Certain people you meet along the way stick with you. Dr. Joseph Mattioli – "Doc" – is one of those for me.
The first time I met him was in his office just outside Turn 2 (The Tunnel Turn) at Pocono Raceway in 2005. He worked out of a white double-wide trailer that was attached to several other double-wides. Lining its hallway – there was only one – was that sort of fake green grass carpeting you'd see on a screened-in patio in the 1980s. The walls were thin, the lights were dim and it certainly wasn't the kind of digs you'd imagine for a multi-million-dollar business.
But this is where Doc Mattioli worked and, turned out, once lived. I found out when I noticed a small kitchenette in the back of his office. It seemed odd, so I asked him about it.
"The first trailer I bought was a used trailer," he said, sitting behind a three-by-six-foot desk that took up a quarter of what was once his living room. "I lived in that all through the '70s. Then I went and got a newer one, but not quite new, and I lived in that for about 10 years in the '80s. Then in the '90s, I had this one built. … I felt I was going in high style. This is a double wide."
He was 80 years old, full of life, still working full time running the only family-owned racetrack left on the Sprint Cup schedule, and he had no plans to slow down.
In the last few years, though, his health began to fade. Thursday he died. He was 86.
"The entire NASCAR family is saddened by the loss of a true icon in our sport, Dr. Joe Mattioli," NASCAR CEO Brian France said in a statement. "Doc’s relationship with my family reaches three generations, all the way back to my grandfather. His passion for the sport will live on in the hearts of his family and our fans. His contributions to our sport are wide-spread. We have lost a great leader – and a great person."
Doc Mattioli got into racing by chance. He was a dentist by trade, practicing in Philadelphia. One night in 1960, he got an emergency phone call from a patient. He left his wife at dinner, went to his office, and after removing a patient's wisdom teeth, sat at his desk shaking. He'd been working too hard, smoking too much and packing on too many pounds.
Sitting there, he made a resolution: "I wasn't going to do anything in my life from that point on unless I really enjoyed it."
He began by building a golf course, then a pair of ski areas in eastern Pennsylvania's Pocono Mountains. He learned how to fly an airplane.
On a trip up to the Poconos he met a man named Leroy Dengler who was looking for an investor to buy a spinach farm and build a racetrack on it. Mattioli had no interest in building a racetrack, but he did know a good deal when he saw one, and the spinach farm was a good deal. He bought it with the security that if Dengler's other investors defaulted (they did) he'd still have a quality piece of land.
Racing wasn't his thing, but he went ahead with the project, seeking out advice from Tony Hulman (owner of Indianapolis Motor Speedway) and Bill France Sr., the man who founded NASCAR.
"I only did it because I had to do it," Mattioli explained. "I started with flying, sailing, skiing, the golf course. The auto racing just fit into that general entertainment kind of business – the sporting kind of business that I liked.
"I could have been very happy running a ski business, but the thing that was really growing as the years went by was racing. You could see that this had the potential that [skiing] didn't have."
He modeled his track after Hulman's in Indianapolis and France's in Daytona. That's how the one-of-a-kind layout known as the "Tricky Triangle" came to be. He set the distance of his races at 500 miles, because that's what they had in Indy and Daytona, and on Aug. 4, 1974, opened the doors for NASCAR business.
He nearly went broke three times but managed to stay afloat.
In 1982, France came to him asking for a favor. Would he take on a second Cup date? Mattioli didn't want it – imagine that now – but obliged his friend.
Today, those two Cup dates are worth upwards of $300 million. A few years ago, Bruton Smith offered him $400 million. Mattioli refused to sell.
I saw the answer during one of my last visits with him when he showed me around a vacation complex he was building across the street from the track – a sort of subdivision of modular homes. As we drove down one street and up the next, he pointed out this kid's house on the right and that one on the left. He took me to the recreation center where his granddaughter was putting the finishing touches on the decorating. He told me how proud of her he was.
I realized right then that no amount of money could buy that.
"If you need the money, well then naturally you're going to consider it," he explained to me a couple of years later. "If you don't need the money and you enjoy what you're doing … "
That's one of the things I loved about talking with Doc Mattioli – he was 100 percent without pretense and always shot a straight answer. That was one of the creeds he lived by. Another came from a message France scribbled to him on the back of a business card in the 1970s when Mattioli considered selling his track.
"On the plains of hesitation lie the bleached bones who when within the grasp of victory sat and waited and waiting died," France wrote.
Doc Mattioli didn't wait. He died living.