Northeast Times

Local dentist and Pocono Raceway guru dies at 86

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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. ••

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You can reach at wkenny@bsmphilly.com.

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