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Philadelphia dentist found a home and created an empire at Pocono

LONG POND, Pa. - Though he hasn't worked there for 51 years, hasn't lived there for decades, Doc Mattioli still owns a home in Northeast Philadelphia.

LONG POND, Pa. - Though he hasn't worked there for 51 years, hasn't lived there for decades, Doc Mattioli still owns a home in Northeast Philadelphia.

For Mattioli, 85, Pocono Raceway's founder, that house at 7914 Castor Ave. remains a brick shrine.

On Oct. 3, 1960, after one-too-many morning-to-midnight work days, one-too-many Parliaments, the successful dentist suffered a breakdown. Snapping his cigarettes in two as he dissolved into tears, he vowed to change.

He hung up his dental gown, aligned his instruments neatly on a sterilized tray, and, at 34, walked away from his profession. Today, they are right where he left them, relics of the life he abandoned, reminders of the tearful instant a new one began.

Mattioli retreated here, to a Pocono mountaintop, seeking solace and inspiration. He found both. And the track he built, its twin-spired grandstand soaring cathedral-like above Monroe County's green vastness, is his monument.

This weekend, Pocono, one of just two independently owned Sprint Cup tracks, will host the first of its two annual NASCAR events, the Pocono 500.

Mattioli once again will preside over his asphalt empire, one that a $400 million offer couldn't pry from him, one that his children and grandchildren will inherit.

"It has to stay in the family," said Mattioli, often as profane as he is good-natured. "I put it in trust. They can't touch it. They can't sell it. The [SOBs] are going to run it, or they're going to starve."

Born in Old Forge, near Scranton, Mattioli was the son of a boxer. When his father left his pregnant wife to seek Italy's lightweight title, she filed for divorce.

Their son - his given name is Joe, though no one calls him anything but Doc - was a World War II Marine and afterward enrolled at Temple, where he met his wife of 63 years, Rose, a podiatry student.

Though dentistry brought him despair, it also made him wealthy. Mattioli earned more than a million dollars in the eight years he practiced and was financially equipped to write life's next chapter.

"I wasn't going to do anything unless I loved it," said Mattioli, seated in a wheelchair in the vaulted living room of his house across from the track.

He learned to fly and golf. He built Center Square Golf Club in Montgomery County and two Pocono ski resorts. But nothing fulfilled him.

"One day I flew my kids up here," he said. "We had lunch, and as I was pre-flighting the airplane to come home, a guy in a big yellow convertible drove up."

The man was Leroy Dengler, a local investor who, looking for partners in his race-track plan, had noticed the well-dressed pilot. Mattioli gave him a business card, and six weeks later Dengler called.

"It was just . . . luck," Mattioli said.

He loaned the partners $100,000 to buy 108 acres. Then he loaned them $200,000 more.

"I figured I'd better start learning something about racing," Mattioli said.

He traveled to Daytona to meet with NASCAR founder Bill France and to Indiana to meet with Indianapolis Motor Speedway owner Tony Hulman. Mattioli envisioned a 21/2-mile track that could accommodate stock and Indy cars. His partners wanted a road course.

When he couldn't convince them, he converted his $300,000 in stock to warrants and "kicked them all out."

After years of fitful construction, the 21/2-mile track finally opened in July 1971 with an Indy car 500-miler. It soon became clear that an annual Indy car race wouldn't pay the bills.

Mattioli tried everything. He added a dirt track. He rented the facility to sports-car clubs. In 1972, imagining another Woodstock, he hosted a two-day music festival featuring 10 acts, from Three Dog Night to Black Sabbath.

Nearly 100,000 tickets were sold. More than 200,000 fans showed up, the traffic clogging I-80 and terrifying the locals.

"I sat in my office with a shotgun and a German shepherd," Mattioli recalled. "We didn't know what the hell was going to happen. They just kept coming."

Pep talk

But racing was going to make or break Pocono. NASCAR's France recognized what Mattioli insists he didn't - the track was within a few hundred miles of 60 million people, 90 miles from Philadelphia and New York.

Hoping to broaden his sport's appeal, France asked Mattioli to stage the first Pocono 500 in 1974. That race, won by Richard Petty, was a success with fans but - because many disliked the triangular track's unique turns - not all the drivers.

Mattioli's financial struggles continued and, in 1975, he considered selling. When France heard, he summoned the track owner to a New York meeting. On the back of a business card, to inspire his friend, France wrote this quote from 19th-century preacher George W. Cecil:

"On the plains of hesitation bleach the bones of countless millions, who, at the dawn of victory, sat down to wait, and waiting died."

The pep talk worked. Mattioli kept the track and the card, a framed enlargement of which hangs on his office wall. Several years ago, he rejected a $400 million offer from Speedway Motorsports' Bruton Smith.

"I started out with $48 in my account," Mattioli said. "Today I'm worth about $600 million. How successful do I have to be?"

In 1982, after a California track folded, he yielded to France's wishes again, adding a second NASCAR race, the Pennsylvania 500. It helped make Mattioli financially comfortable.

Still, NASCAR drivers continue to gripe about the track's surface and banking, fans and the media about its lack of amenities. (Championship Auto Racing Teams, which operates the Indy car circuit, hasn't raced there since 1989.)

Mattioli has responded by investing tens of millions in the facility.

He rebuilt the garage area, renovated the press box and the grandstands - the twin spires were a tongue-in-cheek homage to Churchill Downs since his wife is a horse-racing fan - and gave the whole complex a face-lift.

He has developed new revenue by renting the track "365 days a year to some organization;" by building a restaurant, motel, and gated development on the property; and by constructing a 25-acre solar-energy farm. ("Best investment I've made," he said. Pays me $3,000 a day.")

Still, it hasn't quieted talk about relocating one of Pocono's races.

That won't happen as long as Mattioli is around, and, having recently built a mausoleum near his house, he's not going anywhere. He might be 86 and weakened by heart problems, but it's going to take a powerful man to wrest a race away from him.

"Bill France had to talk me into adding that second race," he said. "I'm absolutely holding onto my two."