News & Media

Caraviello: More things change, more Pocono stays the same

June 11, 2011, David Caraviello,

LONG POND, Pa. -- The clock begins to spin backward as soon as you pull off the interstate, and pass a pizza shop and an ice cream stand that look like they've stood for decades. There's a ski shop that looks like a log cabin, and a lodge advertising available rooms in red neon above the sign outside. The road pitches and rolls up and down hills, the thickening trees closing in on either side. Then without warning the green tunnel opens into a massive clearing, you take the left onto Long Pond Road, and the long black and white checkerboard of Pocono Raceway's main grandstand looms on the horizon.

Strangely enough it fits, this timeless race track in this timeless place, a major NASCAR venue with an appreciation for history and a little sense of humor on a hilltop in the honeymoon capital of the world. The entrance roads have names like Andretti and Hulman and Earnhardt, names from the sport's past that lie incongruously across from a modern solar farm glittering behind a stand of trees. At the infield tunnel entrance is a sign surrounded by an array of stars, all but one containing a car number from a champion of Pocono's past. Emerging from the tunnel you see the twin spires on top of the main grandstand, a tongue-in-cheek homage to Churchill Downs that unites horsepower both equine and vehicular.

Pocono has a look like none other in NASCAR. (Getty Images)

Welcome to race track time machine, a throwback facility that makes no apologies for its retro nature, and seems as comfortable in 2011 as it did in 1991 or 1981 or 1971, when the big triangle was first opened. Yes, it's a little remote, and yes, the 500-mile events it hosts may be a little too long. But it's difficult to visit this place and not become instantly enamored with the quirky touches and historical appreciation embodied within this independent 2.5-mile speedway that Philadelphia dentist Joe Mattioli and his wife, Rose, built amid the woods of northeast Pennsylvania. The more things change in Pocono, the more things stay the same. And the folks here like it that way.

"I think as we move forward, we want to keep that identity," said track president Brandon Igdalski, the Mattiolis' grandson. "That's who we are. The fans love that about us. I always say, we're not the big glitzy glam of an ISC or SMI track, or even a brand-new track. We're about racing and we're about the fans."

They have to be, given that they host two Sprint Cup weekends within eight weeks of one another and have very little crossover -- Igdalski said about 20 percent -- within those respective crowds. Pocono Raceway is very much a family business, has been since "Doc" Mattioli was buying real estate up in this stretch of the mountains and was approached by the group building the track, which was seeking investors. He and his wife knew little about racing at the time, so on one Sunday afternoon they went to a dirt track in Nazareth, Pa., still in their church clothes. They emerged covered in red dust.

After that, Rose Mattioli had one question for her husband: "What have you done?" Too late. An initial $100,000 investment grew to $300,000, Igdalsky said, giving the Mattiolis enough leverage to alter the direction of what was then planned as a road course. Indianapolis Motor Speedway owner Tony Hulman and founding NASCAR chairman Bill France Sr. -- whose photo hangs in the Pocono media lounge -- both of whom would become close advisors to the Mattiolis, urged an oval that could accommodate both stock cars and open-wheel cars. And with that the original track, a three-eighths-mile oval, was born in 1968.

Igdalski said there's still a point where the asphalt curves off the frontstretch, a remaining vestige of the old short track. The big triangle itself came about three years later, with track architect Rodger Ward -- a two-time winner of the Indianapolis 500 -- basing the design of each corner on one from another venue. Turn 1 became a 14-degree curve modeled after one at now-defunct Trenton Speedway in New Jersey, which hosted eight Cup-level events in NASCAR and many more prominent open-wheel races. Turn 2, the now-famous tunnel turn, was a 9-degree replica of Indianapolis. And Turn 3 was a 6-degree homage to The Milwaukee Mile. At Pocono, it's not an overstatement to say that racing history is literally built into the asphalt.

It exists in other places, too. Those stars arrayed around the tunnel entrance, all but one containing a car number, comprise what Igdalski calls his grandfather's hall of fame. "As guys retired, he would put their numbers up," Igdalski said. There's the 43 of Richard Petty, the 3 of Dale Earnhardt, the 21 of David Pearson and the Wood Brothers, the 17 of Darrell Waltrip, the 11 of Cale Yarborough, the 12 of Bobby Allison, and the 2 of Rusty Wallace. One star is blank. It once contained the 6 of Mark Martin, who's still competing. "Mark never retired, so we had to take it down," Igdalski said with a laugh.

The place has all kinds of idiosyncrasies. The frontstretch is a quarter-mile long because it was once used for drag races. Stucco archways that seem almost Moorish connect the pit area to the infield. The track is the same length at Daytona, but because the infield is so relatively open, it feels five times more expansive. In 1981, because of a schism within open-wheel ranks, the U.S. Auto Club unthinkably put the equivalents of modern Silver Crown and IndyCars on the track at the same time. Ten years earlier, the big track had opened with USAC stock cars and IndyCars running 500-mile events on consecutive days.

"For all you guys who think the races are long now, try 1,000 miles of racing at Pocono in a weekend," Igdalski said with a smile. "I'm a fan of racing, but I'm not sitting through 1,000 miles of racing anywhere."

Then there are those spires, a little bit of Louisville's famous horse track all the way up here in the Poconos. Rose Mattioli had always been a fan of the ponies, and always gave her husband grief for not bringing her to Churchill Downs. So he brought a little bit of Churchill Downs to her. There's a Mint Julep club on the ground floor of the track's Victory Lane tower, and veteran scribes reminisce about the days when the beverage was served in the media center after races. Prior to the start of each race, a bugler sounds the call to post. And several years ago Doc Mattioli came across a company based in Mooresville, N.C., that builds ornamental lightning rods. The spires arrived soon afterward.

"You never know what my grandfather is going to do," Igdalski said.

Like build a race track that borrows elements from three other tracks, add characteristics that give it a timeless quality, and then power it with a space-age solar farm set up across the street. Granted, Pocono's throwback nature earned it some grief in the area of safety after a series of spectacular accidents dating to 2002, when Dale Earnhardt Jr. and former teammate Steve Park slid through an expanse of grass and hit a guardrail in a collision that caused Park's car to flip over. A year ago Kasey Kahne slid along a wall in a scary accident on the final lap, and this past August Elliott Sadler hammered head-on into an earthen berm. Drivers began to complain that, when it came to safety, Pocono was behind more modern venues.

Prior to this weekend, the track replaced its antiquated inner guardrail with the SAFER barrier, and also added the impact-absorbing material between the turns. That new barrier was put to the test Saturday, when Mike Skinner spun in qualifying and hit hard where a guardrail had been. The car was totaled, and the driver walked away. "Probably 10 years overdue," Greg Biffle, one of the track's biggest critics, said of the improvements. "The race track, I applaud them for taking action."

* Then: Kahne, Biffle in Pocono crash | Sadler head-first into barrier

* Now: Skinner slides out of Turn 1 during quals, hits SAFER barrier

That's the balance they try to strike at Pocono, which blends old and new, timeless and modern. There's just something inherently charming about pulling into Doc Mattioli's big triangle and seeing those car numbers inside the stars (and painted on rocks in the infield), recognizing the history behind each of its corner configurations, finding out that the bathroom beneath the lengthy main grandstand -- billed as the longest in the world -- is playfully known as "Big John." That kind of sense of humor is tough to find in a major sports venue, and tough not to love. You can almost taste the mint juleps.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.