Pocono promising changes after drivers label tricky triangle unsafe track

By Dan Gelston, AP
Saturday, July 31, 2010

Pocono promising safety changes

LONG POND, Pa. — Pocono Raceway keeps taking hits.

Often criticized by drivers for unnecessary 500-mile races and for clogging two spots on the Sprint Cup schedule, the 2½-mile triangle track is now deemed by some unsafe after an accident in the June race involving Kasey Kahne.

The rally cry of “shorten the races” has morphed into “make them safer.”

Track president Brandon Igdalsky is listening — and he’s promising to do what it takes to improve the track.

“Do we need to make changes? Yes,” he said.

Greg Biffle offered the harshest critique in a recent Sports Illustrated story, saying “they’re going to kill somebody there.” He added: “If they don’t change that racetrack — maybe not next year, maybe not three years from now — they’ll hurt somebody there.”

Igdalsky wants the feedback — even as he feels Biffle overstated the danger — and has already started planning safety improvements. The track is adding more SAFER barriers in time for next year’s race and would like to install a catch fence along the non-grandstand areas.

The barriers would be installed along the inside wall between turns 1 and 2 and down the “Long Pond” stretch. The barriers, a combination of steel and foam, will replace the current guard rail system. SAFER barriers are currently in place at each of NASCAR’s oval tracks and are also being installed on the road course at Watkins Glen.

Kahne was involved in a huge scare in the June race when he lost control of his car in the grass, went airborne and into the trees that line the track. Had the car sailed higher, Kahne would have flipped out of the track.

“The Kasey thing was a freak thing,” Igdalsky said. “He didn’t make anything out of it. Everybody else decided to talk about it.”

Still, Igdalsky would like to add a catch fence there in time for 2011.

Jimmie Johnson, the four-time defending Cup champion, believes a catch fence is one of the necessary changes.

“And not just this track, but I don’t think grass has any purpose inside the walls of a race track anymore,” he said “There’s no friction to slow down the vehicle, and then the cars just hammer the wall when that’s the case. And then you get mud and rain and a wheel can sink into the mud and flip the car over and get it flipping. We’ve seen that at Daytona and Talladega, and even here.”

Add it to the Pocono wish list.

The 34-year-old Igdalsky has taken a bigger role as his grandfather, track owner Joseph Mattioli, scales back his duties. Igdalsky helped bring corporate sponsorship to the races, the first trucks race on Saturday, and has an eye on bringing back an IndyCar Series race.

“We’re making some noise,” Igdalsky said.

Pocono Raceway had corporate sponsorship for its June Cup race for the first time since 1996. Pocono’s June race had been called the Pocono 500 since 1997.

Mattioli said last year that Pocono didn’t have sponsorship because he didn’t need the money.

“I don’t need the money and if you don’t need the money, what the hell is the sense of sponsorship?” Mattioli said last June. “We call all the shots. All the VIPs on race day are our people, not the sponsor’s people.”

He said before Saturday’s trucks race the sponsorship package “was so nice we couldn’t refuse it.”

Mattioli is used to criticism of his track and has made improvements. The track underwent a 10-year renovation in the 1990s, adding new crash walls, a garage area and 150-site motor home park.

He had a decrepit section of track filled in 2008 with asphalt that created a patch drivers raved about.

Igdalsky, and his brother Nick, is easing Pocono into an always-evolving modern day sports world. As a dogged promoter, Igdalsky is searching for ways to bring more events to the Pocono. That’s why he won’t rule out making a pitch for an IndyCar Series race, only a month after the open-wheel series announced it was returning to New Hampshire.

“This place was built for IndyCars. It was built by IndyCar drivers,” Igdalsky said. “I’m not going to say it’s going to happen.”

One thing he won’t do is surrender a Sprint Cup series race. Mattioli and Igdalsky are both adamant that they will never give up one of their two races.

“I know that for a fact,” Igdalsky said. “We’re not giving up any races.”

Mattioli called the idea of offering up a race “stupid.”

Richard Petty won the first NASCAR race held on the triangle — the Purolator 500 — in 1974 and a second race was added to the schedule in 1982. The family remains a staunch defender of the 500-mile races and has no plans to cut back.

Few understand why the track has two races each season separated by only eight weeks and neither one is a Chase for the Sprint Cup championship event.

“We’re like the bad stepchild, aren’t we?” Igdalsky said. “Everyone kind of looks at us like, ‘These guys are still around?’ But we’re here.”

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