|The Pocono IndyCar race starts late at 3 PM, just the time all the Pocono vacationers are leaving the Pocono Mountains for home and work the next day. Expect a very sparse crowd|
THE GOOD NEWS for racing fans is, the Verizon IndyCar series will be running 200 mph laps at Pocono Raceway next year and in 2018.
I was surprised when the two-year extension was announced last week. The vibe I was getting was Sunday's ABC Supply 500 might be the last IndyCar event at Pocono. In the three years since IndyCar returned to Pocono, the crowds have diminished from the first year's crowd of an estimated 20,000 to 25,000.
Conceding that attendance for IndyCar at Pocono is not what track officials hoped for, Brandon Igdalsky, the track's president and CEO, said Monday: "We've lowered our expectations. The demand is there, it's just not at levels we'd like to see. The product is great entertainment and the racing is phenomenal.
Speculation has IndyCar lowering its sanctioning fee of an estimated $1 million per race to continue at Pocono. Igdalsky declined to discuss the financial arrangement with IndyCar.
Igdalsky hopes a two-year deal, with races each August, provides continuity for IndyCar at Pocono. The first two IndyCar races at Pocono were held over July 4 weekend.
"Two years will give us really good data to see if we can make it a truly viable event for everybody," Igdalsky said. "If we'd had this date from the beginning, we'd be having a different (more positive) conversation."
Racing legend Mario Andretti, the 1986 Pocono race winner, said he is delighted IndyCar will remain at Pocono.
"The fan base is getting used to it. Continuity is very important," Andretti said from his Nazareth, Pa., home. "The drivers like the track, because it's relatively relaxing, (but) you have to work it. Pocono was always my favorite super speedway. The speed is clearly there: (Indy cars) make NASCAR look slow (at Pocono)."
Despite the disappointing attendance at some tracks and low TV ratings compared with NASCAR, Andretti believes IndyCar is gaining traction.
"(Fans) are learning to appreciate the depth in talent, the kick-ass characters," he said. "They have a good group of American talent that will be around for a long time."
This year's seven IndyCar races on NBCSN have averaged 505,000 viewers, up 28 percent over the same period last year. Since NBC launched its coverage of NASCAR Sprint Cup races July 2 from Daytona, the races are averaging 4.2 million viewers, up 7 percent over the same period last year.
After the Baltimore street race went away three years ago, Pocono was IndyCar's only Eastern venue until this year, when a street race in Boston was scheduled during Labor Day weekend. When that race was canceled in April, Watkins Glen International (N.Y.) stepped in and will host the race Sept. 4.
"I'm not happy with a race that close to my backyard," Igdalsky said, "but we're working well together. Watkins Glen is a totally different race (on a road course)."
Pocono plans to acknowledge the deaths of racers Justin Wilson and Bryan Clauson. Wilson died after he was struck in the head from crash debris late in last year's race. Clauson, a prominent dirt-track racer, died Aug. 7 following a crash in the Belleville Midget Nationals race in Kansas. Bill Fleishman/Philly.com