I actually walked some of the spinach farm that would give rise to Pocono International Raceway. I was given a tour, by then track General Manager Bill Marvel, of the 2.5-mile triangle oval while it was under construction. One memorable moment that day was when I asked about the "press box" and Marvel pointed to where it would be and corrected me that it would be called the "media box" because electronic and well as print journalists would be housed there. (Bill was ahead of his time.) Duly noted by me. This was more than four decades ago.
I attended the dinner in Philadelphia where the "Triple Crown" (Indy, Pocono, Ontario) was announced. I was there for the first Schaefer (beer) 500 in 1971, when Mark Donohue dominated but was passed by Joe Leonard in tricky Turn 2 in the closing laps, then learned Leonard's line and repassed him for the inaugural victory. I was there for the first USAC stock car race and the debut of NASCAR. I was there for Formula 5000 and IMSA road races and even the ill-fated World Series of Auto Racing, where midgets and sprints ran the infield three-quarter mile oval in the snow! I reported on most of those happenings for the Philadelphia Daily News. Frequent rainy days and a leaky infield media center led us to call it "Poco-No-Go."
I covered a lot of weird Pocono stories in those 1970s days. Deer ran onto the track, forcing yellows. A National Anthem singer, apparently under the influence of adult beverages, got booed. Pancho Carter let loose with a long list of complaints about the track that got him in hot water with his sponsor when I and others quoted him at length. A.J. Foyt invited me and one other writer into his garage one afternoon and offered his opinion on subjects ranging from Ted Kennedy to international wars to yes, the media. There were many traffic nightmares so Dr. Joseph Mattioli asked me to join him on a race-morning helicopter flight to survey the scene -- we wound-up making an emergency landing in a nearby open field. Roger Penske's helicopter wasn't allowed to land in the infield one year because -- no, I'm not making this up -- management claimed it was guarding against people sneaking in on helicopters without buying a ticket. (!)
I was there when USAC ran without CART in 1979. I was CART's communications director when that happened again in 1981 and lawsuits were filed. I was there when those issues were settled -- but hard feelings remained -- and CART leased the track for a 1983 race, the Domino's Pizza 500, which we promoted and staged on about 90 days notice. (Try that some time!) And I was there for CART's last race in 1989. The cars of Indy for which Pocono originally was built would not return.
Until this weekend. Last year Randy Bernard negotiated with new track leader Brandon Igdalsky to bring IndyCar back to Pocono. It's an important Business of Racing moment for both organizations. Bernard is gone, of course, but it's essential for IndyCar's future in the northeast (where we used to have races not just at Pocono, but also Langhorne, Trenton and Nazareth) to have an entertaining show. The kind that generates positive word-of-mouth buzz. It can't be another New Hampshire one-and-done deal. The series is too fragile as it is to take that sort of blow.
Doc Joe vowed open-wheel machines would never return to Pocono under his watch, but Igdalsky has made bold moves since Mattioli's death, including the much-needed call to shorten the Sprint Cup races to 400 miles. Now he's welcomed IndyCar back and is trying to sell tickets to three major events in a short period of time -- never an easy task.
I'm not buying the storyline that the "Triple Crown" has returned (with Auto Club Speedway's 500) because, due to TV time limitations, Pocono will only be 400 miles. But, I guess you could say for sentimental reasons, I'll be watching Pocono more closely than any race this season aside from the Indy 500 itself.
I wish I could have gone back to Pennsylvania to see it first-hand and remember again some of those strange stories I wrote about and was a part of. But that's not doable. If the racing is good, if the track's numerous facility and safety improvements work, if the crowd is at least respectable, I'll be glad. Good luck to all.
I joined other members of the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame nominating and voting committee for a lively and passionate one-hour teleconference last week. The Hall's Board of Directors has revised the process which likely will mean a maximum of eight people will join the Hall in any given year (from the usual 12): Three drivers, two people from the "vehicles" category (owners, mechanics, etc.) and two from the "events" category (promoters, PA announcers, media, etc.) plus another person involved in the sport prior to 1945.
I support these changes. So should avid sprint car fans. Sprint car racing is hard and it should be hard to get into the Hall. As several voters mentioned, there are many people worthy of consideration, but it's that very kind of debate over who is nominated and elected and who isn't that is healthy for the process, the sport, and the Hall.
I'm a strong avocate of honoring those who didn't have a "hands-on" role with the cars but who otherwise made important contributions to sprint car racing's success and helped bring a wider public attention to this thrilling type of motorsports. Such as sponsor/manufacturer representatives, promoters, officials, PA announcers, PR people and media. I spoke up for that during the call and will continue to encourage due consideration for those who helped make it happen.
The National Sprint Car Hall of Fame is located in Knoxville, Iowa. To learn more, go to the website: www.sprintcarhof.com
[ more next Monday, special thoughts on the seventh anniversary of this blog . . . ]