David Montgomery Jr.
Pocono International Raceway featured its first major promotion in 1971, many years after plans for the track were originally laid. It was the project of David Montgomery Jr and associates who decided to construct a major motor sporting venue in the United States within easy reach of no fewer than 36 million people.
Situated near Long Pond on a plateau 1800 feet above sea level in the Pocono mountains region of Pennsylvania, the track is no more than a two-hour drive for people living in New York City, Philadelphia, Binghampton, Scranton, Wilkes Barre, Harrisburg, Reading, Trenton, Bethlehem and other major industrial cities of the north-east. Added to that, a major intersection of two inter-state motorways is only two-and-a-half miles from the circuit and accommodation is readily attainable at nearby resorts.
Pocono was a circuit owners' dream. As a racing track (as opposed to a road-type circuit) it differs from other major venues, such as Indianapolis, in that it is basically a triangle. Again unlike Indianapolis and its 'carbon copies', each of the three corners of the 2½
-mile track is of a different length, radius and banking. The first corner has a radius of 675ft and a 14 degree banking, this being followed by a 3055 ft straight to Turn 2, which has a radius of 750 ft and an 8 degree banking. A 1780 ft straight leads to the third corner, of 800 ft radius and with 6 degree banking. The main straight is 3740 ft long and the track itself is 60 ft wide.
Original plans for a track were divulged in the 1950s and in 1962 the land, a spinach farm, was acquired. Work began in 1965 - the official 'ground breaking ceremony' was held on 8 July - and the first stage of the facility was completed in October 1968. At first Pocono International Raceway comprised a three-quarter mile oval and a drag strip (which was to double as the main straight for the full, 2½
-mile 'tri-oval'). A 1.8-mile road course was added in 1969 and in early 1970 the work on the 'tri-oval' was started.
For major road-racing events, a road section linked with the first and last corners gave a distance of 3 miles. For many years the Indianapolis 500 was the major race on the USAC National Championship calendar and, with points decided on race distance, the title could often be won or lost at the famous 'brickyard'. In 1970 Ontario Motor Speedway in California hosted a 500-miler and in 1971 the Pocono International Raceway completed a trio of top points-scoring races in the USAC calendar. In terms of prestige, Indianapolis remained head-and-shoulders above other races, but in points-scoring, the championship took on a different guise.
Bill Marvel, manager of Pocono, signed a five-year contract (and five-year option) with the United States Auto Club to stage two 500-mile races each year. The major one, for USAC National Championship single- seaters, was to be run on 3 July 1971, while a late-model stock car race was scheduled for September. Part of the agreement was that Pocono would offer a minimum of $240,000 in prize money for the July event, but it transpired that the purse would be double this amount.
The Schaefer Brewing Co.
Pocono found sponsorship for the race from The Schaefer Brewing Co, the race being known as the Schaefer 500. On 19 June 1971, Mrs Joseph Mattioli, the wife of Pocono International Raceway's board chairman, cut the ribbon to open the track for practice. Two hours later Jim Malloy's Eagle-Ford made a few, tentative laps for the benefit of the television cameras. Official qualifying trials for the 500 - in fact 34 cars contested the 33 grid positions - was on the weekend of 26-27 June. On pole position sat Mark Donohue in the Penske-entered McLaren M16-0ffenhauser.
Donohue qualified at 173.393 mph, next up being works Eagle-Offenhauser driver Bobby Unser
on 171.847 mph. Donohue virtually dominated the race of 4 July, but fairly close behind was Joe Leonard (Colt-Ford). Into the closing stages there was great excitement. Yellow lights flashed as the marshals cleared up spilt oil, which in USAC racing means the cars bunched up at less than full racing speed. When the green 'all-clear' was given, on the 191st of the 200 laps, Donohue found Leonard close on his heels and the crowd roared as the Colt flashed by the McLaren on Turn 2. For three laps Leonard remained ahead, but he could not fend off the blue McLaren any longer and Donohue flashed by on the main straight. Donohue remained ahead to win, with Leonard only 1.6 seconds behind after 500 miles of close racing. The crowd went wild with excitement, invading the pit area after the race.
Early 1970s shot of NASCAR racers at the Pocono circuit.
Hurricane Agnes spoilt plans for the 1973 Schaefer 500. Although the track was not damaged by the storm, Wilkes Barre nearby was one of the hardest hit towns and the Pennsylvania governor called off the race scheduled for 2 July as he considered there were insufficient services to cater for the expected crowd. The race was rescheduled for 29 July, although there was much friction between USAC and the Pocono management concerning the postponement. Bobby Unser qualified his Eagle-Offenhauser at an incredible average of 189.473 mph for the four laps (the best single lap time was 47.316s, 190.2IOmph), no less than 6 mph faster than Gordon Johncock's works McLaren MI6B-Offenhauser. It was a closely-contested race, led at stages by Johncock, Bobby Unser
, Al Unser
, Mario Andretti, Gary Bettenhausen and Joe Leonard.
But in the closing laps neither the officials nor the pit crews could agree who had actually won. Both Al Unser and Leonard were ushered into the winner's circle to await the official decision, while Johnny Rutherford thought he might have won. Eventually the officials decided that Leonard had beaten Rutherford by a lap. Unser had been penalised a lap for passing a competitor under a yellow-flag period which dropped him from a probable victory to third. The 1973 event had more drama. Al Unser (Parnelli-Offenhauser) crashed in the early stages; the driver was unhurt, but with the retaining wall damaged and oil spilt on the track the race was red-flagged to a halt. With the elimination of many of the fancied runners - including pole position man Peter Revson
, who had averaged 190.648 mph in his works McLaren MI6C-Offenhauser - there were only six cars still circulating at the end. Roger McCluskey's privately-entered McLaren M16B-Offenhauser led into the last lap, but then ran out of fuel, allowing A. J. Foyt
(Coyote-Foyt) to take an unexpected victory.
Johnny Rutherford made USAC history in 1974 when he won the Schaefer 500, becoming the first man to win two 500-miles races in the same year. Driving his works McLaren M16C/D-Offenhauser, the Indianapolis winner of a month before was assured of victory when Wally Dallenbach's Eagle-Offenhauser retired with a broken piston after 178 of the 200 laps. The 1975 500 was shortened as rain began to fall and saw the redoubtable A. J.-Foyt take a hard fought victory with his Foyt-Ford powered Coyote. 'Ford' power continued its winning streak with Cosworth-DFX engines powering Al Unser's Parnelli and Tom Sneva's McLaren to wins in the 1976 and 1977 races. In spite of the shortness of its history, the Pocono 500 is firmly established as one third of USAC's 'Triple Crown' of 500-milers and has shown that grandiose schemes really can work out.
1981 was the height of the USAC/CART split. A.J. Foyt won the USAC Van Scoy Diamond Mines 500. This was the final Indycar race USAC sanctioned at Pocono and Foyt's final Indycar win. Many CART regulars boycotted the race, and the USAC opened the field to both Gold Crown cars and Silver Crown cars. A rag-tag field of Indycars and converted dirt-track cars ran a two-class race. Rain halted the race shortly after the halfway point, and ended the race early.
1985 Rick Mears completed a comeback from his devastating leg injuries suffered at Sanair in 1984 by winning the Pocono 500 in a part-time entry for Penske Racing. Then, in 1988, the race was famously slowed 11 times for 65 laps, including six wrecks. Rookie John Andretti suffered a serious wreck with 18 laps to go in turn 3. Most of the contenders dropped out, leaving Bobby Rahal in the lead for the final 28 laps, scoring Judd's first and only IndyCar victory, and Rahal's last with Truesports. In 1989 Emerson Fittipaldi
set a new all-time track record during qualifying, with a pole speed of 211.715 mph. Danny Sullivan holds of his Penske teammate Rick Mears to win the final IndyCar race at Pocono.
For further information on the Pocono raceway, check out the official site at www.poconoraceway.com