IZOD IndyCar drivers took to the 2.5-mile Pocono International Raceway on Wednesday for a Firestone tire test in preparation for the series' race debut at the track on July 7. They found it to be an impressive mix of a superspeedway and short oval.
"It was kind of like a higher-speed short oval because you still have to work, especially Turn 1," Marco Andretti said. "For me, it was about finding the limit in Turn 3, getting a feel for the banking. It will be interesting trying to find the balance between Turn 1 and 3. It's like Nazareth on steroids."
Andretti was joined by Dario Franchitti, Simon Pagenaud and Will Power at the test, which was open free to the public and attracted hundreds of spectators wanting to see the first laps turned at the facility by Indy cars since 1989. The track lap record is 211.715mph set in 1989 by Emerson Fittipaldi in qualifying, which was breached by almost 3mph in the morning session. Although no official speeds were released, Firestone reported laps being run in the 215mph range.
Firestone engineers used the Indianapolis 500 tire specification as a baseline and then tested a number of compound and construction alternatives. Driver feedback, race team engineer input and tire performance data collected from the test will be evaluated to determine the best tire specification to develop for the race weekend.
The aerodynamic specification of mandatory and optional elements used at Indianapolis and Auto Club Speedway were utilized for the track that features a 3,740-foot front straight and banking in the three turns of 14, 8 and 6 degrees.
"Definitely it's a really nice track, very smooth with the resurfacing," said Power." It's very fast. I've already been wide open all the way around. Maybe a little bit heavy on downforce, but nice. Turn 3 is very much like Indianapolis. Turn 1 is like a mile‑and‑a‑half, halfway there, a lot of banking.
"But, yeah, it's fun – if your car's good. If not, screw that, I don't want to be out there (laughter)."
Pagenaud agreed that the unusual tri-oval configuration was an eye-opener for him.
"My eyeballs was going into the corner, but my helmet was still down there," he laughed. "I think I actually grabbed the brakes in the first corners because it was a bit scary. You get used to it, but definitely very fast."
The track, which has long been a mainstay on the NASCAR Sprint Cup schedule, has undergone significant upgrades over the years, and Pagenaud said that based on first impressions, it will be a valuable addition to the IndyCar calendar.
"It's very different to any of the ovals we go to," he said. "Certainly with my little experience on ovals, it was quite surprising on the first few laps because it's really fast out there.
"The track is really smooth – the surface is awesome for the IndyCars. The speeds are quite impressive already. That's a good sign."
Franchitti agreed that the configuration throws some setup wrinkles at the drivers and teams.
"There's always compromise, especially at a track with three such different corners," noted the Scot. "There's the big banking in Turn 1, almost flat-tracking in Turn 3 and the tunnel turn. You're always going to be better at one corner than another. The trick is to figure out which one you can give away the most in order to still be competitive."
Franchitti said the fact he was the one of the four to have raced at Pocono before – in a stock car in 2008 – offered no advantages.
"It feels like a different track. Going down the straight, any straight this length, is going to feel long. When you turn into Turn 1 here wide open, just keep it flat, the car compresses, all those Gs build up, it is a helluva feeling."
"The tunnel turn is probably the most similar car‑to‑car. We're still I think 20 miles an hour quicker, 30 miles an hour quicker in the IndyCar. But Turn 3, I mean, as Will said, you're going through there wide open right now, which defies logic, really, when you consider we have Indianapolis-spec wings on the car.
So it feels a lot different, but it's fun. This was a bumpy old place before. Now it's very, very smooth. There has obviously been a great deal of investment in the track, the SAFER Barrier in different places, as well. That's really allowed IndyCar as a group to come back here.
"All those investments have been made. I said at the time to run an IndyCar around here would be a blast, and it is. It's going to be a very good race."
The race will be the second leg of the superspeedway events in which a $1 million bonus will be paid to a driver who wins the races at the 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway, 2.5-mile Pocono Raceway and the 2-mile Auto Club Speedway.
From 1971-'80, the Indy car Triple Crown consisted of 500-mile races at Pocono Raceway, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Ontario (Calif.) Speedway. When Ontario closed in 1980, it was replaced by Michigan International Speedway and the Triple Crown lasted until 1989. Al Unser is the only driver to have won all three races in the same calendar year (1978, driving the No. 2 First National City Travel Checks-sponsored car for team owner Jim Hall).
For Mario Andretti, who won the 1986 race, started from the pole in '87 and was on hand to watch his grandson in action at today's test, the return to Pocono is a gratifying step.
"We've been waiting for this moment and we belong here," said Mario. "This place was built for Indy cars. The facility is fabulous and was my favorite superspeedway to drive on. This track is different from any other superspeedway we run because of the very different radius of every corner and also different banking. It's what I really enjoyed about this place."