LONG POND - Last summer, Greg Biffle severely criticized Pocono Raceway's unsafe conditions. In a roundtable discussion with four other top Sprint Cup drivers in Sports Illustrated, Biffle said: "They could probably still do a little bit of work at Pocono. They're going to kill somebody there."
Fresh in Biffle's mind was Kasey Kahne's crash that previous June, when his car almost soared over the 39-inch high retaining wall between Turns 1 and 2. Then, a month after the SI interview, Elliott Sadler survived one of the worst crashes ever at Pocono. Sadler's car was struck exiting Turn 1, skidded across the slick infield grass at more than 100 mph and struck the Armco barrier nose-first.
When Biffle and his fellow Sprint Cup drivers start practicing today for Sunday's 5-hour Energy 500 at Pocono, they'll see SAFER barriers installed on the infield side from Turns 1 through 3. The track also has a catch fence on the forest side along the straightaway between Turns 1 and 2.
"It's probably 10 years overdue, [but] I applaud them for taking action," Biffle said on a Tuesday conference call. "You look at all the wrecks [at Pocono] over the years. At some point, it's screaming out that we've got to do something."
Noting that Pocono isn't the only racetrack where safety improvements were needed, Biffle said, "There's a few other racetracks where we don't have SAFER barriers all the way around yet, or there's a split in the wall where safety vehicles come out from that could be better aligned."
Biffle won the race at Pocono in which Sadler crashed, ending a 65-race drought. The victory was Biffle's first at the 2.5-mile tri-oval. Now, as Biffle returns to Pocono, he is 12th in points, only five points out of the 10th and final automatic Chase qualifying berth.
Two wild cards are available to drivers in the top 20 with the most wins. Biffle is winless this year, with only one top-five finish. He and crew chief Greg Erwin, from Hatboro, know it's time to collect a win or two.
"We try as hard as we can every week to win," Biffle said. "That's what 43 guys show up for every weekend. A lot of people don't believe that, but that's what we show up at the racetrack for."
On the 40th anniversary of Pocono Raceway, longtime racing fans who make the journey to Long Pond should enjoy "Pocono: NASCAR's Northern Invasion."
Joe Miegoc, former sports editor of the Pocono Record, has chronicled the history of the "Tricky Triangle." Fans old and new should find the track's history interesting . . . from the launching under the leadership of former Philadelphia dentist Dr. Joseph Mattioli to the booming 1970s when Indy cars were the big show, attracting crowds of 100,000, to NASCAR's appearance in 1974. (My Pocono debut was the IndyCar race in 1972.)
Richard Petty, NASCAR's all-time race winner (200), raced in an U.S. Auto Club-sanctioned 500-mile stock-car race before NASCAR arrived in 1974. USAC wasn't happy about a NASCAR star butting in on its show and refused to grant Petty space in the garage area. At first, Petty's team had to work under a tent "in the gravel area." When "Doc" Mattioli learned how "King Richard" was being treated, he insisted that Petty be given a place in the garage.
Miegoc deals extensively with the USAC-CART dispute that almost bankrupted Mattioli in the late 1970s and early '80s. One negative in this chapter is that there are no comments from CART's side of the dispute.
Realizing Pocono was an appealing Northeast market, NASCAR granted Mattioli a second Cup series race in 1982, and the track was on its way back to profitability.
A year after the track opened, an ill-fated rock concert was scheduled in July 1972. An estimated 200,000 jammed the facility. Many fans parked their cars along roads and walked miles to the track.
Miserable weather made the concert a nightmare for fans, performers, track personnel and security. In an effort to conclude the 2-day concert, Emerson, Lake and Palmer went on at 4 a.m. the second day, followed by Rod Stewart and Faces. Three Dog Night closed the show in front of thousands of shivering fans.
There are a few editing glitches in the 182-page book, but overall it's a worthwhile read. For information about the book, check www.xlibris.com or other major book websites. *