Indy Cars Once Ruled at Pocono

Date: 7/28/2009 5:08:30 PM

Indy Cars Once Ruled at Pocono
By Dino Oberto …. “Keeping Track” 

             Since 1974 the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series has been coming to Pocono Raceway, twice annually since 1982, to run 500 mile stock car races.

             Many may recall that at one time Pocono also played host to the Indy Cars and from 1982 to 1989 it was the only track in the country that held three 500 mile events during the same year.

             Indy Cars first came to the track in 1971 and raced every year until 1989 and for many of those years they were the much bigger draw over NASCAR. USAC and then CART IndyCar World Series sanctioned the Pocono events.

             August will mark 20 years since America’s premier open wheel class of race cars have been to the 2.5-mile Long Pond tri-oval.

             It was Sunday, August 20 and 27 cars lined up for the Pocono 500. Danny Sullivan, driving for Roger Penske, was the winner of that eventful last Indy Car show.

             Whenever the Indy Cars came to Pocono the speeds were amazingly fast especially after watching the stockers go around. In 1989 Emerson Fittapaldi set the all-time lap record at 211.715 mph.

             By comparison that same year Ken Schrader had the fastest qualifying lap of the two Cup races at 157.809 mph. Even the current NASCAR record of 172.533 which was set by Kasey Kahne in June 2004 doesn’t even come close to Fittapaldi’s blistering lap. 

             The race began with a three abreast start with Rick Mears and Teo Fabi joining Fittapaldi on the front row. Fittapaldi and Mears were also Penske drivers which along with Sullivan and Al Unser, Sr., were the powerhouse team at that time.

             Fittapaldi lead early and often and looked as though he was the car to beat. However, he dropped out with 33 laps to go due to a broken transmission. He was credited with pacing at the front for 63 laps.

             Mears led a race high 64 laps. Fabi led 16 and Michael Andretti, fresh off a 500 mile win the week prior at Michigan, led 44 circuits and was in contention for the victory until Sullivan made his race winning pass with 11 laps to go.

It was Sullivan’s second Pocono win (1984) and the seventh Indy Car win at Pocono for Penske. Penske owns a record 15 track victories that include six in Cup and two in ARCA.

Sullivan also set the 500-mile track record at 170.720 mph. It took just under three hours to complete the race.

Mears finished second followed by Michael Andretti, Fabi and Mario Andretti.

Of the drivers in the field that day only one is still active today, John Andretti, who will be competing at Pocono this weekend in the Cup race and still dabbles in Indy Cars.

There was an Indy Lights support event that was run the day before which was won by Tommy Byrne. Of interest in that field were Tony George of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Indy Racing League fame, who was racing for A.J. Foyt and a then unknown Paul Tracy. George finished one lap down in the 70-mile trek while Tracy wrecked on lap 13.

After 1989 Pocono and CART parted ways and it wasn’t until the formation of the Indy Racing League in 1995 that talks resurfaced about having the Indy Cars back. However, no feasible dates could be had and thus the open wheelers remain a memory.

In the early years the Pocono stop was part of the Triple Crown for Indy Cars which included Indy and the defunct Ontario Motor Speedway.

For nearly two decades the stars and cars of Indy racing came east to the “Indy of the East” to compete on one of the nation’s most unique ovals. The list of winners is a who’s who in American motorsports. Foyt, Andretti, Mears, Rutherford, Unser and other greats all graced Victory Lane.

NASCAR is now the main attraction at Pocono but the memories of Indy Cars live on from an era that captivated fans during a special time and place in the history of the storied speed plant.

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