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Owner believes in Pocono future

LONG POND, Pa. — Joseph Mattioli understands Pocono Raceway has an unusual place on the NASCAR circuit — and that’s just the way the outspoken track owner likes it.

The track’s two races always will be 500 miles long, even as drivers and critics beg for 100 miles to be sliced off each. And those names, the Pocono 500 and Pennsylvania 500, will remain traditional and eschew corporate sponsorship.

The track is a 2.5-mile triangle and boasts the longest straightaway — 3,740 feet — in the series.

And with a fourth-generation of Mattiolis in line to run the raceway, Pocono never will be for sale. Not to Bruton Smith. Not anyone.

“If Bruton comes down Gasoline Alley with a wheelbarrow with a billion dollars, he wouldn’t get borscht from me,” the 84-year-old Mattioli said. “I have enough money, we don’t owe any money, and all three generations are working, and a fourth is waiting to start. It would be like selling part of your family.”

While Cup drivers are quick to give Mattioli respect for all he’s done to promote NASCAR in a region that serves the Philadelphia and New York markets, they are just as fast to bash the number of miles and the facilities. Some question why they need to return to the mountaintop twice in a season, less than two months apart and without a Chase race.

Jeff Gordon has been a vocal critic, saying last year he was “shocked” Pocono has kept two dates on the schedule. Three-time defending Cup champion Jimmie Johnson says it’s hard to run a good, competitive race on the track. Johnson also wondered this weekend why Pocono refuses to back down from its 500-mile run in an effort to boost TV ratings.

Mattioli remained a staunch defender of the 500-mile races and has no plans to cut back.

“How do you think my television people are going to feel? They’re going to lose a whole hour of material,” he said. “If it was something really logical why I should do it, I would do it. But not for the sake of pleasing a couple of auto racing writers.”

Mattioli is used to criticism of his track and has made improvements. The track underwent a 10-year renovation in the 1990s, adding new crash walls, a garage area and 150-site motor home park.

“I’ve always thought this was one of the best places to race that we go to on the schedule,” veteran Mark Martin said. “I’ve had a number of people disagree with that. I love it and have always loved it.”

Improvements continued this season with a new parking lot entrance and additional parking designed to ease traffic in and out of the track. Back rests were attached to the bleacher seats for extra comfort during grueling four-plus hour races, and Mattioli said he always is considering upgrades for fans and drivers.

When Speedway Motorsports Inc. purchased Kentucky Speedway last season, speculation immediately surfaced that Smith, SMI’s owner, had his eye on Pocono. If he bought Pocono, he could have moved one or both of its dates to any of his speedways.

Mattioli and his family quickly rebuffed Smith just like they’ve refused all other overtures through the years.

“We don’t owe any money. We’ve got a multimillion dollar reserve fund,” Mattioli said. “We have reserves. We’re fine.”

The only time Mattioli considered selling Pocono was in the 1970s when a CART-USAC spat led to financial trouble at the track.

Mattioli wanted to sell until he received a call from NASCAR patriarch Bill France Sr. The two met in New York, and France tried to persuade Mattioli to ride out the downturn and keep the track.

France pulled out his business card and scribbled this message: “On the plains of hesitation lie the bleached bones who when within the grasp of victory sat and waited and waiting died.”

Blown up pictures of France Sr., his business card and the note hang in the media room dining area.

Mattioli kept the track.

Richard Petty won the first NASCAR race held on the triangle — the Purolator 500 — in 1974, and a second race was added to the schedule in 1982.

It’s been years since the race had corporate sponsorship.

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