Upgrades craft fast, modern track
Take a dip through the tunnel at Pocono Raceway and emerge to the sight of a giant banner that almost obstructs the view of the twin spires that sit atop the grandstand:
''Welcome to Doc's Place.''
The banner was raised in honor of track founder and chairman Joseph ''Doc'' Mattioli for the first race held at Pocono since he died in January. Mattioli's presence looms large this weekend. His portrait is on the cover of the race program, commemorative decals are stuck on the Sprint Cup cars, staff workers wear pins, and his name is painted in yellow on rocks outside the garage area.
This 2.5-mile triangle track nestled in the mountains will always belong to Mattioli.
''It's getting harder,'' said his grandson, Brandon Igdalsky. ''It's hard to be around here this weekend and not hear his booming voice.''
Igdalsky has assumed control and is mostly calling the shots these days at Pocono. Igdalsky was already track president as Mattioli scaled back his duties in recent years and added CEO to his title last year.
The track remains in the family (his brother and sister are executives) and the 36-year-old Igdalsky has already put a modern stamp on a track that dates back to the 1960s.
Mattioli's absence isn't the only jarring adjustment.
The track underwent an overdue repave that led to breakneck speeds on two days of testing this week.
The race, which had long eschewed corporate sponsorship in the title, is called the Pocono 400 Presented by #NASCAR. The race marks Twitter's first official partnership with a sports league. The #NASCAR page will feature tweets that bring fans closer to all the action at the Pocono 400.
Fans, writers and drivers have 100 less miles to tweet Sunday.
In a change that had teams celebrating like they had won Daytona, the grueling 500-mile race was shortened to 400 miles. Long considered one of the more tedious races in Cup racing, 400 miles is expected to provide a close and compelling race from the drop of the green flag.
''This track has been a fuel-mileage race in the past and a little bit shorter race could shake that up,'' driver Clint Bowyer said. ''It just seemed like this is a track that we got strung out on and it was just a bit too long.''
This week, drivers raved about the track surface and the length of the race. Happy drivers at Pocono?
While NASCAR admired and respected Mattioli, his track absorbed a public flogging like no other in the series. Complaints about the 500 miles started when haulers pulled into the garage. The track was considered unsafe - Greg Biffle once lamented ''they're going to kill somebody there.'' And drivers still wonder why they have to race here eight weeks apart without one event holding a spot in the Chase.
The criticism took a toll on Mattioli and his family.
''I know for me, it was a little tough to hear,'' Igdalsky said. ''At the same time, it means you've got room to grow and things to do. We've worked real hard the last few years to start turning that thought around.''
The facility completed a multimillion-dollar project in 2010 that made significant safety upgrades, including a soft-wall barrier and catchfence.
New asphalt was laid for the first time since 1995 and drivers posted speeds during testing that would be track records if they're hit in qualifying.
Igdalsky said one veteran driver told him, ''You now have a modern facility.''
''I so appreciate the effort made by the racetrack,'' five-time champion Jimmie Johnson said. ''As far as the Mattiolis and what they mean to the sport and who they are as people, I can't say enough great things about them and how much I do enjoy coming here for those reasons.''
But Johnson admitted the track hadn't been all that fun to race.
Mattioli was a staunch defender through the years of the 500-mile race that put the long in Long Pond and ran the two Cup races without corporate sponsorship (''I don't need the money and if you don't need the money, what is the sense of sponsorship?'').
Igdalsky said his grandfather was eventually persuaded to see an overhaul was needed if the track was going to continue to thrive. Mattioli's signature is on the sanctioning agreement for Sunday's race.
''The last few years, he got it,'' Igdalsky said. ''I think his stubbornness all those years was the treasure he was. As I got involved and saw things in a different light, I was able to soften him up and he could see it from a different point of view.''
Igdalsky said ticket sales and revenues are up for the race, though neither figures are publicly released.
Pocono, Dover International Speedway and Indianapolis Motor Speedway are the three tracks independent of the Speedway Motorsports Inc. and International Speedway Corporation conglomerates.
Pocono serves as the launching point for the NASCAR/Twitter race day relationship. Twitter.com/#NASCAR will use a combination of signals to select the best tweets and photos from NASCAR insiders during race weekends. The tweets will be curated by a Twitter staff, which will choose from a selective list of accounts.
One fan posted on the page Friday, ''Aren't I following most of these people anyway?''
But Igdalsky expected the tweets to stretch beyond the drivers and beat writers and include more of a fan perspective from the track and at home. The page is holding a ''Tweet Your Seat'' contest, where one randomly-selected fan will become the honorary starter and wave the green flag to start the race.
Maybe one year those Pocono tweets will come from an IndyCar race. Open-wheel races haven't been run at the track since the 1980s.
''As a fan, I want an IndyCar race here,'' Igdalsky said. ''As a businessperson and a track promoter, I don't know. The possibility of Indy or any other series is something we're always discussing.''
That's a discussion for another day.
This weekend is about a new race, a better future - and remembering the patriarch who made it all possible.