In 1971, drivers and teams from the USAC Champ Car Series – a forerunner to what is now known as the IZOD IndyCar Series – headed to Pocono (Pa.) Raceway, a brand new track on the circuit, for the Schaefer 500.
The participants headed to Pocono with no idea what to expect, as the 2.5-mile triangular layout designed by two-time Indianapolis 500 champion Rodger Ward was (and remains) unlike any other track in the world, with three different corners, each modeled after a different track. Turn one, which is banked at 14 degrees, is modeled after the now-closed Trenton (N.J.) Speedway. Turn two, banked at eight degrees, is a nod to the turns at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. And turn three, banked at six degrees, is modeled after the corners at The Milwaukee Mile in West Allis, Wis.
It’s a unique design that has always been a challenge for drivers and mechanics alike as they attempt to find the fastest way around the “Tricky Triangle” in search of victory lane.
The drivers and teams in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series may very well feel like the participants in that 1971 USAC Champ Car race since they will be greeted by a freshly-paved Pocono Raceway and won’t quite know what to expect.
That includes two-time Pocono winner Tony Stewart, driver of the No. 14 Mobil 1/Office Depot Chevrolet for Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR). Stewart, like many of his fellow competitors, will spend Wednesday and Thursday testing on the new surface before the normal three-day race weekend schedule begins on Friday.
Stewart is hoping to find the right combination to score a third victory, just as he did in June 2003 while still driving for Joe Gibbs Racing and again in June 2009 when he claimed the first ever point-paying victory for SHR.
But in addition to the new surface, there is another new wrinkle – a shorter race. Sunday’s race is set for 400 miles, 100 miles less than all previously scheduled Sprint Cup races at the 2.5-mile triangle.
Much as it was for Indy car drivers 41 years ago during the very first race at Pocono, Sunday’s race is the great unknown. And just as Mark Donohue did in 1971 by beating Joe Leonard, Gary Bettenhausen, Sammy Sessions and Jimmy Caruthers, Stewart hopes to be the first to figure out the great unknown.
TONY STEWART, Driver of the No. 14 Mobil 1/Office Depot Chevrolet for Stewart-Haas Racing:
We’re headed to back-to-back races at Pocono and Michigan where both tracks have been repaved. What do you think about going to those places that have a fresh new coat of asphalt and a ton of grip?
“It is what it is. These tracks seem to get better as they get time on them. Pocono’s been around a long time. Pocono was probably due to get repaved, and Michigan is the same way. The racing was great at both of them, but at some point they have to be repaved, and we were at that time, obviously. We’ll see what happens. Obviously, they did a really good job of repaving Phoenix last year and figuring out how to get it to where it was really a racy track, so hopefully that’s going to hold true for both Pocono and Michigan.”
Does going to a repaved venue like Pocono prove to be an advantage for drivers without as much experience, because for once they have the same amount of seat time at that particular racetrack in its current condition as anyone else on the circuit?
“It does, that’s what I liked when we went to Homestead (Fla.) in ’99. I felt like nobody had an advantage over me there. Nobody knows the secrets at a new racetrack unless they’ve tested, and even then they may not know the secrets. It’s a whole new ballgame and it’s totally up for grabs. It’s really anybody’s race.”
Explain a lap around the old Pocono.
“Turn one was probably the easiest of the three – you drove it in kind of deep and then tried to float the car through the corner. You went down the backstretch and into the tunnel turn and it was basically one lane. It was flat and very line-sensitive. You had to make sure you were right on your marks every lap when you went through there. Then the short chute into turn three – it’s a big, long corner and it was also very line-sensitive. Add the fact that we’ve got a straightaway that’s three-quarters of a mile long after that, and it was very important to get through the last corner well. You needed to come off the corner quickly so that you weren’t bogged down when you started down that long straightaway. Each corner had its challenges, and each one tended to present a different set of circumstances with each lap you made.”
What do you expect at the new Pocono?
“No idea. All I know is that the track will have a ton of grip and a ton of speed. We’ll find out how that affects our line around the track as the weekend goes on. I mean, we start making laps there on Wednesday and we don’t race until Sunday. That’s a lot of time to learn.”
Winning by maximizing fuel mileage has been a theme at Pocono. Your win at Pocono three years ago came in a fuel-mileage race. Can you explain what you did to make sure you had enough fuel to go the distance while many of your competitors did not?
“I’ve lost a lot more races like that than I’ve won. It was between Carl (Edwards) and me. We were the strongest two cars at the end of the race and we were able to get the track position we needed. Our guys did a great job of getting us out of the pits in the lead and that gave us the opportunity to make Carl push harder in the beginning to get the lead. Once he went into that fuel conservation mode, we had to follow suit. To be in a situation where your speed is dictated off the guy behind you and not off of what you can do, it’s a different style of racing. It’s hard. It’s just as hard, if not tougher, than trying to run 100 percent.”Follow paulmbanks