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Pocono: IndyCar's ol' familiar friend

LONG POND, Pa. -- Twenty-four years is a long time to go between races at a venue. But after that lengthy absence, the IZOD IndyCar Series is back at Pocono Raceway, and that's exciting news whether you're an old-timer or a newcomer to the sport.

The Pocono INDYCAR 400 Fueled by Sunoco (Sunday, noon ET, ABC) is the first Indy car race at the Pennsylvania tri-oval since Danny Sullivan triumphed in the last of 19 500-milers staged between 1971 and 1989. Many of the greats tasted success there, led by A.J. Foyt with four wins and Rick Mears with three.

Although the track surface was rough and the circuit was lined by a dangerous boilerplate wall, Pocono's three-corner layout spread over 2.5 miles made it a favorite for drivers from that era. But by the late '80s it became almost unsuitable for open-wheel cars and the Mattioli family's efforts in rebuilding the track were directed toward stock car racing. The Pocono 500 dropped off the CART schedule following the 1989 season and the track picked up a coveted second NASCAR Cup date.

Talk of Indy car racing returning to Pocono always bubbled up every couple of years, but it never got serious until the track replaced the boilerplate with modern fences and walls with SAFER barriers. Track president Brandon Igdalsky liked what he saw when he visited the IndyCar Series' 2012 season opener at St. Petersburg, and he quickly reached agreement with outgoing INDYCAR CEO Randy Bernard to bring open-wheel racing back to the historic venue.

"It is a heritage track for IndyCar," Igdalsky said. "There's definitely a sense of Indy cars coming home around here, and it's exciting to have them. The fans are really excited. There's definitely a good buzz going on and we are really looking forward to what the event is going to be.

"Honestly, I can't wait to drop that green flag on Sunday and see it all come together."

Pocono was gone for many years from the Indy car schedule, but it wasn't forgotten. If anything, it's encouraging to see another oval added to an IndyCar Series schedule that was getting decidedly slanted toward road racing.

"I am really happy that [Igdalsky] worked out a deal with IndyCar to get us back there," said owner-driver Ed Carpenter. "I would like to see the schedule be a little more balanced, say 50-50, and I think the series would like to see that too. But it's a matter of finding more good partners like what we have found here at Pocono to put more ovals on the schedule. We can't just add them if they are not going to be quality races and not promoted properly."

Igdalsky has been a regular presence on the Indy car circuit this year drumming up media interest, and he hopes a three-year contract gives the event the stability it needs for Indy car racing to rebuild a following in the area. Fans can watch Thursday's open test for free from the grandstands, and a fireworks show is planned for Saturday night.

Many Indy car stars from the past are heralding the return of open-wheel racing to another big oval. "I think Pocono is an ideal track for Indy cars," Sullivan remarked. "With all of the upgrades and improvements in safety, you should see a great return from the IndyCar Series."

"It was always one of my favorite tracks, just because it's so challenging," added Mears, whose three Pocono wins included his first victory after badly injuring his feet in a 1984 accident.

"That's down to the layout, and it's tough to set up the car to work everywhere. There was always a compromise in tuning the car because you could never get all three corners together. If you were good in 3, you usually weren't good in 1 and 2. But if you were good in 1 and 2, you weren't too good in 3. Of course 3 is a critical corner because it leads onto a long straightaway.

"Hopefully we won't have an aero package that lets them run wide open, because pedaling it was what made it fun."

Now that Nazareth Speedway has closed, Pocono is the closest thing to a home track for the Andretti family. Mario Andretti raced in almost every Pocono 500, and he will be on hand Sunday to watch his grandson Marco in action.

"I'm happy to personally welcome Pocono back into INDYCAR's ever-evolving story," said Mario Andretti. "Whatever the changes, from one era to the next, Pocono has maintained its character and significance to me, and it always will. My family shares this sentiment."

A number of historic Indy car milestones occurred at Pocono, including the first race win for Penske Racing. That came in July 1971 with Mark Donohue at the wheel.

"Mark dominated the Indianapolis 500 that year and, ironically -- because the car was No. 66 -- on Lap 66, the gearbox blew up on us," Roger Penske recalled. "He pulled the car off inside Turn 4 like they did in those days, and on about Lap 190, there was an accident between Mike Mosely and Bobby Unser. They slid across the grass, hit the car and just trashed it. I remember picking the car up with a hook, and they carried it to the garage and dumped it.

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Whatever the changes, from one era to the next, Pocono has maintained its character and significance to me, and it always will.

"-- Mario Andretti

"Karl Kainhofer [longtime Penske Racing chief mechanic] looked at me and said, 'You know what I'm going to do? I'm gonna fix this car for Pocono in a couple of weeks. We're gonna sit on the pole and win the race.' That was the first Pocono 500, and that's exactly what we did. So that's one that I really remember."

Years later, Bobby Rahal scored the only Indy car race win for the Judd engine, triumphing in the 1988 Pocono 500 for the Truesports team.

"It was always one of my favorites, if not my favorite oval," said Rahal, now an IndyCar Series team owner. "It was certainly my favorite big oval because all three corners were totally different."

Rahal is interested to see how the modern era of Indy cars races on a classic track for open-wheel cars.

"Although I don't think the speeds were too dissimilar than they are today, they were different cars and it was a different world back then," he observed. "I don't know why it's a 400-mile race instead of 500, but it's going to be a sprint either way. From what I can tell it's going to be a very challenging race and I think everyone has responded very positively towards the track. It will be all about trimming out and seeing how little downforce you can get away with, which will make for an interesting race."

It's a race that the current generation of Indy car stars is eager to get to grips with.

"Racing 400 miles at Pocono will be a new challenge for every team and driver in the series, which really makes things interesting. No one really knows what to expect," said defending IndyCar Series champion Ryan Hunter-Reay.

"We have a different tire compound and downforce package compared to what we tested last week, so I'm not quite sure what we'll have to deal with this weekend. It's a clean sheet of paper for everyone, and I think that bodes well for the No. 1 DHL team."