LONG POND — Marco Andretti slid behind the wheel of his No. 25 Chevrolet on Wednesday and sped around Pocono Raceway, officially ending a 24-year open-wheel drought at the track.
Mario Andretti, Mario’s grandfather and an open wheel great, tinkered with the car on pit road and even picked bugs off the windshield. Four-time Indianapolis 500 winner Rick Mears watched from the garage before leaving for the spotter’s stand.
The throwback stars weren’t about to miss the IndyCar Series hit the triangle track Wednesday for a tire test in preparation for the race on July 7. Marco Andretti, Will Power and four-time IndyCar champion Dario Franchitti were among the current crop of drivers who hit speeds of 215 mph in open wheel’s first action at the track — now known for hosting two Sprint Cup races each season — since the race won by Danny Sullivan on Aug. 20, 1989.
“A lot of things have changed,” Mears said. “But a lot of things haven’t. I think a good line then is a good line today.”
The return to Pocono is being celebrated as a nod to IndyCar’s history and tradition. Pocono’s three corners were designed in 1965 to model corners at Indianapolis, Milwaukee and now-defunct Trenton, and fans have always considered the track an important venue in open wheel racing.
“This place was built by IndyCar for IndyCar,” Pocono CEO Brandon Igdalsky said. “It’s part of who we are.”
Marco Andretti was not yet 3 years old when three Andrettis — Michael, Mario and John — all competed in the last Pocono race. Andretti, from nearby Nazareth, said he was excited to have the chance to drive in front of friends, family — heck, probably the entire town will be on hand in July.
“I’m going to have a huge hometown crowd,” Andretti said. “I think I’ll have to renegotiate my contract with dad to get more tickets for this race, for sure. But the hometown support’s going to be huge. The convenience of it is huge. But obviously it’s going to be tough, just like the rest of ‘em.”
Having grandpa Mario, who a Pocono race in 1986, out to assist could give him an edge.
“He’ll definitely be valuable, especially on the race weekend,” Andretti said. “I’d be foolish to not listen to what he has to say, anywhere really, not just here.”
Franchitti was the only driver with experience at the track, competing in 2008 during his ill-fated NASCAR stint. The facility has since undergone a multimillion-dollar renovation that included significant safety upgrades, and the track was repaved in 2012 offering glass-smooth racing at 200 mph.
“That’s really allowed us as IndyCar as a group to come back here. It’s very much appreciated,” Franchitti said. “I said at the time, to run an IndyCar around here would be a blast, and it is.”
Franchitti struggled in the first two IndyCar races with consecutive 25th-place finishes and is off to the worst start of his career. He went to pit lane 41 laps into Sunday’s race at Barber Motorsports Park with an electrical issue after driving from the back of the field into the top-10.
He’s last in the IndyCar Series standings.
“It’s not like an ideal start. But we’ll keep plugging away,” he said. “The trick will be to be competitive every weekend, then we’ve got half a chance of closing the gap.”
Franchitti can name three big wins this season he’d love to have on his resume. In bringing Pocono back to the schedule, IndyCar resurrected the “Triple Crown” challenge, a three-race competition in 2013 for $1 million to the driver that wins the Indianapolis 500, the 400-miler at Pocono and the season finale at Fontana, Calif. The challenge will give $250,000 if a driver wins two of the three races.
“To pull that off would be pretty massive,” Power said. “Three very tough tracks. It’s tough enough just to finish the three, let alone win the three. I don’t know much about the Triple Crown, to be honest.”
“There’s money involved, mate,” Franchitti said, laughing.
“It’s not a points system, it’s just if you won the three?” Power said. “Wow, I’m going to have to do that.”
The drivers will return July 4 for another open test. About 300 fans attended Wednesday’s test and Igdalsky said enthusiasm in the area is high for another race. Perhaps impressed by cool cars and sizzling speeds, plenty of fans lined up at the ticket window to snag a seat for the race on July 7.
Igdalsky said he wanted to check out an IndyCar race at St. Petersburg last season as a fan, but it morphed into a conversation with series officials that led to the return. He’s locked the track into a three-year deal with IndyCar.
Igdalsky also has looked at how other tracks expanded its use outside racing and plans for Pocono to host more than motor sports.
Dover International Speedway in Delaware, for example, will host the wildly popular Firefly Music Festival again in June.
“You look at the stadiums around the area and they’re all running these different events,” Igdalsky said. “Why can’t we do the same thing? Why can’t we add more events and get more people in the door here and have some fun? We’ve got this large stadium. Let’s use it.”
He also dismissed the idea that the market would be over-saturated with racing. NASCAR hits Pocono for Cup races on June 9 and Aug. 4.
“Do Eagles fans complain when they do three games in three weeks? It’s not any different,” Igdalsky said.
Igdalsky was vague on any safety changes the track may implement following a tragic end to last August’s Cup race when a lightning strike killed one fan and injured nine others.
”You always learn,” Igdalsky said. “We’ll update and we’re changing things, but we’ll let it go at that.”