- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 8, 2008

LONG POND, Pa. (AP) | Jeff Gordon says it’s outdated. Jimmie Johnson believes it produces bad racing. And Kyle Busch fears Sunday’s event is going to be downright boring.

Pocono Raceway is officially under attack, and the assault comes as its owners ardently defend its future on the NASCAR schedule.

Bruton Smith, the billionaire owner of Speedway Motorsports Inc., wants desperately to purchase the mountain racetrack from owners Joseph and Rose Mattioli. But the Mattiolis are adamant the track is not for sale and will be one day handed down to their grandchildren.

Even if Smith were to prevail, he has no plans to preserve the facility that serves the New York and Philadelphia markets. Instead, he would pluck one or perhaps even both of its Cup Series dates and move them to SMI-owned facilities.

The battle for ownership of the Pocono track comes amid a wave of criticism against the 2.5-mile triangle.

Gordon, the four-time series champion, was the first to fire when he openly wondered how the “outdated” track has held on to its two Cup dates, despite needing a “ton of upgrades.”

“I’m shocked that they’ve had two races for as long as they’ve had,” Gordon said during testing here two weeks ago. “I’d be surprised if it stayed that way in the future.”

Back for Sunday’s race, Gordon hasn’t retreated from those comments.

“It’s obvious that this is a track that needs some upgrades, and I still believe that,” he said. “At this day and time with this series at the level it’s at … it’s only being constructive criticism as to what upgrades I think they need to have, especially if they want to continue to stay on the circuit going forward.”

The Mattiolis have listened to criticism before - improving the garages and creating lounges for the drivers in 1995. And when he noticed a chunk of asphalt coming loose after the race here last August, 83-year-old Joseph Mattioli walked the path on the track and found baseline cracks in a 15-foot-wide section between Turns 2 and 3.

He had the section filled with a new asphalt that’s created a patch drivers are raving about this weekend.

But the patch is the only positive they’ve found.

At 500 miles, drivers have long complained the race is way too long. If NASCAR surveyed the garage, series officials would be hard pressed to find a single person who doesn’t want the race shortened by 100 miles.

“I think if we ran 400-mile races, that would be better,” Busch said. “There would be more racing throughout the event than just riding around for however many miles because you have so long to go.”

Johnson, the two-time defending champion, says Pocono doesn’t produce good racing because of the long straightaways, tight turns and lack of banking. He was also critical of the grass along the short chute of the speedway and the lack of protective barriers.

“It’s tough to really put on a good race here. It really is,” he said. “We sound awfully harsh in saying these things, but we’re just trying to be honest. We all appreciate and respect the Mattiolis and all that they’ve done. It’s not a personal dig on them.

“But there is no denying that this is an old, old facility. And as racing has gone on and we’re trying to put on a better show, it’s just been tough to do that here.”

Further aggravating the drivers is that they’ll be back here in eight weeks. Although Pocono is one of 14 tracks with two Cup races, the proximity of its two summer dates has long been questioned.

Even so, the Mattiolis remain determined to hold onto their track. They’d considered selling once, back in 1975 when NASCAR founder Bill France Sr. talked them out of it. The families struck a strong bond that trickled down to former chairman Bill France Jr.

Although current NASCAR chairman Brian France presumably doesn’t share his predecessors’ affinity for Pocono, Mattioli said NASCAR has never approached him about taking away one or both of its race dates.

So he presses forward, announcing plans two weeks ago for a $150 million resort across the street from the track. He’s also willing to invest $3 million toward building a dedicated exit off Interstate 80 to ease traffic headed to the track.

Like it or not, with crowds estimated at 130,000, affordable tickets and a facility that is owned outright with no debt, the Mattiolis appear determined to hunker down and hold on to the speedway for the foreseeable future.

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