A Smaller Track, USAC Stocks and More
Unlike New Hampshire, Pocono Raceway doesn’t sit on top of a previous track, but its early history has some twists and turns, and there was a time when NASCAR was but a bit player. Here’s a quick review.
This is an old aerial of Pocono, showing the ¾-mile oval as well as the 2-1/2-mile triangle.
The first Pocono track was a 3/4-mile oval that, from the outset, was intended to eventually be surrounded by the bigger “tricky triangle.” It ran its first race in 1969, an ARCA event won by Dave Watson. Benny Parsons had started from the pole.
After that came a pair of USAC sprint car races, a NASCAR modified race, and a midget race sanctioned by NEMA.
The only thing that returned the next year was the NASCAR modified event, and modifieds became the standard-bearers for the small track until its demise after the 1991 season. Most of those races were NASCAR-sanctioned, but the Race of Champions, a modified tradition originally held at Langhorne, was not a NASCAR race for many years – and it isn’t today, with this year’s edition scheduled for early fall at Lake Erie Speedway at the other end of Pennsylvania.
In 1971, the big track opened, with races sanctioned by USAC, not NASCAR. Mark Donohue won the opener, a race for what we now call Indy cars, beating Joe Leonard, A.J. Foyt, Mario Andretti and Billy Vukovich Jr. Entered but in the garage by the one-quarter mark were Donnie Allison and Cale Yarborough.
A publicity shot from 1971 at Pocono, with Mark Donohue at right and the Unser brothers (Al at left and Bobby center).
That fall stock car racing arrived, but it was the USAC stocks, then largely identical to NASCAR Grand Nationals (Winston didn’t take the name until ’72). In September, Butch Hartman won a 500-miler over Foyt, Don White, Jack Bowsher and Lem Blankenship. LeeRoy Yarbrough finished sixth, with several other NASCAR names much farther down the list, including Siler City, N.C., resident Wayne Andrews, Jim Paschal in his Grand American AMC Javelin, and young Geoffrey Bodine, who came in last.
For the next couple of years, things remained pretty much the same: an Indy car race, a USAC-sanctioned stock car race, and a modified race or two on the smaller track (over the years, there also were a couple on the triangle). NASCAR participation tailed off for the Indy car races but stayed with the stocks, which usually ran on an off weekend for Cup. That caught up with USAC in 1974, when Richard Petty dominated and won the Acme Super Saver 500. (For a longer and better account of that, see this past blog from TMC Chase – to whom we wish the best after double knee replacement surgery.
A.J. and Richard lead the field at the start of the 1973 Acme 500 at Pocono.
The next year’s USAC race, run in late April, was won by Ron Keselowski (Brad’s uncle), but with crowds, fields and purses down (only 30 cars started the 500-miler, and half were in the garage before the checkers), Pocono had decided to give NASCAR a chance, and that August, the Winston Cup Series came to town for the first time.
It never left. In 1982, a second race was added, and it’s been two per season since then (although next year brings the bizarre 500-milers on consecutive days).
The year before the second Cup race USAC’s Pocono Indy car run came to an inauspicious end. CART (Championship Auto Racing Teams) had split off from USAC in 1979, but the Indy 500 kept the two somewhat linked, like two prison escapees still shackled at the ankle. By 1981, USAC’s “Gold Crown” championship series consisted of Indy, Pocono and three dirt tracks from the Silver Crown series (which still exists). CART drivers still showed up in numbers at Indy, but not so at Pocono, and to fill out the field, USAC brought in some Silver Crown dirt cars, creating a most bizarre event. The race lasted less than two-thirds of the advertised distance.
George “Ziggy” Snider’s #84 Indy car alongside Duke Cook’s #25 Silver Crown dirt car at Pocono in the too-weird Van Scoy Diamond Mines 500 in 1981.
The next year CART sponsored the event, but that sanctioning body’s style never caught on with ovals, and Pocono was off the schedule after 1989, only recently rejoining (now with IndyCar).
After that, except for the Race of Champions on the 3/4-mile in its non-NASCAR years and the addition in 1983 of ARCA races as preliminaries on Cup weekends, Pocono was pretty much all NASCAR – and pretty much two weekends of racing per year – until the 2017 return of IndyCar.
That’s a shame, and it’s a waste for tracks today, too. Income from NASCAR ticket sales can’t possibly return to its 2007 level, and TV revenue likely isn’t going to stay where it is, either. Tracks with road courses make some money off club events, and more Speedway Motorsports tracks now have smaller, dirt ovals to help the budget. But somebody has got to figure out how to run smaller events on these big tracks, make a few bucks, and offer the fans additional sports entertainment.
Frank’s Loose Lug Nuts
Spent the weekend of July 12-13 with the Pennsylvania Sprint Series, which was racing at two of its smaller venues, the 1/3-mile Trail-Way Speedway in Hanover, Pa., and the quarter-mile Path Valley Speedway in Spring Run, about 90 minutes farther west.
Both nights featured good racing, both for the PASS/IMCA RaceSaver 305 sprints and for the other divisions. Both tracks had nice crowds, too.
At Path Valley, the crowd was better than nice; it apparently was by far the largest of the year. On Kids/Autograph Night, the drivers and teams of the Wingless Super Sportsman division combined to bring nearly 75 bicycles and scooters to be given away, along with countless other prizes, including two of $100 cash. Cars were brought out on the track – covering more than half the quarter mile – and fans went to meet their heroes, get autographs, and make memories that should bring a lot of these kids back as grown-ups.
Kids/Autograph Night at Path Valley
The future of our sport depends on this kind of stuff happening a lot. Everybody at Path Valley did a great job; I know a number of other tracks do this already, and the rest – including those on NASCAR’s traveling circuits – should get on board.