IndyCars test at Pocono Raceway
LONG POND - Having driven a stock car at Pocono Raceway in 2008, Dario Franchitti had some preconceived notions about the 2.5-mile triangular track.
Those misconceptions were quickly erased Wednesday after he was one of four drivers to turn the first laps in an IndyCar at Pocono in a almost quarter-century.
"My first thought was, 'Holy sh--' " Franchitti said.
IndyCar made its official return with a Firestone tire test for the Pocono IndyCar 400 on July 7.
At 9:13 a.m., Marco Andretti, from nearby Nazareth, was the first IndyCar out on the track since 1989 when the series last competed here.
Along with Franchitti and Andretti, Will Power and Simon Pagenaud also participated in the test.
"My eyeballs were going into the corner, but my helmet was still down there (at the start-finish line)," said Pagenaud, last year's IndyCar Rookie of the Year. "I think I actually grabbed the brakes in the first corners because it was a bit scary.
"You get used to it, but definitely very fast."
Racing legend Mario Andretti was also on hand to watch his grandson Marco during the test session. Helio Castroneves, Power's Team Penske teammate, was in attendance,
although just a spectator. Three-time Pocono winner Rick Mears, an advisor for Team Penske, also was here, and equally impressed.
The drivers topped out at about 215 mph; the track record for the open-wheel cars is 211.715 mph, set by Emerson Fittipaldi in 1989.
Power called Pocono daunting.
"It's very fast," he said. "I've already been wide open all the way around. Maybe a little bit heavy on downforce, but nice."
Several hundred fans took advantage of the free admission to watch the test session, a pleasant surprise for Pocono president and CEO Brandon Igdalsky.
"It's cool to see their faces and their reaction and how excited they are that IndyCar is coming back to Pocono," Igdalsky said. "There were two guys I was talking to who had never seen an IndyCar run a lap anywhere ever. They asked me if the ticket office was open. That says it right there. That's what it's all about."
IndyCar competed at Pocono from 1971 to 1989. A combination of recent improvements at the track and the series' desire to expand its schedule helped bring about the return.
"The difference from being here in 2008 is remarkable," Franchitti said. "This was a bumpy old place before. Now, it's very, very smooth. There's obviously been a great deal of investment in the track. That's really allowed IndyCar as a group to come back here. It's very much appreciated.
"I said at the time (in 2008) to run an IndyCar around here would be a blast, and it is."
Mario Andretti was certainly glad to see the IndyCars back at Pocono. After all, when the late Dr. Joseph Mattioli was building the track in the late 1960s, he sought out Mario for advice.
Marco Andretti joked that it was killing his grandfather not to be able to get behind the wheel.
"He's cleaning the bugs off my shield, he's so bored," Marco said.
"I'd love to see this event be successful," Mario said. "I feel we belong here, and the fact that they have the caveat of the Triple Crown should add a little extra interest."
The return of Pocono brings the revival of the IndyCar Triple Crown. If a driver can win the Indianapolis 500, the 400-mile race at Pocono and the season-ending 500-mile race in Fontana, Calif., he or she will receive a $1 million bonus. If a driver wins two of the three, the bonus is $250,000.
"To pull that off would be pretty massive," Power said. "Three very tough tracks. It's tough enough just to finish the three let alone win the three."
When Franchitti informed Power of the money involved, Power said, "Wow, I'm going to have to do that."
On Wednesday, though, the main purpose was to help Firestone find a tire that will be best suited for the demands of Pocono for the race in July.
Not only does Firestone take its own data, but it takes feedback from the participating teams.
According to Dale Harrigle, Firestone section manager for race tire development, the tire that is also used at Indianapolis seemed to be working the best.
"When we come back for the race, I believe every team gets 10 sets of tires," Harrigle said. "So we'll be in the neighborhood of just over 1000 sets of tires. So we have to make sure before we invest all that time and energy in building all those sets, we're doing the right thing. We want the drivers and the teams to be focused on the track and have confidence in the tires."
Like everyone else, Harrigle said Firestone is glad to be back racing at Pocono.
"This track was designed for IndyCar," Harrigle said. "I think it's going to be a tremendous race and a tremendous opportunity for us to show off our Firestone Firehawks."