SPEED READING: NASCAR's five strangest venues

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Ryan McGee

Pocono's a strange raceway, but NASCAR's seen stranger
When June rolls around each Nextel Cup season, I get asked the same question over and over again: "Dude, what is up with the Pocono Raceway?"

The answer is simple. It's weird.

The World's Biggest Triangle has three turns of varying angles and banking, three straights of varying lengths, a garage that looks like a giant horse barn and wild animals running out of the woods and onto the track. Pocono is NASCAR's answer to the Bermuda Triangle or the Egyptian Pyramids. Whenever you are dealing with something that big in the shape of a triangle, bizarre stuff is just bound to happen.

When the Mattioli family opened the 2.5-mile track in 1971, no one knew exactly what to make of the place. Indy Cars came to Long Pond, Pa. to race that July, followed by NASCAR Cup cars in 1974. After 30 years of sharp left hand turns, teams still aren't real sure what to think.

"You usually end up spending the whole weekend off balance," admits Ray Evernham, who won there three times as Jeff Gordon 's crew chief. "In a perfect world, you would be able to run a totally different setup in the car for each of the three turns. But until they let us run Formula One cars that can adjust the chassis whenever we want them to, we won't be doing that."

But, believe it or not, Pocono is not the strangest track in NASCAR history. It doesn't even make the top five. We've raced on mud, wood and airport runways. Darlington is shaped like an egg. North Wilkesboro had one straightaway going uphill and another going down. So, what exactly are the top five strangest venues in NASCAR history? We were hoping you were going to ask that.

5. McCormick Field, Asheville, N.C.

The home of the Asheville Tourists of the South Atlantic League (current Class A affiliate of the Colorado Rockies) hosted a Cup race on July 12, 1958. A quarter-mile asphalt track was constructed around the baseball diamond that had been played on by Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb and Jackie Robinson.

Fifteen cars survived the preliminary heats to move on to the points-paying feature, including Lee Petty... barely. Petty went over the slight banking after a nudge from Cotton Owens, crashing into the third-base dugout. Petty recovered to finish fourth in the final race, behind Jim Paschal, Owens and Rex White.

4. Middle Georgia Raceway, Macon, Ga.

This half-mile paved oval welcomed the NASCAR big leagues nine times between 1966 and 1971, four of those races were run by Richard Petty, two by Bobby Allison and one each by David Pearson and Bobby Isaac — all Cup champions.

In 1968, government agents raided the racetrack as part of a major illegal liquor sting. A secret door located in the ticket booth led to a ladder, which descended 35 feet to another hidden entrance. That trap door led to a 150-foot tunnel, which ended at a cave beneath the track infield. Inside the cave was a gigantic moonshine still, which was promptly shut down and the track owner was sent to the slammer.

The race, however, was run as planned and won by Pearson en route to his second series title.

3. Soldier Field, Chicago

The home of Da Bears since 1971 hosted exactly one NASCAR race on July 21, 1956, on a half-mile asphalt track that wrapped around the field.

Fireball Roberts outlasted Jim Paschal and Ralph Moody, the legendary mechanic who passed away on Wednesday at the age of 86.

What's so bizarre about all of this? Nothing. But the fate of track is in a league all by itself. According to famed NASCAR historian Greg Fielden, "The Soldier Field track was torn out of the stadium in 1970 following protests by hippies who objected to city financing of auto racing." Damn hippies.

2. Portland Speedway, Portland, Oregon

This half-mile was home to seven Cup races — four in 1956 and three in 1957. West coast hero Eddie Pagan won there twice, but was far from the biggest star on display at the fairgrounds track.

The oval was also a drive-in movie theater, with cars parking in the infield and a giant screen sitting behind the backstretch. When the Craftsman Truck Series raced at Portland from 1995 to '98, they had to race around a manhole cover that was located off the exit of Turn 4.

"I used it as part of my line," said 1997 winner Rich Bickle . "If I could hit that cover with the left front coming off 4, I knew I was in the groove."

Let's just hope the boys from Macon didn't have a still under there.

1. Langhorne Speedway, Langhorne, Pa.

Like Pocono, Langhorne was located in the Keystone State, but this was certainly no triangle. The one-mile dirt track located just outside of Philadelphia was a perfectly round circle. Not oval... circle. No straights. Just continuous turns for 150 and sometimes 250 laps. It makes me dizzy just to type it.

The track had two nicknames: "The Big Left Turn" and "The Track That Ate The Heroes." Built on swampland, underground creeks kept the surface constantly wet. When temperatures rose each summer, that mud dried up and developed huge canyon-like cracks. To make matters worse, just past the start-finish line, the track took a steep downhill route, known among drivers as "Puke Alley". NASCAR left after racing there from 1949 to 1957. Stock car and Indy Car drivers alike started skipping Langhorne due to safety concerns, which actually got worse after the track was paved in 1965.

But don't bother going out looking for the strangest track in NASCAR history while heading up to Pocono this weekend. Langhorne was razed in 1971 to make room for a shopping mall.

Attention shoppers, watch out for that left-hander over by the Chi Chi's. It's a doozy.

Ryan McGee is the managing editor of Totally NASCAR, and NASCAR This Morning on Fox Sports Net. He can be reached at his e-mail address: rmcgee@foxsports.com.
Friday, June 11
3 p.m. ET: Nextel Cup Qualifying on SPEED
5:30 p.m. local: Totally NASCAR on Fox Sports Net
6 p.m. ET: Busch Qualifying on SPEED
Saturday, June 12
6:30 p.m. ET: Nextel Cup Happy Hour on FX
7:30 p.m. ET: FEDERATED AUTO PARTS 300 on FX
Sunday, June 13
11 a.m. ET: NASCAR This Morning on Fox Sports Net
1 p.m. ET: Pocono 500 on FOX Presented by SUBWAY
Busch Beat
Andy Petree Racing has shut down its Busch Series operation after driver Paul Menard agreed to a five-year deal with Dale Earnhardt Incorporated. Menard is expected to begin racing for DEI at Loudon, N.H. on July 24.

The 23-year old is the son of famed Indy Car owner John Menard and has run Busch, Truck and ARCA races for Petree, winning his ARCA debut at Talladega last season. Menard got his start in go-karts as a kid, eventually moving on to ice racing. Cool, man.

Truck Stop
Good news for Craftsman Truck Series drivers the Texas Motor Speedway this weekend (Friday, 9 p.m. ET on SPEED) — Brendan Gaughan will not be there. Gaughan, who will be at Pocono in the No. 77 Dodge, swept both Texas events in 2002 and '03 for a total of four Lone Star State wins.

"It's like having a new track on the series," says points leader Dennis Setzer , who won at TMS in 1999. "He's given us the opportunity for a new winner." By the way, winning the pole might not be the way to go. Pole sitters have not won at Texas in the last six tries, and the man at the point has won only three of the 12 TMS events.

Why We Call Richard Petty "The King" Fact of the Week
Ronald Reagan's appearance at the Firecracker 400 on July 4, 1984 is felt by many to be the day that the sport was legitimized for many Americans. Reagan gave the command of "Gentlemen, start your engines" via telephone from Air Force One and later arrived to sit trackside with Bill France Jr., do a little play-by-play with Ned Jarrett on MRN Radio and congratulate staunch Republican Richard Petty on winning his 200th NASCAR Winston Cup race.

"Of all the Presidents that there's ever been," The King said to the Prez, "You're the only one who saw fit to show up at the race track." As legendary racing writer Tom Higgins said, it was the only time that a County Commissioner managed to upstage the President of the United States.

Jeff Hammond's lunch with the president
After the Firecracker 400 at Daytona in 1984, President Ronald Reagan -- who gave the command to start engines from Air Force One -- had lunch with the NASCAR teams.

My best memory of that day is how genuine the man was. We were having fried chicken and potato salad in a fenced-off area in the infield at Daytona, but his overall enthusiasm impressed upon me that he was happy to be there with us. He truly enjoyed watching us race and watching Richard Petty win his 200th win. He was almost giddy. That made me feel like he was a real guy.

  • HAMMOND: Genuine Reagan was enthusiastic about racing
  • Totally NASCAR
    Who's Hot & Who's Not
    Mark Martin : Even Mark admits that his Dover win was more luck than anything else, but hey, a win is always a win. He has also scored three top-seven finishes in the last five races, moving from 15th to 13th in points and inching closer to that coveted top-10 cutoff.
    Jeff Gordon : The rainbow roller coaster continues. After six straight top-10 finishes, he plowed his way to a 30th-place finish at Charlotte and wrecked on Sunday to end up 36th. In the last seven weeks, he has climbed from 13th in points to third and fallen back to fifth. Whew!
  • Who's Hot, Who's Not
  • NASCAR This Morning, Sunday at 11 a.m. ET
  • NASCAR THIS MORNING is back in full throttle Sun., June 13 as the panel gets race fans ready for Pocono Raceway.
  • We would like your e-mails for our analysts, including:
    • Specific tech questions about Pocono for Billy "Tech" Ingle.
    • Driver questions about Pocono for Kenny Wallace and Chad Little .
    • Post-Dover queries for the panel.
    • Other issues or topics within the sport, etc.
  • Rookie driver Kasey Kahne is profiled as he goes for his first career win in the Nextel Cup Series.
  • Finally, Steve Waid plays "psycho-analyst" (or just plain psycho) as he explains the communication barrier between crew chiefs and their drivers.
  • The panel will discuss last week's controversial race at Dover and will look ahead to the tour's first trip to Pocono.
  • NTM Who to Watch Poll: Pocono 500 presented by SUBWAY
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