Live Blog – Pocono Day 1

5:15 PM — The first, final, and only practice session is in the books, and the two-hour affair saw a fan favorite atop the speed charts.  Turning the only lap of the day at over 216 mph, AJ Foyt Racing’s Tony Kanaan put his ABC Supply Chevrolet into P1 for the day in his car sponsor’s title race.

Following Kanaan were three Hondas of Scott Dixon, Santino Ferrucci, and Alexander Rossi.

A number of surprising positions were seen on the final speed chart, but the biggest surprise, in my opinion, was the lack of speed from Will Power and Josef Newgarden out of the Penske camp.  Newgarden and Power were only able to muster enough speed to finish 17th and 20th, respectively.  While Newgarden ran 70 laps during the session, Power’s 81 laps were second only to Felix Rosenqvist’s 83 laps.  I’ve been surprised when the Penske teams pull rabbits out of their hats before, but this time, they really seem a bit lost.

If there is a saving grace for Team Penske, it’s that their third teammate, Simon Pagenaud, was able to salvage a fifth-place speed this afternoon, in spite of being limited to only 65 laps due to a clutch issue at the beginning of practice.  The reigning Indianapolis 500 winner missed the first half hour of practice while his team tried to correct his clutch issue and then spent most of the remaining session running in traffic (often behind either of the Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsport cars of James Hinchcliffe and Marcus Ericsson).  Simon was often able to pull up to the rear wing of the car he was following, usually between Turns 1 and 2, but would lose ground in Turn 2, killing his momentum all the way through Turn 3 and down the front straight.

As noted, we’ve seen Penske teams look completely lost in practice and qualifying at other tracks, only to see them find their mojo overnight, but with no further practice before the cars roll off for tomorrow’s 500-mile race, finding a couple miles per hour over night is a lot to ask even from a team of Penske’s caliber.

Also surprisingly slow were both of the Ed Carpenter Racing cars of boss-man Ed Carpenter and second-year teammate Spencer Pigot.  Given that all three ECR cars qualified in the Top 9 at Indianapolis and Carpenter finished a solid sixth, it will be a long night of head scratching for the two slowest cars from today’s practice.  With Ed driving only the ovals and this his penultimate race of the season, he will be desperately wanting to find the magic overnight to turn in a good performance tomorrow.

A tip of the hat goes to the Carlin teammates of Charlie Kimball and Conor Daly, who both spent much of the early portion of the session within the Top 5 before ultimately finishing 8th and 14th, respectively.  Given the disaster that befell the team at Indianapolis, where both cars failed to qualify, it is a bit surprising to see both cars so quick on this track with similar traits to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.  But Kimball himself was quick at Indianapolis in the third and only successful Carlin entry, and having Daly in the second car here might just be the shot in the arm the teams needs to reestablish their confidence and post a solid effort.  This team, perhaps more so than any other team other than AJ Foyt Racing, is in need of a good finish here tomorrow.  Putting two cars in the Top 10 will feel like a win for all of Carlin.

So now that the practice is out of the way, the question becomes, “How will the race look tomorrow?”  Based on what was seen today, I think it will look more like 2018 than those races seen with manufacturer aero kits (2015-2017) or the stock Dallara bodies (2013-2014).  I’m not sure we will see someone dominate like Alexander Rossi did last year, but I also don’t expect to see a great number of on-track passes.  Passing will be difficult, especially more than two laps after the start or a restart when the field gets strung out, but the hope is passing will increase as the tires wear and speed differentials increase.

Looking at the final speed charts and the drivers’ starting positions, we see Kanaan (starting 19th), Dixon (4th), Ferrucci (13th), Rossi (2nd), Pagenaud (3rd), Herta (14th), Bourdais (11th), Kimball (21st), Hunter-Reay (6th), and Rahal (8th).  Conversely, looking at the Top 10 starters and their speeds today, we see Newgarden (17th), Rossi (4th), Pagenaud (5th), Dixon (2nd), Power (20th), Hunter-Reay (9th), Sato (18th), Rahal (10th), Rosenqvist (11th), and Hinchcliffe (13th).  In other words, there should be a fantastic mix of fast and “slow” drivers throughout the starting line-up tomorrow, which should make the start of the race a thrill.  Given how fast Kanaan and Santucci were today and their propensity for making exciting, daring, outside moves on starts and restarts, the start of tomorrow’s race alone could be worth the price of admission!

That’s going to wrap it up for today here at Pocono.  Kelli and I are going to go grab dinner with George and Susan Phillips and then it’s back to our hotel in Wilkes-Barre.  It will be a long evening of watching the weather and hoping the forecast gets better through the evening.

As always, thanks so much for following along.  Please be sure to post any comments below or shoot me message on Twitter.


11:40 AM — The practice that was supposed to start at 9:30 has been canceled, and the starting line-up for the ABC Supply 500 will be set by entrant points.  Heavy rains moved into the area around 10:45, approximately 15 minutes after the morning practice session was supposed to conclude.  Unfortunately practice was not able to go off as scheduled because the medical helicopter (that I believe was coming from Allentown) was not able to fly due to the low cloud ceiling.

The good news is that there is very little track activity today, so INDYCAR had plenty of flexibility in terms of scheduling practice time.  Once the track dries, a two-hour practice session will get underway.  This will be the only on-track time for the Indy cars prior to tomorrow’s race.

The bad news is there is very little track activity, and that brings us to the larger question mark hovering over this weekend… that of the future of this race.

It’s no secret that the future of IndyCar at Pocono has been hanging by a thread for many years.  There was talk around 2016 that INDYCAR might be running its final race at the 3-turned oval that was built specifically for Indy cars, but a three-year deal was soon announced that secured the race’s future through 2019.  Now the cycle has begun again.

Although I personally love coming to this race and this facility, the race has never really drawn a huge crowd and corporate support doesn’t seem to be overly flush.  If I’m being brutally honest, there really just isn’t a whole lot of buzz for the event, even in the area of the track.  Staying in Wilkes-Barre, the largest metropolitan area within 50 miles of the track, I have seen zero promotion of the race or any indication whatsoever there was an event in town.  Perhaps I’ve just missed it, and I’m sure the good folks here at Pocono Raceway are trying their best to promote the event, but I haven’t seen it in my short time here.

I was also in New York City for five days last week and saw no signs of the race anywhere there either.  That being said, I’m sure advertising in NYC is stupid expensive and probably has very little return on investment.  Of course, with nearly 9 million people in the city and a metro area significantly larger, it doesn’t take much of a percentage to get more fans from the area.

Regardless of the advertising I have not personally seen, the fact remains this race has been a tough sell since the return of the series in 2013.  Initially run on or near the July 4th weekend, the race shifted to its current August date prior to 2016.  Attendance has been decent, maybe 10-15,000, but not spectacular.  Combine the already difficult draw for attendance that is usually the case for very rural oval tracks with the seemingly annual anti-rain dance that is necessary here and it isn’t terribly difficult to see why the future of this race seems to constantly be in doubt.

But to me, the biggest problem with getting casual fans to come to Pocono isn’t about rain or the rural setting or lack of advertising.  Quite honestly, it comes down to the fact there is really just very little going on at the track during this weekend.

Since I made my second trip here in 2016 (and possibly before… I honestly just don’t remember back that far), the NTT IndyCar Series will be the only series on track this weekend.  No Indy Lights.  No NASCAR anything series.  No ARCA.  No anything.  It’s just IndyCar.  To me, and other die-hards, that’s just fine.  But when you’re trying to grow a fan base, especially in an area that has had difficulty drawing crowds even for their NASCAR races, expecting fans to sit in the stands from 9:30 am to 5:00 pm to watch two hour-long practice sessions and a 75-minute, single-car qualifying session is a difficult ask.  It’s too much downtime and not enough track activity, plain and simple.

I’m honestly not sure who is to blame for this problem.  I’m not sure if this is an issue of Pocono not being willing to pony up extra funds to bring support series to the event or if other series aren’t interested in running on such a big track, or if INDYCAR has somehow dropped the ball with this.  No matter who is responsible, it’s a huge problem and one that is weighing down this event.

Over the years, major selling points of road and street races on the IndyCar schedule are the festival-like atmosphere and the constant on-track activity.  For most road and street courses, cars of one form or another are usually running from early in the morning (usually well before most fans arrive at the track) until long after most fans are ready to call it a day.  Rarely do 15 minutes pass when fans don’t see cars on the track.

Here at the ABC Supply 500 this weekend, the IndyCar schedule has a scheduled practice from 9:30-10:30, qualifying from 12:30 to 1:45, and a final practice from 4:00-5:00.  Scattered between those sessions are periods of vintage cars on track, some on the big oval and some on the southern portion of the interior road course.  These aren’t races or preparatory sessions but more of hobbyists and moving displays.  They are cool to see for die-hard race fans who are into the history of the sport but do nothing for enticing fans to come visit the track for the full day.

I honestly can’t say what the best solution is.  As is typical, I’m good at pointing out problems but significantly less adept at coming up with solutions.  Be that as it may, the best solution I have is one that I haven’t heard yet discussed anywhere.  With all the talk surrounding the possibility of INDYCAR and NASCAR finally pairing up for a weekend doubleheader, it seems to me Pocono would be a perfect venue for such a weekend.

With struggling attendance at both NASCAR weekends, the track will host the first NASCAR Cup weekend doubleheader in 2020, running 400-mile races on both Saturday and Sunday.  But wouldn’t it be great for fans to come to the track and see two very different types of race cars competing on the big track?  With the sprawling grounds and facilities, there is more than ample infrastructure to support both series at the same time.  To me, it’s a great solution to two or three problems at the same time.

The biggest drawback would probably come from Pocono Raceway itself, who would likely then lose its second Cup weekend and the gigantic TV revenue paycheck that comes along with it.  But Pocono has long been rumored to be losing one of these races anyway so the track should be looking for every possible opportunity to maximize the one weekend it may be retaining.  What better way than marketing to a vastly different audience and bringing them in for a full weekend of racing activities.

The logistics of making an INDYCAR/NASCAR doubleheader weekend actually happen are significant and best covered in a separate post.  Suffice is to say that it will take a very well coordinated effort by INDYCAR, NASCAR, and whatever track is willing to undertake such a monumental effort, but the effort would be well rewarded with an increased fanbase and hopefully a successful weekend.

I’ve heard rumors of Richmond (which seems to be the leading contender for replacing Pocono on the IndyCar calendar), California, the Charlotte roval, and even Iowa hosting the dreamed-of doubleheader, but for whatever reason, I’ve heard no mention of Pocono being on that short list.  That’s a real shame, because if that’s what it takes to keep Pocono on the IndyCar calendar, then please make it happen, regardless if Richmond is on the 2020 schedule or not.  I would be very sad to see this wonderful IndyCar track left off the schedule and lost for another 25 years.


 

9:10 AM — Welcome to Pocono Raceway for the 14th round of the 2019 NTT IndyCar Series season and INDYCAR’s seventh visit since its return to the rural Pennsylvanian facility in 2013.

As always seems to be the case when the Series comes to this picturesque facility, questions marks, both small and large, are swirling around the future of this race in terms of both the short-term weather forecast and the long-term stability of the event.

In the short term, it seems like the poor folks here at Pocono are biting their nails and watching the radar every single time they open the gates, whether for IndyCar racing or NASCAR.  Sure enough, in spite of a long-range forecast that has looked splendid all week, the weekend forecasts have turned sour over the past 24 hours.  When I awoke this morning in Wilkes-Barre, about 20 miles north of the track, I was greeted by a fairly substantial rain shower that followed us all the way into Blakeslee, about five miles north of PIR.

As of now, there doesn’t appear to have been any rain at the track and the skies are trying to clear.  However, radar shows there are a few storm pockets to the west near Hazelton.  They are moving northeast at this time but appear to be expanding and the southern edge of these storms might clip the track.  It doesn’t appear they will get here quick enough to affect practice (which starts at 9:30 am ET), but they might have an effect on qualifying that is scheduled to roll off at 12:30 pm.

And if today’s schedule looks like it could be impacted by rain, tomorrow’s looks even less promising.  Just over 24 hours out from race time, chances of rain are now up to 60% for most of the day.  As tends to always be the case, it will be a long night and day of crossing our fingers to find a window to run this race.  Given the perilous future of this race, the last thing it needs is another rain delay that causes the race to be run on Monday.

Speaking of the future of this race, that is an even bigger question mark that I will address in the next segment following this morning’s practice.

 

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