LONG POND — The names are legendary in open-wheel racing. Mario Andretti, A.J. Foyt, the Unsers, Rick Mears.
Whether it was the CART series or USAC Champ Cars, those stars of the past and others have taken the checkered flag at Pocono Raceway. Now comes the first step to join the prestigious group.
The IZOD IndyCar Series makes the return of open-wheel racing at Pocono official today with qualifying for Sunday’s Pocono IndyCar 400 Fueled by Sunoco.
Qualifying begins at 1:30 p.m. as part of a busy day for IndyCar drivers. They will also have two practice sessions at 10 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. And sandwiched between those activities, the Firestone Indy Lights Series will practice and have a 40-lap race starting at 4 p.m.
The Pocono IndyCar 400 Fueled by Sunoco starts at 12:15 p.m. Sunday. The race will be same as the NASCAR Sprint Cup races at the track — 160 laps and 400 miles.
“I’ve always heard good things about this place,” said Will Power, who is coming off a third-place finish at Iowa two weeks ago. “It’s the closest track we have to Indianapolis. I think it will be a good race. Hopefully, it gets a big crowd and I’m looking forward to the weekend.”
Power drives the No. 12 Chevrolet for Team Penske, whose owner has left his mark on the Pocono record book. Roger Penske was the team owner of the first and last open-wheel drivers to win at the 2.5-mile tri-oval — Mark Donohue in 1971 and Danny Sullivan in 1989.
Drivers, though, complained about track conditions after the 1989 race and CART — then the country’s top open-wheel division — dropped Pocono from the schedule. That left just memories of open-wheel racing that have been rekindled with IndyCar’s return.
Points leader Helio Castroneves also drives for Penske, where three-time Pocono race winner Mears serves as a consultant. Only Foyt with four victories has more open-wheel wins at the track.
“Basically for us, having Rick Mears on the team he was the master of this place and we’ve heard a lot about this place,” said the driver of the No. 3 Chevrolet. “I think it was after Indy when the race happened here in the past. So for us, that’s the only recollection.
“I know hearing a lot about Pocono I’m very honored to be here representing Penske again. Hopefully, we can do the same what Rick did in the past. He said this is an awesome place.”
Marco Andretti will be looking to replicate the accomplishment of his grandfather Mario, who won in 1986 at Pocono. A victory would be a trifecta for Marco. He’d accomplish something his granddad did, he’d do it at his hometown track (the Andrettis are from Nazareth) and he’d get his first win since 2011.
“It would be huge,” Andretti said. “It’s what we’ve been trying to achieve every weekend so far, but we’ve been coming up just short. Obviously, it would be compounded because it’s a home track for me and there’s going to be a lot of support. The support helps, but it matters what happens on the track.”
Andretti won’t be the only driver in Sunday’s field with a connection to victory lane. Graham Rahal’s father Bobby won at Pocono in 1988. Graham now drives for his dad, whose team is partially owned by David Letterman.
“First of all, it’s great to race with him,” said Rahal, who pilots the No. 15 Honda. “My dad and I have a very special, very close relationship, which when you work together is a difficult thing at times. But he and I are very much the same person.”
Besides the speeds, which will be much higher than those of NASCAR racers at Pocono, the restarts will be different. IndyCar announced earlier this week it will utilize three-wide starts at Pocono, as well as at Auto Club Speedway in California on Oct. 19.