BY JEFF FALK
Bobby Gerhart isn’t going to race stock cars forever. When he does decide to step away from racing and looks back on his career, what will have proven to be the biggest thorn in his side – his albatros, if you will – was Pocono Raceway.
The good news is Gerhart isn’t retiring any time soon. So there’s still time left for the Lebanon resident to leave his mark on Pocono, beginning this weekend.
Gerhart has accomplished a great many things in his 30-year racing career, mostly on the ARCA circuit. But the one thing that has eluded him, the most glaring thing, is a victory at Pocono.
“It’s been my Achilles Heel, no doubt,” said Gerhart. “It’s a place I’ve always worked very hard to run very well at, maybe too hard. I’ve had some good runs there, some solid finishes. But I’ve probably also had my worst days in racing there.
“It’s (Pocono) taken, from a race-driver’s perspective, a lot out of me,” Gerhart continued. “It’s things I’ve tried to put back into me. I’ve been hurt there a couple of times. And I had two extended hospital stays from accidents. You can put it aside, but you understand how demanding the track is. The place has my respect because of that.
“I’ll try to run as much under control as I can, but as hard as I can. Things change. I might have a couple of years left, and I might have a couple more years left. But when I retire it’ll probably be a quick decision. It may be factors, I’m not going to say are out of my control. But if the opportunity arises to replace me in the car, I might take it. We’re in tough economic times. Everybody’s in the same situation.”
Gerhart will be on the prowl for that elusive win on Saturday, during the running of the Pocono ARCA 200, at the place that has now been officially labeled as the ‘Tricky Triangle’. The 80-lap race will start at 1:30 p.m. and will be televised on a tape-delayed basis by Speed Channel, beginning at 2:30 p.m.
Gerhart and some 40 other racers are expected to attempt qualifying on Friday at 2 p.m..
“Ultimately, you’ve got to have the perfect set up off the truck,” said Gerhart. “A couple of (practice) runs are not going to make a difference on a new surface (asphalt). NASCAR is going to have a three-day test session because of the new track, and we’re (ARCA) condensed to an hour-and-a-half and amen. It’s ultimately going to be a crap shoot. The team that sorts things out first is going to be the dominant team.
“There I don’t know if it’s (qualifying) as important, given the size of the facility,” added Gerhart. “I think qualifying’s more important at smaller tracks. You’re never really in danger of getting a lap down. The critical thing is getting a handle on the new course. We’re going to be on the (gas) pedal more than we’ve ever been before. ”
Since winning his record eighth ARCA race at Daytona in February, Gerhart’s limited racing schedule has taken him to Talladega, where he finished 29th, and Toledo, where he was 20th.
No man alive – or dead – has run as many competitive laps at Pocono than the 53-year-old Gerhart. His best finish there was a third in 2004.
“I feel like I’ve got some unfinished business there (Pocono),” said Gerhart. “It’s a very challenging race track, and it’s been even more challenging for us.”
So why hasn’t Gerhart enjoyed the same success at Pocono that he has at Daytona? Economics. Pure economics. Supply and demand. Risk and reward.
Including testing, traveling and other expenses, Gerhart spends about $150,000 on each Daytona race. Conversely, he throws about $50,000 at Pocono.
Both races pay their winners the same amount, less than $20,000.
“I look at this way, Daytona carries over to me being competitive at Talladega,” said Gerhart. “And they’re the two biggest TV events (on the ARCA circuit) of the year. It allows me to compete the rest of the year, but I can’t as much as I do at Daytona. At Daytona, we’re cutting edge.
“Not only did I test one time at Daytona this year, I tested three times,” continued Gerhart. “The costs are tremendous, about $15,000 a day. At Daytona, we have two or three-hour practices. At Pocono, we haven’t been able to test. I have made a lot of concessions to run at Daytona. If it means Daytona is the only race I can do, I will. I don’t think that’s wrong.”
To emphasize his point, Gerhart said that forced to choose, he would take a win at Daytona over an ARCA series points championship.
“I wanted it that way because I think it (Daytona) gets covered at an entirely different level than the entire series,” said Gerhart. “I just have a different agenda than everyone out there. When I put it (Daytona) behind me and we have a win, I felt like I did my job.
“You don’t race for money,” Gerhart concluded. “If you think that, you’re in the wrong sport. I’ve put a lot of pressure on myself to give my sponsor (Lucas Oil) their money’s worth in TV time. But Lucas came after us. All I can do is show at the biggest races of the year.”