LONG POND, Pa. -- The first indication that something is different at Pocono Raceway comes as you emerge from the tunnel, and see the large sign stripped above the track's primary infield road. "Welcome to Doc's place," reads the first of many testaments to Dr. Joseph Mattioli, founder of this quirky triangular layout in the Pennsylvania hills. There's just one problem.
Doc would have hated it.
"He'd be furious about that. He'd be furious about that," said Pocono track president Brandon Igdalsky, also Mattioli's grandson. "But that's OK. He can yell at us all day long about that. I'm all right with it."
Mattioli, a Philadelphia dentist who bought a spinach farm off Interstate 80 and turned it into a major American racing venue, died in January at age 86. Along with his ever-present wife, Rose, the man they still lovingly call "Doc" was more than just Pocono's founder -- he was in many ways the track's spirit and identity, his nature reflected in so many personal touches like the spires looming over the grandstand or the names of champion drivers painted on large rocks. Doc did it his way, and that way was often unique and unconventional, and he left an indelible imprint on the employees and family members who continue to operate the facility.
And his passing has left a void as large as the 2.5-mile footprint of this race track. How much did Mattioli mean to Pocono? Consider that there had never, ever, been a race at this venue without him -- until now.
"It's definitely bittersweet, you know?" said grandson Nick Igdalsky, Pocono's vice executive president and chief operating officer. "You wish he was here. We're happy our NASCAR family is here, but ... it's going to be the first race ever without him. We've gotten over the emotion of the events in January, and that kind of brings it back to the front when you get back to the track this weekend, and you see everybody again."
So much of Pocono is timeless, and so much of that is by design, and all of it goes back to the man who caught the racing bug one Sunday afternoon at a dirt track in Nazareth, Pa., joined a group of investors developing what would become the current facility off Long Pond Road, and eventually became controlling partner. What originally was envisioned as a road course became a three-eighths oval, and then became a triangular superspeedway designed by two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Rodger Ward, featuring corners modeled after those at tracks in Milwaukee, Trenton, N.J., and Indianapolis.
The design would not be the last idiosyncrasy. Stars arrayed around the tunnel entrance contain car numbers representing luminary drivers -- Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt, David Pearson and Darrell Waltrip, among others -- in Pocono's own unofficial hall of fame. Rose Mattioli is a horse-racing fan who always wanted to go to the Kentucky Derby, so her husband brought a little of Churchill Downs to her in the form of the twin spires (which are actually lightning rods) atop the grandstand, and a Mint Julep Club on the ground floor of Victory Lane. Even today, a bugler sounds the call to the post before every Pocono race.
That's all Doc, products of the man whose beard and booming voice were constants at this track for four decades. He could be demanding, he could be adamant, he could be blunt. But he also inspired unshakable loyalty on the part of those who worked for him at the race track, a group that came to include his children and grandchildren, who employ the lessons they learned still today. "We've all picked up different traits, I think, of his from the philanthropy side to how we conduct ourselves on a business side and personally," Nick said. "There are so many things he taught us, it's hard to pick a few."
Brandon calls it the School of Doc. "It's literally just absorbing everything that came out of the man's mouth," he said. "He would get going, and he would go on a rant. You just sit back and hang on, because he'd start telling one story and how he got to that point, and all the bad decisions he made to get to that success. From things like that to just basic business practice he's learned over the years, things a business professor would tell you you cannot do that. But at the same time, you're like -- hell, some of that stuff still works today. You've just got to know how to do it."
Drivers who have been coming to Pocono for a long time won't forget him, either. "It's definitely going to be different," said Jeff Gordon, a five-time winner at the track. "I built a great relationship with Doc over the years. Most of it was walking across the stage for driver introductions, he and Rose just always being present, the first ones you came across to greet. He just always was kind to me. He always had an ongoing joke with me he would say to me every time I walked across that stage. So this weekend it's going to be a lot different not hearing those words coming from him."
So no wonder this weekend is loaded with tributes to a man whose very personality is reflected in this unique, timeless place. The sign outside the tunnel was the idea of one of Brandon's twin 8-year-old daughters. Artist Sam Bass painted a tribute portrait of Mattioli that will appear on the cover of the race program, which also will feature a seven-page photo spread inside. Pre-race ceremonies will feature a moment of silence, the playing ofTaps, a 21-cannon salute, and a 90-second video tribute. Sprint Cup cars are carrying a memorial sticker, "Doc," inside of a black triangle, and employees are wearing pins of the same design. The sticker and pin are also being sold at merchandise stands, with the proceeds going to a Mattioli Foundation that's donated roughly $6 million to causes around the region during the past five years.
Even though Mattioli would bristle at the idea of his name on something -- "He'd hate that part," Brandon said -- the tributes were natural. But they're also coming down like an emotional sledgehammer on family members who are revisiting the grief of their patriarch's passing all over again.
"It's awful," said Brandon, who can be as blunt as his grandfather was. "This week ... has been probably as tough as the week after his funeral, and that adjustment period. Race day is going to suck emotionally. I'm trying to prepare myself as much as I can. But I've spent the last few days driving around this place, and every time I stop somewhere, I think of something he and I did in that spot. And the crazy thing is, there are things coming back into my memory that I have not thought about in 20, 25 years. Stuff when I was a little kid. It's crazy. I feel him right there with me, though. They always say you feel your loved ones right there with you. I've never lost anybody that close to me, but I feel like he's sitting there, looking down and saying, 'Don't you screw this up. Don't you screw this up.' "
Yes, Doc would hate the tributes. He also might be a little uncomfortable with some recent changes made by track management, most notably a resurfacing project and a shortening of Pocono's NASCAR events from 500 to 400 miles. "There are some things we're doing that I know he's kicking our a-- for," Brandon said. But competitors have raved about most of the alterations, which included replacement of an antiquated inner guardrail with the SAFER barrier last year. "I think it'll bring some life back into this race track," Cup Series points leader Greg Biffle, once a vocal critic of Pocono's safety systems, said of the most recent changes to the 2.5-mile facility.
But for all the changes, so much at this track stays the same. It's still Doc's place, as it always will be. And Sunday the spectators will arrive and the cars will roll off the starting grid and Pocono will bask in its one-of-a-kind glory, which to Joseph Mattioli is always what mattered most.
"The emotions are very, very mixed," Rose Mattioli said. "We're going to miss him dreadfully, but we're going to do what he would want us to do, and continue, and make everything happen as though he was right there. And I know he would appreciate it."
The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.
|Mattioli builds a race track|
|• Joe "Doc" and Rose Mattioli were each successful doctors in Philadelphia, he a dentist, she a podiatrist. Both were extremely hard working. In October 1960, Doc had to operate alone on two patients and when it was over he had the shakes. At that point he made a snap decision. "I said, 'The hell with it,' and from that day on, I didn't do anything I didn't enjoy. I learned how to fly, ski, sail -? all things I'd wanted to do. I took a year off, then invested in Camelback Ski Area and other Pocono businesses."|
|• One day when Doc had flown into the Poconos, a gentleman he met in the airport tried to talk him into investing in a local project. Just to get rid of him he gave him his card and told him to let me know when he had his next meeting. Six weeks later he called. Doc came up and got involved. The original investors had optioned 1,025 acres, a spinach farm, but they didn't have any money. The Mattiolis guaranteed the mortgage and ended up putting more and more money into the project until eventually they became the majority owners. "The track wasn't my idea I just got sucked in through the back door because I knew it was a good buy on the land. All the money I'd made off my other Pocono businesses went into the race track."|
|• There was not enough funding to build a superspeedway so the owners first built a three-eighths-mile oval that was finished in 1968. The 2.5-mile track was completed two years later. In order to be the Pocono PFC (Pretty, Friendly, Clean) raceway that it is today, the track and its surroundings had to withstand some serious difficulties and major reconstruction.|
|• The first race on the big track was an IndyCar race in 1971, but it was soon followed by nature's fury as Hurricane Agnes left behind tremendous damage in its path. Soon thereafter, Pocono Raceway's very existence was threatened by an economic and energy crisis. Due to the gas shortage and economy in the 1970s, the Mattiolis considered selling the track to new owners. Bill France Sr. met with them several times and persuaded them not to sell the track.|
|• The first Cup race at Pocono was August 1974, won by Richard Petty. A second Cup race was added in 1982. The track has hosted 68 races from 1974-2011.|
|• In August 2011, Doc resigned and turned over all his duties to his grandchildren. "It has to stay in the family," said Mattioli, in a June interview with "The Philadelphia Inquirer." "I put it in trust. They can't touch it. They can't sell it. The [SOBs] are going to run it, or they're going to starve." Track president and grandson Brandon Igdalsky added the additional title of CEO.|
|• On Jan. 26, 2012, Dr. Joseph Mattioli, age 86, died after a lengthy illness a little more than a month after he and his wife were awarded the prestigious National Motorsports Press Association's Myers Brothers award which recognizes individuals and/or groups who have provided outstanding contributions to stock-car racing.|
|• Pocono Raceway is the only family owned and operated of the 23 tracks on the Sprint Cup circuit.|