuds MacKenzie beach towel for a dip into the numbers and names of Indycar lore to produce #DZsIndycarTrivia on Twitter. If you have no idea to what I’ve referenced, please spend some time on Google and follow me on Twitter after you finish reading this post. Produced in contrast to the hyper-current, immediacy-addicted world of ‘news first, ask questions later’, my ‘nostalgesic’ was produced to soothe the pains of Indycar’s cycle of ‘bad news’ which seemingly came on a daily basis during the latter half of 2012.

It’s a Trap!

Nostalgia, at it’s best, can use the past to help create a better future. This is the aim of my Trivial fun – to playfully remind or illuminate others to how things actually were before them and by having a clear understanding of the past, we are far less likely to repeat the mistakes. As much fun as I have doing #DZsIndycarTrivia on Twitter, I’ve also heard this little whisper lately to be careful of what’s upcoming… There is a ‘trap’, while only looking backwards out of the family sedan’s rear window – you will most-certainly miss the good bits right in front of you. The actual on-track Indycar product has been quite good out-of-the-box from St. Pete in 2012 to date (Barber 2013), and I’ve been careful to listen to that voice of reason. The perception of how that product is produced however is the problem.

Out the Front Window

Sooooooo… with Pole Day JUST A MONTH AWAY (yes, you read that correctly), I find myself still shaking off the winter doldrums and beginning to turn to that annual automotive congregational feast of racing nostalgia that is The Indy 500. Nothing for me is as therapeutic and this race and all its history and how almost every year adds something great to the lustrous patina of Indycar. How and why the bounty of that feast is so difficult to pass around and feed the rest of the Indycar calendar is subject of much ongoing debate. All I know is that if one is quiet enough to shut out the chatter of the day and simply enjoy the racing, you will more often than not have that satisfied feeling of fullness. I find it a bit like enjoying something like calimari – the more I can compartmentalize the intricacies of the substance and its preparation, the more I’m likely to simply bite into it and enjoy. Not always is that possible however and we should always be conscious of what we consume, so betwixt and betwain we humans often are.  

To Every Thing a Season
So time now for me to look forward, to enjoy it for what it is, and to not forget to savor those most tasty bits for they also are too few and far between. I wish you all good Indycar times with friends and family and if you’ll be at Indy or Pocono, I hope to see you at the track. If not, keep on hanging around the blogosphere or catch me on Twitter for #DZsIndycarTrivia. I’ll keep cooking up fresh questions for you.