Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Bermuda Pennsylvania Triangle

Jimmy Spencer, notable for being a fat, loudmouthed buffoon of a NASCAR driver who became a fat, loudmouthed buffoon of a Speed Channel commentator, has decided in this week's leadup to NASCAR's Pensylvania 500 to call out the Mattioli Family, owners of Pocono Raceway, on their lack of safety improvements to the facility.

Text of Spencer's column may be found HERE.

Certainly, I'd like all racetracks to be as safe as humanly possible so that we can have incidents such as Mike Conway's at Indianapolis, which could've easily killed a driver about 20 years ago, and the driver still has their life and their career. Spencer cites the efforts of Speedway Motorsports, Inc, and International Speedway Corp. -- admittedly a good deal richer than the Mattiolis -- in improving their tracks after complaints come up about safety or fan amenities.

The Mattiolis, perhaps because they don't have the vast resources of these larger companies, have put in SAFER Barriers in the turns, but that's about it. The inside of every piece of the track, save the pit area, is lined with an old-style Armco barrier. Apart from spectator areas and the area that crosses the infield access tunnel, there is no catch fencing on the outside of the track. Case-in-point: Kasey Kahne's car rode the top of the wall on the final lap of the Pocono 500 and, had physics not been so kind, could have fallen off the track and into a forest. Just for some reference, deaths such as Jim Clark's were caused by a car going into a forest.

Now, since this is a NASCAR track and Spencer is a NASCAR commentator, this is all very taxicab-centric for the moment. HOWEVER!! Pocono Raceway used to be a staple of the IndyCar championship with both USAC and CART. It was one of three tracks in the Triple Crown of 500-mile races back in the "good ol' days". The list of IndyCar Pocono 500 winners reads like a hall of fame of American open-wheelers (and Teo Fabi).

Plus, it's easily the single coolest oval track in the nation. Whereas most tracks are based on old horse racing ovals, clones of Charlotte, or smaller versions of Daytona, Pocono is one of the lone holdouts from an era of entirely unique oval tracks. It has three wildly different turns, one based on Trenton's first turn, one based on any of Indianapolis' four corners, and one based on Milwaukee's flat sweepers. Engineers acclimated to the cookie-cutters that essentially have two identical corners glued to each other by straightaways or tri-ovals are given fits over the design lunacy of Pocono. You have to be a heck of a driver to take on the challenge of Pocono and survive.

Tying this all back together, one of the chief reasons IndyCars can't drive at Pocono is the fact that, should there be a crash, someone will probably have their career end. A few other details, like rough pavement are not quite as bad and easier to fix, but that safety issue is something that needs fixing. Do that and Pocono is suddenly opened back up to the world of open-wheel. Randy Bernard seems to be on a push for unique short ovals to really challenge the drivers, but he should really consider the world's most unique superspeedway if the management ever finds the time to make the improvements that their property so desperately needs.


  1. I haven't read Spencer's comments (and am not inclined to), but I might guess he is referencing the fact that Pocono is spending large money on an expansive solar panel field which will produce more than enough electricity to power the facility and many neighboring homes. Some pictures of the progress can be found here on Facebook:!/album.php?aid=168884&id=58327677625

    They are promoting their "green" facility through Facebook, but I'm with those that would call for vastly improving the scant safety features there currently. I can also certainly understand why IndyCar wouldn't race there based on the minimal protection provided to the drivers and the fans.

    I hope they also have plans to not only upgrade their energy system but also bring the facility to current safety standards. Despite its history and unique design, only when safe should IndyCar return.

  2. OK, I've read the Spencer comments from last week he actually highlighted how far behind the track is in terms of safety barriers for both racers and fans. The relatively low grade of existing barriers and lack of modern barriers was really surprising so I was in agreement with him about the facility.

    What was most appalling to me though was the negative fan response he received on his post. People alleging an ongoing feud with the ownership of Pocono to outright accusation that his 'negative smearing' was an effort to force Pocono's ownership to sell to ISC. None of which has one iota to do with assessing the safety mechanisms in place at Pocono.

    And I thought the Pagoda debacle last week was bad, but these NASCAR 'fans' are rabidly uninformed without an interest in becoming otherwise. Sheesh, glad to be back here in IndyCar land. Don't make me go back their HB. Please.

  3. I have a good feeling a lot of people changed their minds when Elliot Sadler's engine was forcibly removed from the drivetrain by the ridiculous inside barrier. The way he got out of the car and just laid down for a moment was very telling in this age of flipping end-over-end and climbing out to shout at the guy who wrecked you.

    NASCAR-land can be pretty scary sometimes...I enjoy watching the heavy cabs take on tracks where they actually have to be driven (Indianapolis, Pocono, the twisties, etc.), but I generally use their races to induce my Sunday afternoon nap...