SI Vault
Brock Yates
July 12, 1971
It was a wonder that Bill Marvel (left) got the Pocono Raceway built, but no surprise that mannerly Mark Donohue was the first winner at Indy East
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July 12, 1971

Captain Marvel Presents Captain Nice

It was a wonder that Bill Marvel (left) got the Pocono Raceway built, but no surprise that mannerly Mark Donohue was the first winner at Indy East

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Another Indianapolis? Let's see now, automobile racing already has the mossy old Brickyard, pride of Hoosier-land and home of the Memorial Day 500. And who can forget the sumptuous Ontario Motor Speedway in California, which is all of one year old and bills itself as the Indianapolis of the West. But since the Indy biz obviously abhors a vacuum, it should come as no surprise that a 2.5-mile track in Pennsylvania that had its first race last Saturday modestly accepts the title Indianapolis of the East. Three Indy Speedways spread from sea to shining sea! But while Ontario is a near duplicate of the original Indianapolis layout, the new track, called the Pocono International Raceway, is a madcap triangular affair, with each corner having a different angle of banking and turning radius. The three Indys are independently owned and financed, but they all dip generously into the same reservoir of fable and lore that flows knee-deep across the authentic Indianapolis, and each operates a big-buck, high-speed 500-mile race.

"I've dreamed for years of a Triple Crown in automobile racing," exults Bill Marvel, the track manager, as he yaws a station wagon filled with visitors through Pocono's rather narrow, decidedly bumpy second turn. "Now with Pocono running on Independence weekend and Ontario on Labor Day, plus Indy's traditional date, we've got three races that are the richest and most important in the sport."

Marvel floors the wagon and rumbles down Pocono's short north straightaway, screeches through the broad, low-banked third turn and on to the main straight, a 3,740-foot avenue on which the Indy cars will reach 230 mph.

"A year ago when I started here," says Marvel, "there was nothing but a little stock-car track and wooden stands for 10,000 people stuck in the middle of this old spinach patch. A few bulldozer cuts were all that outlined where the big track would go. Nobody thought we could get it finished for this race. Why, just a few weeks ago an Indy driver on his way home from the Speedway drove into the place, looked around and left telling everybody there would never be a race here in July. He was wrong, but he'll never know how close he was to being right."

Marvel speeds past the grandstand and points at the blurred mass of spidery bleachers and boxes, topped by a glassed-in timing booth. "Sixty thousand seats up there! Three weeks ago that was nothing but level ground. We worked seven days a week, 24 hours a day. Tomorrow that will be a mass of people, all sitting there to watch the first annual Pocono 500. And you know what? The driver who said we'd never have a race is in the starting field."

That prophet and the 32 other drivers approached the race with slightly less exuberance than Marvel, for Pocono's patchwork of varying turns had them guessing. Mark Donohue, a man who has been called Captain Nice because of his gentlemanly approach to racing, confessed after handily winning the pole at 172.393 mph that "I still haven't figured out the groove." After losing his fiendishly rapid McLaren racer while it was parked on the sidelines late in the Indianapolis 500—it was hit by another car—he and the Roger Penske racing team showed up at Pocono with a new sister car, with which they immediately established their superiority.

Not surprisingly, some of the slower drivers and their crew chiefs complained loudly about the bumps. The faster contingent—Bobby and Al Unser, who occupied the front row with Donohue, second-row starters Joe Leonard, Mario Andretti and Gordon Johncock, plus speedy pros like Peter Revson, A. J. Foyt and Lloyd Ruby—said little and stoically went about the business of adjusting suspensions.

"The slow starters have to have some excuse," said one of Penske's men. "At Pocono it's the bumps they gripe about. They forget that Indy was originally paved with bricks."

Andretti, who serves on the track's board of directors, said it was not the bumps but the track's configuration that would extract the most from car and driver. "This is a very demanding speedway requiring tremendous stamina and concentration," he said. "Turn One has both the highest bank and the tightest radius. It has just a single line and it simply does not permit mistakes. Turn Two is very fast, with some bumps right at the apex. Turn Three, leading onto the main straight, is broad and open and most of us still haven't figured out how fast we can get through there."

Conceived in the 1950s by a group of resort developers, the Pocono track fell into financial doldrums and lay silent and weed-covered until an energetic Philadelphia dentist named Joseph Mattioli got into the act a few years ago. Mattioli and his wife Rose, who is a podiatrist, both had lucrative practices (nose to toes with Joe and Rose, quipped friends) and they owned a number of business interests in the Pocono vacation country, which led to an investment in the track. Last year they hired Bill Marvel to manage the construction and operate the speedway.

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