LONG POND, Pennsylvania: The relatively mild, almost snow-free winter may have been bad for the skiing industry in the Poconos, but it was good for another major Poconos business.
Thanks to some cooperation from Mother Nature, Pocono Raceway was able to get a lot accomplished since last August.
As the so-called “Tricky Triangle” welcomed back a few NASCAR Sprint Cup drivers to Monroe County the past few days for some Goodyear tire testing, the place seemed more than ready to host three major races this spring and summer, starting with the Axalta “We Paint Winners” 400 on June 5.
As usual, the drivers found something new when they arrived.
“Our construction crews were thrilled with the warmer winter because we were able to get the first phase of the SAFER barrier project done and we added a lot of SAFER barrier and catch fence along the front straightaway,” Brandon Igdalsky, Pocono’s president and CEO, said last week as Martin Truex Jr., Ryan Newman and Kyle Larson completed their two-day tire test.
More SAFER barrier, which is officially a steel and foam energy reduction barrier designed to absorb impact and reduce the severity of collisions, will be installed in September to completely “envelope the track,” according to Igdalsky.
The improvements made to ensure track safety, along with an abundance of cosmetic enhancements and fan-friendly features such as a Bark Park for family pets, has made Pocono a much more popular place for the NASCAR community in recent years.
Of course, nothing brings out the fans more than close, competitive racing and the first two months of this year’s Sprint Cup season has produced some exciting finishes.
A new aero package designed to increase downforce on the cars has created what was intended, and that’s old-school stock car racing.
“The new downforce package has made the racing a lot more fun, a lot more competitive, a lot more challenging,” said Martin Truex Jr., who won the June race last year at Pocono. “The cars are harder to drive, which is what we all wanted. The tires are wearing out more, which is what we all wanted.”
“As we go forward, things are going to get even better. Honestly, I am having a lot more fun because it has been easier to race in traffic and easier to run behind guys and move around on the racetrack and make things happen. There are more options, more opportunities, for passing,” he added.
GOOD FOR PASSING
That would bode well for Pocono where there hasn’t been many places on the 2.5-mile (4.0-kilometer) tri-oval where drivers felt capable of making passes. Instead, there has been a tendency for cars to get stretched out and fans desperately hoping for a caution flag to lump them all back together for restarts.
Igdalsky, who admitted it was great to hear the sound of engines roaring around the track the past few days, is a big racing fan as well a track owner and he is excited by what he has seen.
“To see the passing throughout the field, I think the racing has been better than it has been in a few years,” Igdalsky said. “As the teams figure out the [downforce]package even more, I think it’s going to get even better.”
He added that he particularly can’t wait to see what effect that has on the racing at Pocono and is hoping it can return to the closer racing that track fans enjoyed in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
A few years ago, there was some media speculation that Pocono would lose one of its two Sprint Cup races to another track.
Not only hasn’t that happened, but Pocono has actually picked up an Xfinity Series race to be added to the June race weekend, meaning that the top three circuits in NASCAR will be coming to Long Pond Road.
“We’ve got great racing fans here in the Northeast and having Xfinity here is great because they’re based in Philadelphia. It’s their home state, their home track … that kind of feel. We’re excited to have them become part of our family and we’re happy to be a part of their family and we’ve got some big plans, big announcements to come. They’re going to have a big impact over the next five years.”
In addition to the June race, NASCAR makes a return stop the last weekend in July for the Pennsylvania 400, a race weekend that also includes the Pocono Mountains 150, a Camping World Truck Series race, and the return of IndyCars the weekend of August 20-21 for the ABC Supply 500.