Dr. Joseph “Doc” Mattioli was a Northeast Philly dentist and real estate investor who didn’t know the first thing about carburetors or transmissions, let alone the high-stakes auto racing industry.
But he knew about managing money. And in 1965, he knew that he was in jeopardy of losing an awful lot of it, notwithstanding his ability to breathe new life into the floundering Pocono Raceway project.
So Mattioli bought out his partners and secured new minority share investors. He first built a 3/4-mile oval circuit at Pocono that soon gave way to a 2.5-mile rounded triangle known as a “tri-oval.”
In time, Mattioli’s daring and foresight would earn him legendary status among racing circles. And they would become how folks remembered him upon his death at age 86 last Thursday. Mattioli passed away at Lehigh Valley Hospital Center following a long, undisclosed illness.
“I never ever heard of a race, never saw a race until I put my money into it,” Mattioli told the Northeast Times during a 2005 interview.
The native of Old Forge, Lackawanna County, came to Philadelphia in the late 1940s to attend Temple Dental School on the G.I. Bill. He had served as a Navy medic in the South Pacific during World War II.
While at Temple, he met his future wife, the former Rose Nocito, who was a podiatry student at the time. After his 1952 graduation, he opened a family practice in the couple’s home at Castor Avenue and Loney Street in Rhawnhurst. Dr. Rose Mattioli had her own practice across the hall.
The Mattiolis soon became pillars of the neighborhood, but Doc Mattioli’s long, irregular hours took their toll on him physically and emotionally. One night in 1960, he virtually broke down following a particularly arduous emergency wisdom tooth extraction and quit taking new patients. He turned to real estate, investing his savings in a golf course, ski resorts and a residential development.
In about 1962, associates pitched him on the racetrack project. He would provide the money by underwriting bank loans used to buy about 1,000 acres of farmland and woods just off of Interstate 80 near the town of Long Pond.
His partners were to supply the ideas. But by 1965, they had laid nary a patch of asphalt on the ground.
So Mattioli went to work, paying visits to NASCAR founder Bill France Sr. at his pride-and-joy, Daytona International Speedway, as well as the then-owner of Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Tony Hulman. And Mattioli figured his track had to be 2.5 miles long, too.
He christened the circuit in 1971 with an Indy car race, the Schaefer 500, won by Delaware County native Mark Donohue, who was driving for a team owned by a young Philadelphia Chevrolet dealer named Roger Penske. Open wheel driving legends Mario Andretti, A.J. Foyt, Al Unser, Bobby Unser and Bobby Rahal all would end up in the Pocono winner’s circle before Indy car races ceased there in 1989. While some drivers criticized Pocono’s rough surface and lack of safety features at the time, Mattioli noted that public interest in the Indy series was waning in favor of the more-popular Winston Cup stock car series.
NASCAR, the governing body for Winston Cup, had made its debut at Pocono in 1974 when Richard Petty won the inaugural Pocono 500, a race that has been run every year since. Mattioli secured a second annual Cup race, the Pennsylvania 500, for Pocono in 1983.
David Pearson, Cale Yarborough, Darrell Waltrip, Bobby Allison, Bill Elliott, Dale Earnhardt, Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson are among the notable winners there.
It wasn’t always smooth sailing for Mattioli at Pocono, however. The track has long had its detractors. Some drivers complain about its irregular configuration with a 3,740-foot front straightaway — the longest in oval-style racing — and three turns each with unique radii and bankings. The setup generally restricts passing and side-by-side racing, characteristics that have become the primary selling points of NASCAR at its more popular and/or more modern tracks like Daytona, Talladega, Charlotte, Bristol, Texas and Las Vegas.
Mattioli told the Times in 2005 that he actually considered pulling the plug on the operation before France convinced him to stay the course.
One of Mattioli’s prized possessions was the business card given to him by France on which the stock car pioneer wrote the foreboding yet inspirational message: “On the plains of hesitation lie the bleached bones of millions who when within the grasp of victory sat and waited and waiting died.”
In 1990, Mattioli embarked on a decade-long restoration and reconstruction of the track. Among many new safety features, garage facilities, spectator amenities and hospitality areas, he was particularly proud of “Long John,” the track’s 1,500-foot-long spectator bathroom, believed to be the largest in the world and capable of accommodating 20,000 users an hour without lines.
Nowadays, the track needs every foot of it with more than 100,000 spectators routinely packing the place for the Cup races in June and July.
In 2005, Mattioli told the Times that about 60 percent of all spectators hail from outside Pennsylvania, while only about 20 percent are repeat visitors from the June race to the July race, meaning that close to 200,000 different people visit the site each year on those two race days alone.
When NASCAR first came to Pocono in 1974, it was still very much a niche sport largely focused in the American South — hardly the kind of event that would figure to draw a crowd in rural Pennsylvania, a couple of hours drive from both Philadelphia and New York City. But with the expansion of the NASCAR audience, Mattioli’s vision proved prophetic.
And he refused to let go of the place, even when a buyer reportedly offered him $400 million for it.
“It has to stay in the family,” he told The Philadelphia Inquirer last year.
In 2005, Pocono was one of just two remaining top-level NASCAR tracks still owned independently by one family. Yet even then, Mattioli — who built his home in a pocket of woods just beyond the turn three wall — recognized that his days were numbered.
“When I started, I was the youngest guy who had a track. Now I’m the oldest,” he said.
In addition to his widow, Mattioli is survived by two daughters and a son, seven grandchildren, three great-grandchildren and his half-brother, John Mattioli. Grandson Brandon Igdalsky became chief executive of the track when Mattioli retired last August.
The family has asked that memorial donations be made to the Dr. Joseph Mattioli Memorial Fund in care of The NASCAR Foundation, 550 S. Caldwell St., Charlotte, NC 28202. ••EndFragment