Archives: Racing in the Poconos

Larry Lawrence | November 5, 2019

Archives: Racing in the Poconos

Beginning in the post-World War II years, the Pocono Mountains began gaining a reputation as a top East Coast honeymoon destination, but with the completion of Pocono International Race in 1971, a new group of visitors began populating the kitschy hotels – complete with their heart-shaped bathtubs – racing teams and their accompanying fans. Along with auto racing, the AMA Grand National Championship came to Pocono’s new superspeedway in its first season of operation.

Archives: Racing in the Poconos

Kenny Roberts discusses his Pocono AMA National victory in 1977. Skip Aksland (in PJ1 t-shirt) and Gary Nixon (far left) finished second and third respectively. (Henny Ray Abrams photo)

The track, owned by Philadelphia dentist Dr. Joseph Mattioli, was built in stages over the years. It started in the late-1960s at a three-quarter mile track, before making way for the big speedway completed in ’71 Fortunately for road racing fans, in addition to the famous 2.5-mile tri-oval Indy and Stock Car racetrack, Pocono built an infield road course section as well. In fact, there are three different sections of road course making for multiple configurations, which have been used for motorcycle road races over the years. The first AMA National held at the track in ’71 utilized a 1.8-mile course that used the infield and parts of the tri-oval.

Pocono came along at a perfect time to help meet the growing popularity of motorcycle road racing. Throughout much of the ’60 the AMA calendar only featured three or four road races, with Daytona and Laconia being the biggies. But by 1971 that number was up to seven road race venues, including freshly-built facilities like Road Atlanta, Ontario Motor Speedway, Talladega Superspeedway and Pocono.

Before the national was held there, a regional race was held at the not yet completed facility in August of 1970. Gary Nixon raced a Triumph triple to victory over Yvon DuHamel on a Kawasaki 350cc two-stroke.

The first national at Pocono in August of ’71 produced a great race. DuHamel was easily the fastest rider on peaky Kawasaki H1R three-cylinder 500cc 2-stroke. But DuHamel’s Kawasaki was thirsty and in the 100-mile race he would be forced to make a pit stop.

DuHamel jumped out to a big lead ahead of Kel Carruthers and his Yamaha 350cc two-stroke and Dick Mann on his BSA Rocket 3. When DuHamel pitted for fuel Carruthers took the lead with Mann right on him. DuHamel’s Kawasaki never ran as strong after the pit stop, so the race came down to Carruthers and Mann. On the final lap just 20 feet separated the two. Mann came into the final corner and stayed low, forcing Carruthers go around the long way to get around. The move paid off for Mann, and he held off Carruthers by inches at the finish line to take the first ever national victory at Pocono.

An estimated crowd of 4000 fans should up to that first national in ‘71, but the popularity of the race grew and it got progressively bigger, especially during the 1980s, perhaps owing to it being within a couple of hours of both New York City and Philadelphia, the Pocono.

The first AMA National at Pocono came down to Carruthers and Mann. On the final lap just 20 feet separated the two. Mann came into the final corner and stayed low, forcing Carruthers go around the long way to get around. The move paid off for Mann, and he held off Carruthers by inches at the finish line to take the first ever national victory at Pocono.

After skipping a year, the national returned in ’73, this time using a 2.8-mile road course configuration. Gary Nixon, riding an Erv Kanemoto-tuned Kawasaki, won that year’s race over Yamaha-mounted Kenny Roberts. Part of the program that year was a Production race won by Yvon DuHamel on a Kawasaki triple. It was one of the precursor events that eventually morphed into the AMA Superbike class.

After a few year’s absence, the national returned in 1977 and Kenny Roberts won going away over Skip Aksland and Gary Nixon. Interestingly, the AMA weighed the bikes before the races and it was open for anyone to see. The stunner was Alan Barbic’s Yamaha of San Jose-sponsored Yamaha TZ750 weighed in at a svelte 295 lbs. Barbic made his own frame for the bike and that weight likely made it the lightest TZ750 raced in that era. Roberts’ winning TZ by comparison weighed 335 lbs. and Rich Chambers’ weighed 380 lbs., nearly 100 lbs. heavier than Barbic’s!

Mike Baldwin won Pocono in ’78 en route to winning the AMA National Road Racing Championship.

Rich Schlachter shares the podium with second-place James Stephens (left) and Donny Greene, who finished third, after Schlachter, who raced for MacLean Racing Honda, won the Pocono AMA 250 Grand Prix in June of 1985. Schlachter was on a hot streak, having won a week earlier in Loudon as well. (Henny Ray Abrams photo)

The race was controversially rained out in 1979. Many thought the AMA bailed out the promoter, who was set to take a major loss, since only a tiny crowd showed in the steady rain. It was a big deal because it the was the road race season finale and the four top riders were within seven points. Same thing in AMA Superbike where it was close between three riders and Pocono would have been make or break for the championship.

The 1980s saw both the peak and quick decline of the event. Perhaps the biggest crowds ever showed up in the early 1980s, when riders like Dale Singleton, Freddie Spencer and Mike Baldwin were trading wins, but by the mid-‘80s things were falling off fast.

“I went to many AMA Nationals there and the place was packed with motorcyclists camped out everywhere,” racer Roger Lyles recalls. “It was a big party with drag racing all night.”

Scott Zampach leads the pack in the Mobil 1 Triumph Speed Triple Challenge round at Pocono International Raceway in September of 1996. (Henny Abrams photo)

The track surface was beginning to deteriorate and the owners didn’t have the money to repave. The whole area was in a downturn, with the area’s honeymoon hotels falling out of favor and into disrepair. Not to mention the track, never the safest track, was especially dangerous with the speeds motorcycles were reaching by the 1980s. The facility sadly witnessed a number of fatalities and serious injuries over the years.

“The steel walls were unforgiving and scary in hindsight”, racer Mark Coughlin said.

The last AMA National was held at the Pocono in 1986. Randy Renfrow won the F1 race and Wayne Rainey in Superbike. WERA kept motorcycle racing alive for years afterwards with its Cycle Jam. It was one of the biggest races of the year for the club organization, but even WERA left when things continued to decline.

“WERA stopped racing there due to nothing being done to help fix the bumps and bad spots,” said WERA CEO Evelyne Clarke. “The bikes got too fast to take the chances. It was a great track in so many ways – always had huge grids and it hurt us to let it go, but safety became a great concern there. Good memories and some bad ones too.”

The last major motorcycle race at Pocono was a Formula USA event in 2002. In 30 years of racing the track in the mountains of Eastern Pennsylvania witnessed a lot of history. Fans bemoaned the loss of motorcycle racing, but newer, safer tracks were built and for motorcycle racing at least, Pocono became a track today only visited in the history books.

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Larry Lawrence | Archives Editor In addition to writing our Archives section on a weekly basis, Lawrence is another who is capable of covering any event we throw his way.