LONG POND – When he began hearing rumors about the return of the IndyCar Series to Pocono International Raceway, driving legend Mario Andretti became a big fan of the idea.
Now he'll have troves of people around Pocono cheering with him.
After a 23-year absence, IndyCar will be back at Pocono for at least the next three seasons starting July 7 with the Pocono IndyCar 400, the track and IZOD IndyCar Series announced Monday.
"It's really exciting," said Pocono International Raceway president and CEO Brandon Igdalsky, adding the July 7 race will be "40 years and four days - almost to the day - of the original race. A lot of what we are is because of IndyCar.
"We've come full-circle."
The Pocono race will be the 11th on the expanded 19-race schedule of the Izod IndyCar Series, which ran 15 races this past season.
"We're bringing back a great oval," said IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard.
That's not all they're bringing back.
The Triple-Crown Series is also returning to IndyCar, with Pocono, the Indy 500 and the Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif. being part of that competition. Bernard said a sweep of all three of those events will bring the driver a cash prize of $1 million, and winning two of those three races will be worth $250,000.
"If you're going to come back to Pocono," Bernard said, "you better bring back the Triple Crown, too."
The IndyCar series was once a staple of Pocono Raceway for two decades before departing after Danny Sullivan's victory on Aug. 20, 1989. From the first IndyCar race at Pocono in 1971, the event showcased such world-renowned drivers as A.J. Foyt, Rick Mears, Al and Bobby Unser, Danny Sullivan and Andretti – who captured the 1986 run at Pocono.
"It was music to my ears when some of the rumors began to fly around that it might be coming back," Andretti said. "I don't think wonderful really describes the feeling I have for this race to come back. There's only one negative. I'm too damn old to drive this thing."
Andretti, who recorded the most laps of any driver while running 17 of IndyCar's 19 races at Pocono and recorded five top-5 finishes and nine top 10's during the 1970s and '80s, joked he'll take some credit for influencing IndyCar's return to Pocono.
In reality, Andretti said he was just in "A cheering role, with pom-poms, ‘Let's go to Pocono.' And here we are."
That IndyCar and Pocono are together again, Igdalsky said, mainly by happenstance.
Igdalsky remembers attending last year's IZOD IndyCar Series opener in St. Petersburg, Fla., and social media began buzzing about the series being on the brink of returning to Pocono. Igdalsky said that swirl caught him by surprise, because he had no plans to have IndyCar running around his Pocono track again. But the idea intrigued him enough to talk about it during a meeting with Bernard, which was arranged, he said, through a media member.
"We just started to casually talk about it," Igdalsky said. "Next thing you know, we're all sitting here today."
The deal leaves Pocono with a schedule of three racing weekends in nine weeks, with two NASCAR events sandwiching the IndyCar race at the track. The IndyCar race at Pocono will be televised on ABC and, according to Bernard, will be shortened to 400 laps instead of the usual 500 in the IZOD series in order to fit into the allotted time slot for July 7 telecast.
Tickets for the Pocono IndyCar 400 went on sale at 10 a.m. Monday morning, priced at $25 for general admission and cut to half-price for children and grandstand seating.
"NASCAR certainly has its stars," Igdalsky said, "and when I was a kid, IndyCar – that was it. The (IndyCAR) drivers wanted to be back here, the series wanted to come back, the fans wanted them back. We're honored to help them out and give the fans what they want."