IndyCar drivers set for 1st Pocono race since 1989
LONG POND, Pa. (AP) - There was a time when the Andrettis reigned at Pocono Raceway.
Back in August 1986, one of racing's most decorated families pulled off a clean sweep at the 2 1/2-mile track. Michael Andretti won the pole, Mario Andretti won the 500-mile race and Jeff Andretti won the supporting Indy Lights race from the pole.
Sometimes, the family that races together, wins together.
"We cleaned house that weekend,'' a smiling Mario Andretti said. "That was my favorite memory.''
It wouldn't be repeated.
Sure, a feat like that would be tough enough to pull off twice, even for a talented racing family. But there was no chance once open-wheel racing split with Pocono in 1989, leaving NASCAR behind as the top series to compete at the triangle track.
IndyCar seemed destined to live at Pocono only in the record book.
But look what's back in town. Those weren't stock cars zipping around the track at 215-plus mph on Thursday. IndyCar made its official return after a lengthy hiatus, and so much has changed - except for the leaderboard.
Yes, that was an Andretti atop the speed chart for the first test session. Marco Andretti, a third-generation driver, hit 219.282 mph to lead the 24 cars out to practice for Sunday's 400-mile race.
"He's taken to this place, from the first day of practice,'' Mario Andretti said. "He's had a competitive ride throughout.''
It's a virtual hometown track for the Andrettis, who hail from nearby Nazareth. Andretti races for his father, Michael, owner of Andretti Autosport.
Marco was glad his grandfather, Mario, was around to help navigate the track. Mario won the pole for the 1987 race shortly after Marco was born.
"He's there to bounce things off of,'' Marco said. "But he doesn't dictate the way we go. He's been supportive. Only if I'm quickest.''
Marco Andretti, who also topped the second practice at 220.963, can laugh about it. But he knows how much it would mean to put the family back in Victory Lane.
"I think it would be extra special, but I don't think it adds any pressure,'' Andretti said. "The support and everything is greatly appreciated, but there's a lot that has to go right.''
The return to Pocono is being celebrated as a nod to IndyCar's history and tradition. Pocono's three corners were designed in 1965 to model corners at Indianapolis, Milwaukee and now-defunct Trenton, and fans have always considered the track an important venue in open wheel racing.
Before the first test in April, Dario Franchitti was the only driver with significant experience at the track, competing in 2008 during his ill-fated NASCAR stint.
The facility has since undergone a multimillion-dollar renovation that included significant safety upgrades, and the track was repaved in 2012 offering smooth racing at 200 mph.
"These cars are bloody quick around here,'' Franchitti said. "It's a tough place to figure out, with three different corners. Wait until we go into traffic. It's going to get really interesting.''
In bringing Pocono back to the schedule, IndyCar resurrected the "Triple Crown'' challenge, a three-race competition in 2013 for $1 million to the driver that wins the Indianapolis 500, the 400-miler at Pocono and the season finale at Fontana, Calif. A driver who wins two of the three can win a $250,000 bonus from promotion sponsor Fuzzy's Vodka.
Indy 500 winner Tony Kanaan is eligible for the prize. IndyCar ran a "Triple Crown'' at Indianapolis, Pocono and Ontario from 1971-1980 and from 1981-1989 at Indy, Pocono and Michigan. Only Al Unser won all three races in a single season, in 1978.
"I have never raced at Pocono Raceway, but we know we had a good car at Indy,'' Kanaan said.
Also, the series will utilize three-wide starts for Sunday's race.
Pocono CEO and president Brandon Igdalsky said he wanted to check out an IndyCar race at St. Petersburg last season as a fan, but it morphed into a conversation with series officials that led to the series back at the track. He's locked the track into a three-year deal with IndyCar. The open wheel series made its debut at Pocono in 1971 when Mark Donohue won the race.
With dueling series USAC and CART wreaking havoc on the open wheel structure in the late 1980s, Pocono patriarch Joseph Mattioli wanted out. Mattioli, who died in 2012, chose not to seek a new deal after 1989.
"He didn't like the way the CART guys were going about things and they didn't like the way he was going about things,'' Igdalsky said. "They spent years in court and it cost my grandfather a lot of money. He was basically financing the event. He had two that were making money and one that's losing money, so he said, `Why are we going to do it?'''
About 1,000 fans turned out for Thursday's open test, catching some laps before heading off to Fourth of July cookouts.
The race date falls in the middle of the track's two NASCAR Sprint Cup races on June 2 and Aug. 4. Tracks don't release attendance numbers, but Igdalsky said tickets sales were solid.
"It's not Cup, but it's good,'' he said. "For a first time, it's great. We're about where we thought we'd be.''
The fans should get a taste of an exciting open-wheel series offering some of the best racing in any circuit.
"The product is there,'' Mario Andretti said. "This is one of the tracks I knew everybody was going to enjoy. It was my favorite superspeedway to drive on from Day 1.''
Follow Dan Gelston at www.Twitter.com/APGelston
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