NAZARETH — An auto racing legend with deep Pennsylvania roots is hopeful IndyCar racing could return to Pocono Raceway as the result of Roger Penske’s pending acquisition of the series.
Former Indy 500 winner and Formula 1 champion Mario Andretti, who calls the Lehigh Valley home, recently spoke to The Standard-Journal about a number of racing-related topics.
During the conversation, he admitted to being “livid” that the IndyCar series will not return to Pocono Raceway in 2020. The series had raced annually at the track since 2013. Prior to that, IndyCar races were staged at Pocono yearly, from 1971 through 1989.
Recently, it was announced that motorsports and business mogul Roger Penske will be purchasing the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the IndyCar series from the Hulman-George family. The sale is expected to close in January.
“I think, for the future of the sport, it’s the best thing that could happen,” Andretti said, of Penske’s pending purchase. “Roger understands the value, the importance, not just of Indianapolis (Motor Speedway) but also the series.”
Andretti believes Penske will work to bring IndyCar back to Pocono. He blames both the series and Pocono Raceway for the 2.5-mile oval in Long Pond being dropped from the 2020 schedule.
“There’s some blame to go around, to IndyCar and Pocono,” Andretti said. “I don’t think (the track was) doing enough promotion.”
Since the track will host only one NASCAR weekend in 2020, he believes that could’ve been a boon for the IndyCar series.
“That would’ve been a big, big opportunity to get up and promote the Indy event with more vigor,” Andretti said. “I think it would’ve paid off.
“To go away and be out of sight, out of mind, was a terrible mistake on both parts,” he continued. “I don’t think either side worked hard enough to make it happen. I was talking to both sides.”
According to Andretti, television coverage of the 2020 Olympics played a big part in Pocono being dropped from the IndyCar series schedule.
The Olympics will be staged July 24 through Aug. 9 and NBC will not be televising major motorsports events during those dates. As a result, the NASCAR Cup series schedule was shifted to include two weekends off.
That schedule shift resulted in one Pocono weekend being dropped, with NASCAR to stage a double header at the track June 27-28.
Andretti said both the IndyCar series and the raceway are still talking about a potential future return of the open wheel series to “The Tricky Triangle.”
“The problem was that for next year, the schedule was pretty much set,” Andretti said. “The problem was the TV (coverage), because of the Olympics. They couldn’t reinstate (the race) because of TV. That was a big part of it.”
Under Penske’s leadership, Andretti said “you can bet on” the IndyCar series taking a serious look at returning to Pocono.
“If Roger Penske was in charge of the series (at the time), this would’ve never happened,” Andretti said. “We would’ve never been out of Pocono.”
He vowed to remain vigilant about working to bring IndyCar racing back to Pocono.
“I am on it,” Andretti said. “I am not letting it go.”
In addition to working to bring IndyCar back to Pocono, Andretti believes Penske will also invest heavily in the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
“He’s such a racer,” Andretti said, of Penske. “He’s been a past owner of tracks. When he took over Michigan, the track was bankrupt.”
Andretti also noted that Penske previously owned race tracks in Fontana, Calif., and in Nazareth.
“He’s got the financial means, his company, to take it (the Indianapolis Motor Speedway) to the next level,” Andretti said.
Andretti noted that Penske personally called him prior to the announcement being made to alert him to the news that Penske will be purchasing the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the IndyCar series.
“I don’t know why he called me but he did,” Andretti said. “He knows I’m passionate about the sport.
“Whenever I speak about IndyCar, the series, I speak as a voice that totally loves the sport,” he continued. “I have no personal gain or interest... Roger has a certain appreciation where I’m coming from.”
The Standard-Journal will have more from its conversation with Andretti in 2020.