IndyCar series returns to Pocono Raceway; track hopes it will stay

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Ryan Hunter-Reay (28) drives his way to third place during the 2016 Pocono IndyCar race.

The final — and fastest — major race of the year at Pocono Raceway is coming up this weekend, when the IndyCar series returns to the Long Pond track.

Pocono will host an IndyCar race for the fifth straight year with the ABC Supply 500 on Sunday. In 2013, open-wheel racing took place at Pocono for the first time since 1989.

While the attendance figures initially weren’t what track executives had hoped for (though as a private track, Pocono does not release official numbers), the IndyCar race at Pocono proves to be one of the season’s most exciting.

“It just brings another form of tremendous competition, if you’ve seen those races over the last few years,” Pocono CEO Nick Igdalsky said. “It’s been some of the best racing I’ve seen on Pocono ever in my entire life, the way they can pass and repass.”

The long front straightaway on Pocono’s 2.5-mile tri-oval allows for blazing speeds, especially for the faster open-wheel cars. Last year’s IndyCar race featured a winning speed of 180.198 mph, fastest on the circuit by far, even against the Indy 500. In 2014, the winning speed eclipsed 200 mph.

“The level of competition, it’s unbelievable,” Igdalsky said. “I was watching, and I’m supposed to be working, but I’m up there in the grandstands watching this thing on my feet. I’m the crazy fan out there, just rooting for these guys — no particular favorite, just the competition and the passing and repassing, the strategies that they’re playing, how they’re setting each other up, and then the sheer speed.”

Others in the sport have been impressed by the high-speed races at Pocono. Legendary racer Mario Andretti, who lives in Nazareth, Pa., has said he appreciates the IndyCar series at Pocono. The track executives feel the same way. While the track’s current contract with IndyCar runs only through 2018, the executives hope and expect it to remain for a longer term.

Even as Watkins Glen International,  150 miles northwest of Long Pond in Upstate New York, has added its own IndyCar race, Pocono remains one of just two Eastern IndyCar sites. This weekend’s race is again important for the championship picture. Josef Newgarden  won the last two races to vault into first place in the standings, ahead of Helio Castroneves and Scott Dixon, who won at Pocono in 2013.

The nice weather in the forecast for Sunday would help attract attention significantly. In Pocono’s hard-luck 2016 season, rain washed out the IndyCar race and the two NASCAR Cup Series races, forcing all three to move to the less popular Monday slot. Another potential 200-mph race Sunday could be more enticing.