Top 10 quirks of Pocono Raceway
June 04, 2014, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com
From a solar farm to the unique Victory Lane, count down the peculiar qualities of Pocono
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Doc Mattioli was an original, thank goodness. There's just no other way to explain how -- or why -- this former Philadelphia dentist walked away from his practice to pour his savings into a northeast Pennsylvania spinach farm that would become the most unique race track on the NASCAR circuit.
At least, that's one word for it. Some might call the place a throwback, or quirky or peculiar, or all of the above. In the case of Pocono Raceway, each term probably fits. Although the track has been modernized in many ways -- most notably in the area of driver safety -- it still retains a timelessness and a tongue-in-cheek charm that's been evident ever since Joseph "Doc" Mattioli and his wife Rose caught the racing bug and sank an original investment of $300,000 into what would eventually become a triangular 2.5-mile track.
Four decades later, the personal touches are still evident at a race track that's independent in just about every sense of the word. Things are just done differently at Pocono, and a lot of that goes back to Doc, whose grandchildren now operate the facility. But it's still very much Doc's place, as the welcome sign when you roll through the tunnel will attest -- as do these top 10 reasons why Pocono Raceway remains perhaps the sport's most unique venue.
10. Solar farm
All that stuff about the track being a throwback? It stops as soon as you cross the street, where rows of solar panels containing over 39,000 photovoltaic modules sit behind a thick stand of trees. Unassuming Pocono also happens to be the world's largest solar-powered sports venue, with those panels cranking out more than 10 million kilowatt hours of electricity (and counting) to date. The 25-arce solar farm went online in 2010, and whatever electricity the track doesn't use is pumped into the community's power grid. It all saves the track hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in energy bills. Who knew a throwback facility could be so forward-looking?
In order to maintain the solar farm, Pocono management hired an army of specialized groundskeepers -- who also happen to be a touch wooly. Each summer about 50 sheep watch over the area, keeping the grass maintained in the process. The track didn't want to use mowers, which would not only conflict with the eco-friendly intent of the farm, but also might inadvertently send a rock flying into a glass panel. So every year sheep are trucked over from State College, Pennsylvania, and keep the grass trim and fertilize all in one. Surely, Pocono-branded wool sweaters showing up at merchandise stands can't be far behind.
8. Dancing trees
Anyone who's ever watched a Pocono race on TV has seen them -- the row of trees which begins in Turn 1 and lines the outside of the 3,000-foot Long Pond Straight, their branches writhing and wiggling in the disturbed air each time cars roar by. Not too long ago the trees were the only thing extending above the wall in that area, and Kasey Kahne became a little too familiar with the native flora when part of his car got up onto them during an airborne accident in 2010. Partly in response to that crash, a catchfence now rises from the wall. But the trees are still there, and even with the fencing they still dance each time the cars zoom past.
Long before there was a NASCAR Hall of Fame, Doc Mattioli began commemorating the greatest drivers at his race track -- in stone. Within the infield are large rocks bearing the names and most famous car numbers of nine past Pocono winners: Dale Earnhardt, Richard Petty, David Pearson, Cale Yarborough, Bobby Allison, Rusty Wallace, Darrell Waltrip, Mario Andretti and A.J. Foyt. While there are some curious omissions (such as five-time winner Bill Elliott) this rock garden was part of Mattioli's own personal Hall of Fame. The family added a rock in memory of Doc after his passing in 2012.
6. Long John
In the 1990s, Mattioli undertook a near-complete rebuild of the facility, attempting to correct mistakes that had been made in the venue's original construction. The $3 million effort included an update of the paddock and midway areas. Perhaps most notably, Doc scrapped all 375 toilets behind the grandstand and replaced them with what's since become known as Long John -- allegedly the biggest bathroom facility in the world, 1,000 stalls put in place "so that we would be assured we would have no lines," Mattioli wrote in a letter to fans. According to famed racing commentator Chris Economaki, Doc himself once had to wait in a such a line, and determined there would be no more at his place.
5. Victory Tower
At Pocono, a Victory Lane is not quite enough. No way. This most original of NASCAR tracks demands an original place for winners to celebrate -- hence the Victory Tower, a three-level structure that stands over the frontstretch. Technically it's called the Richard Petty 200 Victory Circle, complete with images of the King in cowboy hat and sunglasses, no matter that Petty won his 200th premier-series NASCAR race down the coast in Daytona Beach. He was the first NASCAR winner at Pocono in 1974, and every winner who celebrates in that structure is reminded that he (or maybe she, one day) is following in the tire tracks of the King. And there's more history: three original bricks from Indianapolis Motor Speedway were buried near it in 1972.
Rose Mattioli was always a fan of horse racing, and gave her husband grief for not taking her to Churchill Downs. So Doc brought a little of the bluegrass to Pocono, erecting a pair of steeples -- they're actually ornamental lightning rods, made by a company from (of all places) Mooresville, North Carolina -- above the grandstand in an homage to the Kentucky Derby. He didn't stop there: a uniformed bugler plays the call to the post before each race, and there's a Mint Julep Club that hosts special receptions. One of the steeples was blown down by Hurricane Sandy in 2012, but it was replaced last year. The legacy of all things horsepower in the Pocono Mountain region continues to endure.
As soon as you drive up to Pocono, you get the idea that the place is a little ... different. That's because greeting visitors at the tunnel entrance is a giant sign featuring an outline of the track surrounded by eight stars, all but one of which have a number inside. Much like the rocks, this was another of Doc's ways of remembering the track's most legendary NASCAR drivers -- Petty, Earnhardt, Wallace, Waltrip, Yarborough, Allison and Pearson, each with a car number inside a star. The blank star once contained the No. 6 of Mark Martin, who appeared ready to step away from full-time racing after the 2005 season. It was removed when he continued to compete. Safe to put it back now, guys.
Pocono's defining characteristic, though, is literally built into the asphalt itself. The triangle as we know it today was the brainchild of architect Rodger Ward, a two-time winner of the Indianapolis 500. And in its design, he called upon three venues from the past, using each as a model for a corner. With 14 degrees of banking, Turn 1 was drawn from Trenton (N.J.) Speedway, which hosted eight NASCAR events and many prominent open-wheel races. Turn 2, the now famous tunnel turn, is banked 9 degrees and taken from Indianapolis. Turn 3 is a banked 6 degrees in homage to the Milwaukee Mile. The intent was to present three different challenges within the same race track, and decades later that remains the case.
It all goes back to Doc. Every last bit of it. Pocono stands today, the only family-owned track among all the speedways that host the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, because Doc got hooked on racing one Sunday afternoon in Nazareth, Pennsylvania, and then almost by accident -- the Mattiolis started as the guarantor of the mortgage, but soon were majority investors -- was pouring money into this massive project off Interstate 80. With his booming voice and sometimes stern countenance, he could be demanding to the family members who worked for him. "They're going to run it, or they're going to starve," he told a Philadelphia newspaper upon turning operational duties over to his grandchildren.
But they called it the School of Doc. The steeples, the stars, the rocks, the bugler and so many other things that make Pocono what it is came straight from Doc, who -- along with wife Rose -- was among the first to shake hands with drivers as they passed across the introduction stage. His grandkids carry on that sense of originality. In the summer of 2012, for the first race weekend after Mattioli had passed away the previous January, a new sign was erected just inside the tunnel entrance: "Welcome to Doc's Place." They knew he would have hated it. But they also knew it will always be true.