Pocono Raceway was seeing the momentum in early March. A profitable July was just around the corner. Ticket sales were up in the 20-30% range, and about 80% of camping inventory and sites were sold out for a historic weekend.
“It was a different energy, and we’ve been in business for over 50 years,” Pocono Raceway president Ben May said.
But the “Tricky Triangle” is known to throw off a driver’s plans, and that’s what happened when COVID-19 paused Pocono’s plan to become the first track to host NASCAR Cup Series events on consecutive days in the modern era.
After a brief moment of facing the unknown, a straight path is ahead. Pocono will host the Pocono Organics 325 Cup series race on Saturday and the Pocono 350 on Sunday, with restrictions. Fan attendance and social distancing guidelines are in place after conversations with NASCAR and Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf. Not much has changed in terms of preparing the track, but the loss of fans and multiple revenue streams is a big blow on what was projected to be a booming weekend financially.
“The change has been us trying to wrap our heads around and really get creative on what we’re going to do for our sponsors, our partners, and our fans,” May said. “Even though our fans won’t be here and our partners won’t be here, we want to make sure that we’re fulfilling our agreement and we’re making the most of it.”
The experience around Pocono Raceway will be different, but don’t expect a change on the 2.5-mile track.
One benefit Pocono has is seeing five weeks of racing since NASCAR restarted its season at Darlington in May. NASCAR has created protocols to ensure the safety of drivers and essential personnel members. There has been little trouble, and looking at the product on television, it’s difficult to see a difference.
“We’ll continue to refine those protocols and procedures as we learn more,” NASCAR vice president of racing development Ben Kennedy said. “Hopefully sometime later this year or early next year we can get back to more of a normalcy and what people might expect of a track experience and kind of everything that goes along with it.”
It’s not a drastic change for drivers, either. Back-to-back Cup Series races means less practice time, which could be an advantage for the experienced drivers.
One notable change is the inverted method that will be used for Sunday’s race. The field will be set at the Pocono 350 by inverting the lead-lap finishers from Saturday.
“I think it’s pretty cool,” driver Brad Keselowski said. “If you run good the first race, you’re like, ‘Aw man, I gotta dig back out of this hole.' If you don’t run good in the first race, you go, ‘Hey, this is looking pretty good.‘ ”
Adding to Pocono’s historic week is the attention the sport has drawn for its public stances. After a plea from Bubba Wallace, the lone full-time Black driver, NASCAR opted to remove the Confederate flag from its tracks.
Following that decision, a noose was found in Wallace’s garage stall before the race at Talladega Speedway. In a show of solidarity, all drivers and pit crew members joined to push Wallace’s car to the starting line. The FBI later determined that the noose had been there since the fall and was used as a garage door pull-down rope.
“I couldn’t be more supportive of everything Bubba is doing, NASCAR, and the majority of Americans,” May said. “I’m thrilled about it. It’s been one of those things that we’ve danced around as an industry.”
It will be abusy weekend, with the track hosting two races each on Saturday and Sunday. Along with the Pocono 325, the Truck Series 150 will be run Saturday, and the Xfinity Series’ Pocono Green 225 will precede the Pocono 350 on Sunday.
“We’re still excited,” May said. “The health of the industry is important to us, and this is important that we put on a good show for those watching at home on Fox and Fox Sports 1.”