By: Zach Sturniolo (Contributing Journalist for ’50 Years of The Tricky Triangle.’) (December 27, 2021)
The journey through Pocono Raceway’s history shines on the racetrack in the 1980s, even despite some off-track struggles for the facility itself.
During the Tricky Triangle’s second decade of hosting races around its 2.5-mile layout, the action seemed to improve by the year. Even better is it didn’t matter what sort of cars hit the track – modifieds, Champ Cars, stock cars – each respective vehicle put on dazzling displays of driving any time they hit the racetrack.
We begin revisiting the 1980s without fenders, jumping straight into USAC Champ Car and CART racing and the finest drivers of their era rising to the occasion on the Tricky Triangle. The winners this decade are some of motorsports’ best: Bobby Unser, AJ Foyt, Rick Mears, Mario Andretti.
Unser’s victory in 1980, which counted toward both USAC and CART series, was the continuation of family history at Pocono, building off the prior success of brother Al Unser who won twice in the 1970s.
Foyt, one of the world’s most decorated drivers, followed that up with a USAC victory in 1981, his fourth and final career victory at Pocono Raceway.
And while Rick Mears and Danny Sullivan went on to win the majority of CART events around the Tricky Triangle in the 1980s – Mears thrice and Sullivan twice – it’s Mario Andretti’s 1986 triumph that circles back to that aforementioned family history.
For all his input into the foundation of Pocono Raceway and his legendary racing prowess, Andretti was winless in 13 starts at Pocono through 1985. Finally, that all changed in 1986.
The Andrettis dominated the race weekend. Michael Andretti, Mario’s son, started the week strong on Friday by claiming the pole position in qualifying for the marquee 500-mile event with a lap speed of 205.724 mph. On Saturday, Michael’s brother Jeff Andretti led 13 of 40 laps to win the weekend’s preliminary CART race in what is today known as the Indy Lights series.
All that led to Mario Andretti finally coming through to win his first race around the 2.5-mile Pocono Raceway, leading 119 of 200 laps before reaching victory lane.
“I use this as one of the highlights of my career as a family of course,” Andretti said. “Between the three of us, we cleaned house that weekend. And it was not noted so much, but we did, and we certainly celebrate it.”
The thrilling open-wheel action was only bolstered by phenomenal racing for the elite levels of stock-car racing NASCAR brought to northeastern Pennsylvania.
Tim Richmond and Bill Elliott each won a Cup Series high four races throughout the decade of competing at Pocono, but it was Richmond’s win in the 1986 Summer 500 that remains the highlight of the era.
Despite the event’s bright and sunny title, the Summer 500 of ‘86 was held in the clouds of Pocono fog. In fact, after Dale Earnhardt crashed at the exit of Turn 2 on lap 138, NASCAR officials deemed under the caution period that the race would be shortened to 150 laps due to the severe lack of fan and spotter visibility.
With that decision came a restart at lap 147 with four laps to go. Geoff Bodine led Bobby Allison, Ricky Rudd, Tim Richmond and Darrell Waltrip to the green flag. Richmond rocketed to second after a handful of daring moves to charge past Allison and Rudd and quickly found himself on the back bumper of Bodine, his Hendrick Motorsports teammate.
Richmond hounded Bodine for an entire lap but shot to the inside coming to the white flag, side-by-side across the line. Richmond cleared Bodine in Turn 1, but the battle was just beginning. Bodine charged back to Richmond’s inside at the exit of Turn 2 and held the lead by three-quarters of a car length entering the final corner.
But on the outside, Richmond drove deep into the corner and found just enough grip to get even with Bodine’s nose. Their side-by-side drive allowed Rudd to join the chaos at the exit of Turn 3.
Suddenly, the leaders were three-wide for the win down the front straightaway – Rudd on the inside, Bodine middle and Richmond outside. Charging to the line, Tim Richmond was the race leader over Ricky Rudd by just 0.05 seconds – still the closest finish in NASCAR history at Pocono Raceway.
The victory was Richmond’s third at Pocono and second in a string of three consecutive wins in Long Pond, joining Bobby Allison as the only two drivers to earn the hat trick at the Tricky Triangle.
Pocono Raceway’s story, however, cannot be told without noting its battle nearing bankruptcy multiple times throughout the decade. Due in part to construction mistakes, conflict between CART and USAC, and self-admitted inexperience, the Mattioli family very nearly sold the track in the early years of the 1980s. But a fateful meeting in New York City with NASCAR founder Bill France Sr. was the pivotal moment in Pocono Raceway’s future. The family was staunch in its stance to sell, but France was relentless.
On the back of his business card, France wrote the message that would save the family’s ownership of the facility: “On the plains of hesitation lie the bleached bones of millions – who when within the grasp of victory sat and waited, and waiting died.”
The Mattiolis heeded France’s advice and were soon rewarded with a second Cup Series race date in 1982, beginning a stretch of 39 consecutive seasons in which NASCAR visited Pocono twice annually.
An enormous amount of effort went into preserving and improving the facility and it paid off quite well. The on-track performances put on by the sport’s best racers certainly did their part throughout the 1980s to place Pocono Raceway atop the motorsports world.
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