Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Motorsports elite pay last respects to Mattioli

Where there was racing, there was Dr. Joseph Mattioli.

“Anywhere you went, you saw Doc Mattioli, and immediately, it just expressed, ‘Racing is here,’” said auto racing legend and good friend Mario Andretti.

“I consider him an absolute icon in the sport,” Andretti said.


Mario Andretti speaks on his friend "Doc."
Credit: Karel Zubris for Skirts and Scuffs
Andretti was one of the motorsports elite who paid their respects to the Pocono Raceway founder at his wake and funeral Monday in the Poconos of Northeastern Pennsylvania. Mattioli died Thursday at the age of 86 after a lengthy illness.

Mattioli was a racing pioneer, family man, community leader and philanthropist. During two days of calling hours on Sunday and Monday, close to 2,000 people came to offer their condolences to the family, said Bob Pleban, vice president of administration at Pocono Raceway.

Racing continued to play a role even as “Doc,” as he was affectionately known, was laid to rest Monday. A pace car led the motorcade from the viewing at Pocono Community Church in Mount Pocono to the funeral at St. Peter the Fisherman Church at Lake Harmony. After the funeral ended, the hearse took Mattioli’s casket for one last lap around the 2.5-mile triangular racetrack he built more than 40 years ago.

Mattioli saw the potential in a former spinach farm at Long Pond, near Mount Pocono, in the 1960s and transformed it into one of the most unique racetracks in auto racing. The track held its first IndyCar race in 1971, then hosted its first NASCAR race in 1974.

Mattioli had the vision to bring NASCAR to the northeastern part of the country – an idea that was previously unheard of for the Southern-based sport. Pocono paved the way for tracks like Watkins Glen and New Hampshire to grow the sport above the Mason-Dixon line.

Though no Sprint Cup drivers attended the services, several of the sport’s high-ranking officials came to the Poconos on Monday to honor Mattioli.

Members of NASCAR’s founding family - Brian France, CEO and chairman; Jim France, vice chairman and executive vice president; and Lesa France Kennedy, vice chairwoman and executive vice president – attended the funeral.

Pocono Raceway pace car set to lead motorcade from viewing to funeral.
Credit: Rebecca Kivak for Skirts and Scuffs
Mattioli was one of the few left in the sport who had worked with all three generations of the France family, beginning with Bill France Sr., NASCAR’s founder. It was France who convinced Mattioli not to sell the racetrack after he was caught in the middle of the IndyCar split and encountered financial difficulties. Soon after, Pocono received a second NASCAR date, saving the track.

Also in attendance were NASCAR president Mike Helton and NASCAR Hall of Fame Executive Director Winston Kelley.

Helton said that Mattioli’s passing marked “the last of the few strings it took to fuel and incubate our sport.”

“Today we should remind ourselves of the uniqueness of the opportunity that Doc presented NASCAR,” Helton said. “As Bill Sr. was trying to grow NASCAR, Doc was a blessing to Bill Sr. to try to put a facility together in this neck of the woods, which was new territory for us. We were very fortunate. Bill Sr. often said that Doc was one of those individuals that he could always count on after he got to know him.

“Without pioneers like Doc, some of the footprints that we enjoy today wouldn’t exist, and Pocono is certainly one of those,” Helton said.

Kelley said Mattioli, a member of the NASCAR Hall of Fame’s nomination committee and voting panel, is “why we get to do what we do.”

“The legacy that he built, the way that he built it, the respect people have for him – that’s why we built the NASCAR Hall of Fame: to honor people like that,” Kelley said.

Kelley revealed that the Mattioli family donated photographs of Doc for inclusion in an exhibit at the NASCAR Hall of Fame - the “Honoring Our Legacy” theater on the Charlotte, N.C. building’s fourth floor. While the exhibit allows visitors to learn about and honor Mattioli now, Kelley thinks it’s “definitely a possibility” the Pocono Raceway owner could be inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame one day.

“We actually have a room that we call ‘Honoring Our Legacy’ that honors those who help built the sport that you can help showcase them. Some will never get into the NASCAR Hall of Fame. Others like Doc - I think there will be a time that track operators and promoters will,” Kelley said.

Andretti said he met Mattioli when the plan to construct Pocono Raceway was coming together in the 1960s.

“A friend is a friend,” Andretti said. “Friends are precious. When you’re friends for almost a lifetime, that speaks for itself.

“I appreciate, more than anything, the fact that he’s been such a great family man – he’s kept the family together,” Andretti said. “This day in age, you’re so tempted to walk away from something, such as selling, and he choose not to – he wanted to have his family continue this legacy,” Andretti said.

Speedway Motorsports Inc. owner Bruton Smith has repeatedly tried to purchase Pocono Raceway. Every single time, Mattioli turned him down. The “Tricky Triangle” is the only family-owned track on the Sprint Cup circuit. In an interview with The Philadelphia Inquirer last year, Mattioli said he put it in a trust to make sure the track stays in the family.

After overseeing operations on a day-to-day basis, Mattioli and his wife Dr. Rose retired last August, leaving the reins of Pocono Raceway in the hands of their three grandchildren – Brandon Igdalsky, president and CEO; Nick Igdalsky, chief operating officer and executive vice president; and Ashley Igdalsky, secretary and treasurer.

“It’s wonderful to see how the family is still so involved, and the family I’m sure will carry on his wishes,” Andretti said.

Local racer Steve Fox is the general manager and lead instructor at Pocono Raceway’s on-site Stock Car Racing Experience driving school. Like Andretti, Fox believes the track is in good hands as Rose and the family will continue Mattioli’s legacy.

“Pocono Raceway has been great for the area and will continue to be great for the area,” Fox said.

0 comments :

Post a Comment