NASCAR Doubles Down at Pocono
When NASCAR announced its 2020 schedule for the Cup series, it shook things up more than it has since the formation of the “playoffs” (originally called the “chase”) in 2004, and perhaps more than it has since the “modern era” schedule was adopted in 1972.
A great deal of attention has been given to such changes as moving the season finale from Homestead-Miami Speedway in Florida to ISM Raceway in Arizona, and moving the Brickyard 400 to the July 4 weekend. A western swing follows the Daytona 500 and the summer race at Daytona moves to August. Races elsewhere will see date shifts, some to better exploit potential weather conditions and some to exploit interest in the “playoffs.”
But the biggest change, in our view, is the shortening of the racing season by one week, accomplished by combining the two Cup races at Pocono Raceway into a single weekend doubleheader.
Where through this year Pocono has played host to a Cup race in June and another in July, starting in 2020 both races will take place on a single weekend in June, one race on Saturday and one on Sunday – the only doubleheader on the NASCAR Cup calendar and the only such doubleheader since well before that 1972 start of the “modern era.” (Before 1972, NASCAR’s top class raced significantly more often, and on a wide assortment of local and regional tracks such as New York’s Islip Speedway and the California State Fairgrounds.)
On the day following NASCAR’s announcement, we spoke with Pocono Raceway CEO Nick Igdalsky, who is, apparently, a glass-half-full kind of guy. Igdalsky sees only the upside of this plan. Where he might have seen the concept as the loss of a race weekend, he instead sees it as an exciting promotional opportunity.
“Pocono Raceway will be a marquee, bucket-list event next year,” Igdalsky said. “We will be the first track to host two points-paying Cup races in consecutive dates in NASCAR’s modern era.” Departing from standard talking points, Igdalsky let slip that he thinks “it will be real cool!” With support series races such as those conducted by ARCA as well as NASCAR’s own Xfinity series and Truck series, Igdalsky says that there is the potential for as many as five races in the weekend.
At this early stage such details as which series will be on the bill, and even the length of the headlining Cup series races, have not yet been determined, but Igdalsky is excited about offering “substantially more than 1,000 miles” of competition in one weekend.
Quelling the fears of businesses in the Pocono area that might see the move as costing them a major event weekend, Igdalsky points out that the 2020 plan will not only bring a bigger event than before, but will also open up the calendar for other destination events in the Poconos – and not necessarily events at the track. While in recent years the track has added the Indycar series and, in 2018, an air show, the track is supportive of other events in the region.
Igdalsky operates a race track that is one of just a few to host Cup-series races while not being owned by either International Speedway Corporation (twelve tracks) or Speedway Motorsports Inc. (eight tracks). “We’re a family-owned and family-oriented business,” Igdalsky told us. “We’re not about the bottom line as much as we are about serving the health of region and of racing.” And in that vein he reiterated the track’s family-friendly programs such as free admission for kids 12 and under for all Friday, Saturday and Sunday events during NASCAR and INDYCAR event weekends, and the track’s original Worry-Free Weather Guarantee which inoculates fans against a wasted ticket in the event that a rainout postpones a race to Monday.
So whose idea was the doubleheader? Indycar has presented a doubleheader weekend in Detroit in recent years, but Igdalsky confessed that the idea had not crossed his mind for Pocono. “NASCAR brought the concept to me,” Igdalsky said, “and I was receptive to it. My short-track background made me receptive to the idea.” In addition to offering Pocono a distinctive promotional opportunity, Igdalsky recognized that the success of the doubleheader could ensure that Pocono continues to have two Cup-series races each year. It is anticipated that after 2020, when the current five-year agreement between NASCAR and its host tracks expires, tracks with two dates may lose one of them as the schedule is re-negotiated.
Critics and cynics have been hard on NASCAR in recent years, in part for having a somewhat stale schedule. The revamped 2020 schedule, and in particular this distinctive change at Pocono, demonstrates that NASCAR is not as hidebound as some may believe.
Photo courtesy Pocono Raceway