LONG POND, Pa. - Joseph "Doc" Mattioli considered himself a bit of a visionary four decades ago when he transferred his energies from his Philadelphia dental practice, bought a spinach patch here, and turned it into a NASCAR speedway.
But Mattioli is now 83. He has battled pneumonia since attending the season-opening Daytona 500. He was restricted to the family's home on the raceway property this weekend due to the heat and humidity, and there is doubt he will introduce the drivers as he usually does.
Some of those drivers have criticized his beloved 2.5-mile, tri-oval track, increasing speculation that other track owners might try to pull away one or both of the Sprint Cup race dates at this track.
Jeff Gordon, the four-time series champion and a four-time winner here, ignited the attack last weekend in Dover, Del., by declaring Pocono Raceway "outdated" and in need of "a ton of upgrades."
Gordon's initial assertions came in response to questions about whether Bruton Smith, head of Speedway Motorsports Inc., should seek to buy Dover International Speedway or Pocono Raceway and shift race dates to one of his properties, including the newly acquired Kentucky Speedway.
The grousing intensified this weekend, with drivers Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Greg Biffle voicing concerns ranging from safety to the quality of racing.
Gordon described his complaints as nothing more than constructive criticism and focused on the grassy section that runs along the racing surface coming out of the first turn.
"We've seen some pretty nasty wrecks and I think if you compared most of the tracks out there, I would say this track is probably further down the list of things that they've done," Gordon said in suggesting Pocono has not fixed problems as well as other tracks.
Johnson qualified his assessment that progressive banking in the corners and some general safety upgrades are needed.
"We sound awfully harsh in saying these things, but we're just trying to be honest. We all appreciate and respect the Mattiolis and all they've done," Johnson said. "But there's no denying that this is an old, old facility."
Earnhardt acknowledged that taking a race away from the Philadelphia-New York corridor would not be "smart logistically," but he predicted that "by the end of hearing all the comments from all the drivers, NASCAR will probably have the same opinion we do."
Biffle wondered, "Should we come here twice? I think there's some better racetracks [where] the fans can see more and would be better for television."
Bob Pleban, spokesman for Pocono Raceway, said Mattioli was unavailable because of his health, and Pleban declined to discuss the drivers' comments.
In a trackside interview yesterday, NASCAR director of communications Kerry Tharp spoke glowingly about the track, its owners, and the importance of having Cup events in the Northeast market. Pocono Raceway is within driving distance of two of the country's top media markets, with more than 100,000 households in New York City and Philadelphia tuning in to each Sprint Cup race.
"Pocono Raceway has made improvements of late, including the new garage area and the installation of safer barriers," Tharp said. "It's a unique facility with its own distinct character, and the raceway has served this region very well over the years. Both [Cup] races attract in excess of 100,000 fans, and the fan interest continues to grow here.
"And the fact that the Mattiolis have been the owners of this track since it opened is a unique situation in our sport, and there's a lot to be said about their dedication. The blood, sweat and tears that they've put into this track is something we don't take lightly."
Still, Tharp would not speculate beyond next season when Pocono is scheduled to host two Sprint Cup races.
Mattioli and his wife, Rose, their three children and seven grandchildren have a stake in the day-to-day operation of the facility. Mattioli put the ownership of the track in a trust for his grandchildren in hopes of keeping it in the family.
Still, that doesn't guarantee that NASCAR's top series will come twice a year.
In a July 2000 interview with The Inquirer, Mattioli declared, "This racetrack will run exactly the way it's run today in five years, 10 years, 20 years from now.
"Ask me to sell the track? It's almost like asking me, 'Do you want to stop breathing?' "
Notable. Carl Edwards was almost as hot as the weather at Pocono Raceway, topping the speed charts in both practices for today's Pocono 500.
Edwards guided the No. 99 Roush Fenway Racing Ford around the track at 166.549 m.p.h. in the breakfast session and came back to post a lap at 164.769 m.p.h. during Happy Hour, when soaring temperatures heated up the track and lowered speeds.
Practice didn't go nearly as well for Sprint Cup Series leader Kyle Busch, who is trying to become the first driver to compete in NASCAR's top three series in three different states on consecutive days.
After finishing second in the Craftsman Truck Series race at Texas Motor Speedway on Friday night, Busch flew to Pocono overnight, and climbed behind the wheel of the No. 18 Toyota.
There was no sign of fatigue for Busch during his first 19 laps of practice. But on his final lap, Busch spun and hit the wall - tearing off the nose of his Camry.
The Joe Gibbs Racing team rolled out a backup car for Busch's final practice. After completing 16 laps, Busch left the track and flew to Nashville Superspeedway for last night's Nationwide Series race.
When asked if Busch's busy schedule might have taken away from his focus on the track, crew chief Steve Addington said, "It didn't have a thing to do with this. He just came off the patch onto the old asphalt, got a little bit loose and lost it. It's no big deal."
In going to a backup car, Busch - who qualified 10th fastest - will have to start today's race from the rear of the 43-car field.
"After watching practice, I'm afraid it's going to be hard to pass," Addington said. "I think it's going to be a long day."
The racetrack: Pocono Raceway is on Route 115 in Long Pond, Pa. Take the Northeast Extension of the Pennsylvania Turnpike (I-476) to Exit 95. Take I-80 east toward Hazleton/Moun t Pocono to Exit 284, head south on Route 115 for 3 miles. The track is on the left.
Today's on-track events: Sprint Cup Series driver introductions, 1:30 p.m.; Pocono 500 Sprint Cup Series race, 2 p.m.
Television: NASCAR RaceDay pre-race show (Speed, 10:30 a.m.); NASCAR on TNT Live! (TNT, 12:30 p.m.); Pocono 500 Sprint Cup Series race (TNT, 2 p.m.).
Tickets: Call 800-RACEWAY or check the track's Web site at www.poconoraceway.