Mattioli’s heart belongs to Pocono

He is the patriarch of Pocono Raceway, one of only two family-owned tracks left on the Sprint Cup schedule. And though Dr. Joe Mattioli – “Doc” – isn’t sure the racing business will last forever, he’s still not selling the track he built more than 40 years ago – not for the $400 million Bruton Smith offered him a few years back, and not for the $600 million he thinks it’s worth today.

Yahoo! Sports recently spoke with Mattioli, who at 85 years young is still on the job, overseeing the family business that took him from his dentist office in Philadelphia to a double-wide trailer in the middle of Pennsylvania’s Pocono Mountains.

1. Y! Sports: Aside from the George family that owns Indianapolis Motor Speedway, yours is the only family-owned track still on the Sprint Cup schedule. How has your family survived?

Dr. Joseph Mattioli and his wife Rose maintain one of only two family-owned tracks on the Sprint Cup schedule.

Mattioli: Well, I don’t know. We’re building; we’re diversifying; we’re doing other things.

We just are finishing up a 25-acre solar park that is completely different than auto racing; it’s an $18 million investment. And we built a motel and restaurant, which is the best restaurant in the mountains here. And we have the racetrack down in South Boston, Virginia. One of my grandsons runs that. And we just built a completely gated resort called the Village of Pocono.

We’re just diversifying and doing different things.

2. Y! Sports: It’s hard to imagine a track not wanting a second Cup date these days, but back in the early 1980s that was exactly the case for you when Bill France asked you as a favor to him to take a second date. Why didn’t you want it and did you ever imagine there would be a time when a Cup date would be such a hot commodity?

Mattioli: When Ontario went bankrupt, they had this extra race, and I didn’t want to take it cause I had two races already – I had an Indy Car race and a NASCAR race. And when [Bill France] came to me, I sort of hemmed and hawed, and he said, “Well, you’d do me a big favor if you take it,” So I took it.

[Laughing] Of course now everybody wants two races.

But we were running one race in June, one in July and one in August, and when you run three 500-mile races in a 60-day period, that’s pretty rough.

But it made money for us and we never turned around and looked back. Everything is fine.

The France family and the Mattioli family have been very close for, gosh, four generations now. Starting with Big Bill, then young Bill, then Brian and Lesa and now we’re down to Ben. So we’ve been friends for a long time.

3. Y! Sports: You haven’t had sponsors of your races for a while. Why not and why the change?

Mattioli: Well, in those days the first thing was that we didn’t need the money. Okay. We didn’t need the money, No. 1, and I wanted to make it a local thing – the Pocono 500 and the Pennsylvania 500 – and that was fine. And then this past year, we got an offer we couldn’t refuse. It was just too much. And as you know, all over the country the last three years, there’s empty seats, aren’t there?

So now the times are different, the offer was very good, Gillett is a good company. The funny thing is, 25 years ago I went up to Boston to try to sell Gillett to come down here. And they refused.

But anyway, like I say, what goes around, comes around, and now it’s time to do what you have to do to do.

4. Y! Sports: What’s the most daunting issue facing you as a track owner right now?

Mattioli: When I see empty seats all over the circuit, that scares the hell out of you. So we just increased our advertising. Last year we were surprised because we had one hell of a nice crowd, and we’re hoping it happens again this year.

5. Y! Sports: I mentioned earlier that yours is one of only two family-owned tracks. As such, people often look at Pocono as the track most likely to be sold. But you’re pretty adamant about keeping it in the family. Why is that so important to you?

Mattioli: Actually, we don’t know if it’s going to be a track if all the empty seats continue, that’s why we’re diversifying.

You know, I put this track and all of our property in trust. It can’t be sold. Nobody can sell it.

Now, naturally if the auto racing business goes kaput, we’re in the solar business. We have the motel and the other things I told you about, and we’re diversified and we’ll diversify more if we have to so in case there is a down phase we’re ready for it.

So it’s going to stay here as long as it’s feasible and our kids are going to run it.

6. Y! Sports: Do you still get offers, and when was the last time someone made an inquiry about buying the track?

Mattioli: Not anymore, no. I was offered the last time, which was about four or five years ago, I was offered $400 million [by Bruton Smith]. And we weren’t interested then. I’m quite sure, it would be worth about $500 or $600 million.

If you need the money, well then naturally then you’re going to consider it. If you don’t need the money and you enjoy what you’re doing …

7. Y! Sports: Would you ever consider shortening Pocono races to 400 miles?

Mattioli: Never. We took a poll of our fans and they want 500 miles. If that’s what the fans want, what would I shorten it for? If for any reason it was imperative that we do it, great. The world wouldn’t fall apart. But our fans want 500 miles.

8. Y! Sports: Over the years, who’s been your favorite driver?

Mattioli: My wife and I have made it a point we don’t care who wins. In fact, the more that win, the merrier it is.

Now, naturally, we have a relationship with the Allison family and the Petty family that goes back right from the beginning. So we’re close to them, and we always have been, but that doesn’t mean anything. We don’t show a bit of partiality. Not a bit, no.

9. Y! Sports: Now you live in a house across the street from the track, but for 20 years you lived in a double-wide trailer right outside Turn 3 that doubled as your office. You could afford to move to a house. Why didn’t you?

Mattioli: You only know half the story. In the back of that office building, I’ve got a mobile home that we used in the ’60s. Then I got a second mobile home next door that we used in the ’70s. Then we got another mobile home that we used in the ’80s. Then we put the double-wide in, and we lived there until we got this new house here.

So I got a lot of mobile homes. If you ever go to the office building, they’re all still there.

My wife didn’t move up here until later. I used to come up here [from Philadelphia] for three days, then go to Philadelphia for three days. But my wife didn’t come up here until much later. And when she came up here – you know, living in the trailer didn’t bother me a bit – but it was hard for a woman, so that’s when we built this house.

9½ … The thing I’m most proud about in my involvement with NASCAR is …

Mattioli: My relationship with the France family for four generations. Big Bill and my wife and I and Big Bill’s wife met down at Daytona. Then Billy and Brian and Lesa. Our relationship goes way back.

I don’t know if you’ve ever heard this story, but in the old days they used to send Les Richter and Jim Hunter up here to get the sanctioning agreement signed. After the first year, I said to them, “Am I being treated like everybody else?” They said yes. I said, “Then don’t bother coming up anymore. Just send it and I’ll sign it and ship it back.” And I’ve never read those sanctioning agreements for the last 40 years.

Jay Hart is a Senior Editor for Yahoo! Sports. Send Jay a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Thursday, Jun 3, 2010