Mattioli's passing one of many changes at Pocono

Posted: June 08, 2012

AS THE FIRST race weekend at Pocono Raceway without the presence of Dr. Joseph Mattioli approaches, Brandon Igdalsky thinks about his grandfather every day.

"There's a piece of him with me everywhere I go," Pocono's track president and CEO said Tuesday. "My childhood was spent hanging out with him at the track. This week, there are things I did with him I hadn't thought about in years. This will be the hardest week since he passed away."

Mattioli, the force behind Pocono since it hosted its first 500-mile Indy-car race in 1971, died in January at age 86.

Igdalsky, 36, said tributes to "Doc" Mattioli, a former Philadelphia dentist and Pocono board chairman, are planned throughout the weekend. These include videos, signage around the track and decals on cars. Dr. Rose Mattioli, Doc's widow, will be involved in the tributes.

Mattioli's absence is part of a milestone weekend at Pocono. Sunday's NASCAR Sprint Cup race and the Aug. 5 race have been shortened to 400 miles from the traditional 500. Also, the 2.5-mile track was repaved for the first time since the mid-1990s.

For years, Mattioli resisted shortening Pocono's Cup series races.

"Our fans are 70-30, maybe higher, in favor of the shorter races," Igdalsky said. "The decision wasn't made halfheartedly. It wasn't anything the drivers or media said. It's where the sport is now, it's where TV is. I think our fans understand why we've done it."

The smooth, repaved track is expected to increase speeds. Kasey Kahne's 8-year-old track qualifying record of 172.533 mph surely will be toppled by several drivers.

Normally, racers despise repaved tracks, because a lack of tire grip often makes the cars feel slippery. Igdalsky thinks the grip will be fine for Pocono's races.

"When we had the testing here in April, all the teams raved about the asphalt," the Council Rock High graduate said.

Following Wednesday's testing at Pocono, Martin Truex Jr., driver of the No. 56 Toyota, said: "I am pleasantly surprised about how good the track is and the tire combination. I expected it to be slicker. I expected it to change quite a bit more than it has. It was a little bit slick when we got started, but it wasn't as bad as I thought it would be.

“The only thing I am worried about is how narrow the groove is. It is really narrow. We are going to have to get around that."

While a repaved track presents challenges to drivers and crews, the consensus is that 400-milers at Pocono will make racing more compelling.

Before Sunday's race at Dover International Speedway, Cup points leader Greg Biffle said: "I think 400 miles will create some excitement for the fans. I think it will be a little better race and not so drawn out. There will be more urgency to go, and different strategy."

As most tracks are doing, Pocono is attempting to draw younger fans, with fan fairs and kids' zones on race weekends.

"Kids are the future of the sport," Igdalsky said. "Older fans were taken to races by their fathers and grandfathers. We're trying to do the same with today's kids."

Autograph sessions and Q?&?A's with Carl Edwards and Truex are scheduled for Saturday morning. For details, check www.poconoraceway.com.

Now in his fifth year as track president, Igdalsky knows he can't please everybody.

Asked at Dover about the extra testing this week at Pocono, Dale Earnhardt Jr. replied he wasn't looking forward to spending 2 extra days at Pocono's remote location.

"I'm not real excited about being up there that long," he said. "I don't think anybody is, to be honest. [But] that's the schedule, and we'll go up there and just run around in circles."

Acknowledging Earnhardt's comments, Igdalsky said: "I understand they are on the road 30-some weeks a year. In the past, some drivers were not fans of Pocono. Usually, they were drivers who didn't run well here.

“Dale Jr. was one of the drivers we spoke with during the winter to get feedback about our plans for Pocono. He was very receptive to our ideas."

Earnhardt, third in the standings, has never won at Pocono. In fact, he hasn't won a Cup race anywhere since 2008 (winless in his last 142 starts). Maybe he'll get a grip on Pocono's new track surface and halt his slump. 

Contact Bill Fleischman at fleiscb@phillynews.com.

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