In late June 1998, I received a letter in the mail. It was from my Editor at the time, Joe Patrick of Gater Racing Photo News, an upstate New York motorsports trade paper that covered the weekly short track action in New York, parts of New England, and Northern Jersey. I was the NASCAR Winston Cup (as it was called in those days) correspondent. But this wasn't your ordinary letter. It was one of those letters inside a letter. The letter inside was unopened and in a hand-written envelope that had my name with Gater's mailing address on it. It came from Pocono Raceway.
I opened it up with a good amount of curiosity. What I found inside was a short typed note from Dr. Joseph Mattioli, the founder and CEO of Pocono--the eastern Pennsylvania NASCAR track I had been to dozens of times as a kid growing up. The letter was sent to let me know how much he enjoyed a column I had penned in the previous week's paper. It seemed that Doc Joe, as I would grow to call him (instead of the usual Doc which everyone called him), took particular delight in this column.
Now, those of you who know me personally know that I can sometimes get on a pretty big soapbox, yes even more so than I do in the pages of Circle Track. And this column was just one of those times. It was written in response to the political hot potato that was the New York Yankees. Around that time Yanks owner George Steinbrenner was holding, or rather trying to hold, the city of New York hostage over building the Yankees a new stadium. Now I'm not talking about the current one that just got completed a year or so ago. I'm going back some 14 years. Anyway, George was upset that NYC wouldn't cut the Yanks any big tax breaks to build the park. Basically, he wanted the city to fund the build with taxpayer dollars or he threatened to move the Yankees to New Jersey. It turned into a politically charged debate that caught my interest. Without delving into the content of the whole column, suffice to say I slammed the billionaire Yankees owner for not having the guts to fund his own stadium. In the course of my journalistic tongue lashing I used Doc's trials and tribulations while building and running Pocono as the perfect example of how it should be done. Doc used his own money, nobody else's, to build the track and I was emphatic (still am today) that public dollars should not be used to fund NASCAR tracks. Well, when Doc read the column, he felt compelled to send me the note (he would tell me this later).
Pocono Raceway as it was in the '60s. in this aerial shot you can see the 3/4-mile track t
The Pocono garage area in the late 1980s.
Pocono's garage area today is a fan- and team-friendly design that gets the fans within 56
Being the "good" journalist, I called Doc personally to thank him for the acknowledgment of my work. It was during the course of that conversation when he invited me out to Pocono to learn firsthand of some of the improvements he was making to the facility. I naturally jumped at the opportunity and headed east two hours into the Pocono Mountains.
By this time in my motorsports "career" I had interviewed plenty of NASCAR personalities from Earnhardt Sr. to Bill France Jr. to Hut Stricklin, but other than seeing him around the track during the two Pocono stops, I never interviewed Doc.
Most interviews during that era would last maybe 30 minutes (if you were lucky). Well, this interview with Doc turned into much more than just a Q&A session. It lasted four hours and included a tour of the infield, tracks (yes there is more than one), and surrounding property. At this point in time, Doc was leveling the old garage area and building a completely new facility. The new plans and layout, which he showed me in his office, carried a black and white racing theme, and were designed to be highly functional. One of the features he was most proud of was the fact that he surrounded the garage area with a wrought iron fence, just 56 feet from the cars. The fence allowed fans full view of the all the action going on. You could see all the crews, cars, and trailers. He also kept his famous autograph alley area where fans could line a fence for an autograph from their favorite driver as they walked to the starting grid. Keep in mind that Doc designed the whole thing himself years before Daytona built its "FanZone" (which it charges to get into). Doc designed the new Pocono with one thing in mind, to help make his track the most fan friendly venue on the circuit.
There was another side to the whole project that was indicative of Doc's approach to business. Nothing was wasted. For example, when they tore up the asphalt in the old garage area to lay down fresh new pavement they didn't simply toss the old stuff into a landfill. Doc rented an asphalt milling machine to recycle the old pavement. If you go there today, many of the infield access roads are paved with the millings from the old garage area.
The letter that led to the interview.
Pocono isn't just for NASCAR! This photo from 1970 shows the green flag of the Pocono 200
F-5000 cars running on one of the three road courses inside Pocono's expansive 2.5 triangl