Race Weekend Central

Beyond the Cockpit: A Pocono Post-Mortem With the President

Two Sundays ago, Brandon Igdalsky stood alone as the face of Pocono Raceway. His longtime mentor and grandfather, Doc Mattioli, could only watch from above, tributes pouring in while the pressure of the first Cup race without his presence was palpable from the start. By shortening the race to 400 miles, choosing to repave the track for the first time in over 15 years and redoing pit road, no one could say Igdalsky had chosen to stay with the status quo.

Like grandfather, like grandson. Clearly, Doc was smiling from above by the time the checkered flag flew; with increased attendance, plenty of passing and a nail-biting finish the changes created one of the best Cup Series races since the track started hosting major NASCAR events in 1974.

How did it all come together? Why was Pocono the exception to the rule when most repaving projects have put fans to sleep? Igdalsky answers those questions, delves into the pit-road speeding issue that irritated many teams and looks towards the future of a still-prospering Tricky Triangle in this edition of Beyond the Cockpit.

Tom Bowles, Frontstretch: How do you evaluate yourself after the first Cup race you’ve officially run without your grandfather?

Brandon Igdalsky, Pocono Raceway: I didn’t screw up (laughs). That’s a crazy question, man. I don’t know, I feel we did a pretty good job. It’s not just me. I’m the face that gets the credit, but it’s everybody behind me that – the great team we have here that put it all together, did all the work, they’re the guts of everything. I’m just the loudmouth up front (laughs).

Bowles: There’s been a lot of praise from a lot of different drivers about the repaving. Mark Martin says he didn’t think it would be possible to have had a race that good with the new pavement. What do you think made the difference in making it go so smoothly?

Igdalsky: I knew it was the asphalt that we used. I was trying to tell the guys it was going to be that good, but drivers are drivers. Engineers are engineers and they know what it’s like at other places. The asphalt that we used lends itself to good racing, though when it’s new. You look back, it’s the same asphalt we put down when they did the “grip strip.” (Author’s Note: A patch of pavement placed over in turn 3 a few years ago to help with traction.)

When we did the “grip strip,” people drifted off of the old asphalt onto the new one. Why? Because it had more grip.

I tried to explain that to people, but they didn’t understand that. I wasn’t worried, though. We kept watching the lines as they developed during testing and practice – they kept getting wider and wider and wider. For all of us here, we were anticipating it was going to be a good race but we didn’t expect it was going to be as good as it was. It was an unbelievable race and I’m real excited about that.

Bowles: So you weren’t nervous at all when drivers were taking it real easy? At one point, SPEED in their practice coverage said, “Wow, there was a pass!” a little sarcastically. It seemed everyone else had a little trepidation … but not you?

Igdalsky: No. Not at all. I knew what our asphalt could do. I’ve seen the asphalt, we’ve used it before, and I wasn’t too concerned. In practice and testing, it’s one thing. If they’re not forced to step out of line, they’re not going to step out of line. But the minute they were forced to, you saw how well it worked out for everybody.

You do hear drivers in the background, a little chatter here and there, and there’s always that other side, the fear of maybe they won’t. But I was anticipating that they were going to get out of line and it was going to be a good race. I didn’t expect it to be as great a race as it was. That was definitely a pleasant surprise. But I’m really excited about August now.

Bowles: There was a lot of talk about the shortening of the race, from 500 to 400 miles heading in. How do you feel that affected the race, and do you see that as a permanent change?

Igdalsky: I’m never going to say never, but I think you saw it worked. I think a lot of the naysayers have … you’re always going to have the diehards that are always going to want it to go back. They’re going to fight it forever; that’s just the way it is, and I’m OK with that. But I think we proved that 400 miles at Pocono is a heck of a race.

The one thing that really surprised me is I go out during the race and I stand by turn 2, one of the fire stations there. I do it every year, I’ve done it for the last 15, 20 years, it’s a spot where I go, I stand and I watch about 20 laps. And the one thing I was amazed at was there was a lull between the last-place car and the first-place car.

I’ve never seen that before, other than on restarts, I’ve never seen that. So here it is, during a green-flag run where there’s this giant space and you can talk to the person next to you because there’s a space between cars big enough to have a decent conversation.

Normally, they’re all strung out all around the track and that wasn’t the case. So I think the urgency was there. I think the drivers definitely pushed to get to the front. I think the cautions fell at great times and they were all quality cautions, not mystery cautions.

But I laugh when I hear mystery cautions because I’ve been on the cleanup trucks, and I’ve – if there’s a chunk of something out there on the track and the firemen make the call to go out and get it and NASCAR says “throw the caution” you don’t know what it is out there.

We had a turtle on the track years ago and the caution came out for that … by the time they got to the turtle, it was too late. So I’ve never seen a mystery caution. There’s always something out there, and it’s all about the safety. You’ve got to be proactive with it.

But overall, 400 miles at Pocono was the right call for us, the right call for the fans. The proof is in the pudding, right? It was one of the best races of the season, right in front of us all.

Bowles: Let’s talk about Doc for a minute. This weekend, there were a lot of tributes to your late grandfather, as it was the first Sprint Cup race he wasn’t there for. Was there any particular part of the weekend that touched you the most?

Igdalsky: It was pretty emotional for me all weekend. All week, really. In the drivers’ meeting, I had a rough moment there, just talking to the drivers and the crew chiefs, everybody in attendance there and thanking them for all their support. There were a few interviews I had done during the week I had gotten a little choked up on.

See also
Remembering Doc Mattioli: A Legacy Beyond the Racetrack

But I think if I had to put my finger on one thing that really got me, it was definitely the pre-race ceremony with the PA National Guard, the Army National Guard giving my grandfather the medal for his philanthropy. Standing there with my grandmother to accept that, it was really an emotional moment. And then playing the tribute video, even though I had seen it and gotten emotional before, there it was on the big screen and to see.

Because I had seen it before, I was pretty OK at first. But when I turned, and started looking at the fans around me, the staff around me and everybody is teary-eyed and crying, that was it. I fell apart at that moment; seeing everyone around me, their reaction to it and breaking down … I was already kind of teary-eyed but I got pretty weepy. Obviously taps and the salute, that was a pretty emotional moment as well.

Bowles: Are you still continually hearing new stories about your grandfather, the great things he’s done and what impact he’s had on the sport?

Igdalsky: For sure. For me, he was pretty much an open book. I spent so much time with the man and there were a lot of things he just wouldn’t hide. He was very open with us about things he had done, and why he had done them and how he had done them. He loved telling stories so you grew up listening to all these Doc stories, they’re ingrained in your head.

But there’s definitely the fun ones, especially some of the older drivers, they tell you and the people in the industry that have been with him for 40 years, it’s pretty cool to hear them tell this story, tell that story.

My grandfather tended to embellish stories, so to hear the true version (laughs) …

Bowles: OK, let’s talk about the pit-road controversy. There were a lot of speeding penalties during the race, and drivers and teams complained in some cases that the line marking the pit exit was painted wrong. Is that something you guys are going to revisit between now and August, or are you guys going to leave it be?

Igdalsky: I couldn’t tell you that. All the loops are NASCAR stuff; they tell us where to paint the lines, they put the loops in. So we go by their charts, but from what I’m reading and what I’m seeing a lot of the guys assumed the lines were going to be in the same spot as they were last year. And because of the changes to pit road, they weren’t where they assumed they were going to be and it caught some guys off guard.

If it was everybody, you would say, “Oh, there’s definitely something wrong.” But the fact there were only 22 penalties among 17, 18 drivers, less than half the field, to me that means people didn’t pick up the new maps. They were there and if they assumed that it was going to be the same that it always has been, then shame on them for assuming.

But I don’t know what exactly happened – that’s between NASCAR and the teams. One thing that we talked about is the fact that we added 125 feet of track wall. So that could have played into the fact that things did appear to be where they should have been because they’re looking at an old wall and it’s a new wall. So that could have thrown things a little bit but I don’t think that’s the cause.

Things obviously did move, they had to move when you do a repaving project. And in my opinion, and I haven’t talked to anybody about it – you’re actually the first to ask me about it – I think it’s more that people didn’t get the map. They didn’t look at the map.

Bowles: But just to clarify, you’re saying the map was readily available. Anyone could have come, gotten it and asked what was changed?

Igdalsky: Yes. And we painted the lines based on the map NASCAR gave us, the very same one that the teams get.

Bowles: Finally, I just wanted to ask about the crowd. You had an increase this year, a rarity during a time of reduced attendance across the board. What do you think accounted for the bounce-back of fans at Pocono?

Igdalsky: I think it’s a combination of three things. One, it’s the repaving. Two, the 400 miles. That right there, people want to come and see it. It’s a new experience, they want to come and see what it’s all about. And the third thing … I think it was the weather.

We’ve had, the last couple of years people bought tickets and didn’t show up. We could see it in our gate scan that there were a lot of ticketbuyers that just didn’t come. But the beautiful weather we had all weekend, they came out. Our walkup was great, our presales were great, we were happy and we’re going to take that momentum and get that snowball rolling for the August race.

We saw a lot more RVs come in … we’re seeing more people want to be at Pocono. It’s such a unique facility, we have that family atmosphere. We’re not one of the big corporate tracks; we’re a little throwback, we’re a little modern and there are a lot of changes, a lot of improvement that has been going on. People are excited about it, they’re talking about it and that’s good for us.

About the author

Tom Bowles
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The author of Did You Notice? (Wednesdays) Tom spends his time overseeing Frontstretch’s 40+ staff members as its majority owner and Editor-in-Chief. Based outside Philadelphia, Bowles is a two-time Emmy winner in NASCAR television and has worked in racing production with FOX, TNT, and ESPN while appearing on-air for SIRIUS XM Radio and FOX Sports 1's former show, the Crowd Goes Wild. He most recently consulted with SRX Racing, helping manage cutting-edge technology and graphics that appeared on their CBS broadcasts during 2021 and 2022.

You can find Tom’s writing here, at CBSSports.com and Athlonsports.com, where he’s been an editorial consultant for the annual racing magazine for 15 years.

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