An Exclusive Interview With Dr. Rose Mattioli: The Grand Dame of Pocono Raceway
Not only does Dr. Rose Mattioli live with her husband and track co-owner on the grounds of their beloved Pocono Raceway, but she eats, breathes, and sleeps the track business.
Yet in spite of all that, there is nothing that thrills Dr. Rose more than hearing the roar of the engines fire on race weekends.
"My heart still races as soon as the cars start out on the track," says Dr. Rose. "On race day, I make sure that I find my way down to pit road after all of the pre-race activities. I have to be there to see the cars go into the first turn."
Dr. Rose admits that she may just love racing even more than her husband, who everyone affectionately refers to as "Doc" Joe Mattioli. Both of them are doctors by training, with Dr. Rose as a podiatrist and Doc as a dentist.
They met while attending Temple University. Dr. Rose says that Doc was "the freshest guy" she had ever met. She was working for the Registrar at the school at the time of their meeting and Doc kept trying to get to the head of the line.
"He kept telling me he had a car, like that was a big deal," shares Dr. Rose. "Little did I know that he would be the one that I would marry."
Dr. Rose and Doc actually ran away to Baltimore in 1948 to get married. They kept their marriage a secret until they came back home and had an actual wedding ceremony. And it all "seems just like yesterday," according to Dr. Rose.
The couple was destined to find each other, both living in the Philadelphia area. Both are only children.
Dr. Rose describes herself as a "sheltered" child. She suffered from rheumatic fever throughout her childhood, spending months in bed. It was at that time that her mother, who had had to raise her siblings due to her mother's death when she was eleven years old, whispered to Rose that she should become a doctor.
Rose had actually wanted to become an orthopedic surgeon. But her mother convinced her that podiatry would be a better fit and afford her a comfortable lifestyle.
So, off Rose went to Temple to become a podiatrist. And there she met her match with Doc Mattioli, that infamous dental student.
After they married, they both set up their practices in Philadelphia. They expanded their family with three children, two daughters and a son.
Seeming to have it all, both Dr. Rose and Dr. Joe worked hard at their thriving practices. Yet, illness was to again play a part in Dr. Rose's life, ultimately changing it.
At the age of 35, Dr. Joe experienced major burnout from overwork. At that time, Doc confided to Rose that he needed to make a major lifestyle change. "He said to me, you know Rose, I'm not going back to dentistry full-time."
Indeed, the couple never did go back to their practices full-time. Instead they set off to be race track owners. "We just drifted into it," said Dr. Rose.
"We were always curious about racing", Dr. Rose continued. "Our first racing experience was at Nazareth" (a small dirt track in PA no longer in operation).
"We went to the races at Nazareth right after Sunday mass", shared Dr. Rose. "We were in our Sunday best, all dressed up. We had no idea that the dirt would be flying everywhere and all over us".
"The children were crying," continued Dr. Rose. "And I had to keep stuffing Kleenex in their ears to block out all of the noise of the engines racing around the track."
In spite of that inauspicious introduction to racing, they continued their investigation of track ownership. They learned of a track under construction in Long Pond, PA.
They flew over the track, fell in love, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Initially, they were just investors in the track. "But since we were putting in most of the money, we felt like we needed to be a little more involved," said Dr. Rose.
"We came up for a race and made up our minds", shared Dr. Rose. "We decided to throw ourselves full time into the sport of racing and the business of track ownership."
"We started off with USAC races and our first sponsor was Schaefer Brewing Company," said Dr. Rose. The doctors then moved into NASCAR racing, which was just expanding from its southern roots.
Their first NASCAR race was won by none other than the legendary Richard Petty. Unfortunately, "the crowd wasn't too nice to him," according to Dr. Rose, as they snubbed this "southern racer."
The Mattiolis then met the father of NASCAR, Bill France, Sr. At first, France told the Mattiolis that the track would never make it because there were not enough roads in and out of the track.
"He took us under his wing," said Dr. Rose. "Bill France, Sr. was very nice to us, calling us all the time. We just hit it off with him and his wife."
"Then along came Bill France, Jr." shared Dr. Rose. "He was a great man to work with."
Dr Rose continued, "They were two distinct personalities. Bill France, Sr. was big and boisterous and gave us his word. Bill France, Jr. was nice but more quiet and administrative. They truly complimented each other."
Both of the Frances were good friends to the Mattioli family, providing them with great advice and including them in the phenomenal growth of the sport of NASCAR.
"More and more people started to come to the track," said Dr. Rose. "Children and their families would come to see the races."
The Mattiolis were committed to being accessible to their fans. One of their first efforts to connect with the fans was the development of Autograph Alley, a place where fans could get autographs from their driver idols.
Dr. Rose confided that she liked the involvement with the drivers, wives, and families the most. But it took the death of Troy Rudman's son at the track to clarify her true role and mission at Pocono Raceway.
"I am involved," realized Dr. Rose. "I wanted to be there for the participants."
Dr. Rose started "really watching out" for the drivers and their families. At that time, there were no fancy motor homes or even hotel rooms available for the race teams.
Also, at that time, no women were allowed in the garage area. So, the drivers' wives and children truly had no place to go during the race weekend.
Dr. Rose fixed that. She organized picnics for the families and developed a special room for the wives and children where they could go and relax away from the race cars and team trucks.
Every race weekend at Pocono, Dr. Rose organized Saturday morning coffee times. There she really got to know the drivers, their wives and their children.
"I got to know them all," said Dr. Rose. "It was like having my family come home."
Dr. Rose was also committed to enabling the drivers and their families to have a worship home away from home. Through her efforts, Pocono Raceway was the first track to have a formal church service track-side.
"It was all because of Mario Andretti actually," said Dr. Rose. "He had a good friend who was a missionary and Mario was trying to help him raise money. I brought him to the track to say mass for the drivers and their families."
Since then, mass has been said in Victory Lane every year since 1971. While Motor Racing Outreach has now assumed responsibility for most of the religious services at NASCAR tracks, Dr. Rose's notion of taking care of the spiritual needs of the drivers and families was truly the beginning of this movement.
In spite of owning Pocono Raceway since 1968, Dr. Rose looks forward to each and every race weekend. "I cannot wait to see my boys and their families," shares an exuberant Dr. Rose. "I also cannot wait to talk to the fans."
When pressed to disclose her favorite driver, Dr. Rose whispers conspiratorially, "They are all my favorites."
She does admit to being especially pleased to see Jeff Gordon, now so happy with his new wife and young daughter. She also confides that she was "thrilled" when Mark Martin, "who I have watched come along," recently won his first race with Hendrick Motorsports.
"I have a reason why I like each and every driver," said Dr. Rose. "My only regret is not having the opportunity to know them all, especially the younger drivers."
"We were very close to Bobby Allison," shared Dr. Rose. "And we were very good friends with Dale Earnhardt, Sr. and his wife Teresa."
Her one wistful moment when talking about the drivers came in her thinking about Dale Earnhardt, Jr. "I wish we could be closer," said Dr. Rose. "I watched him grow up as a young boy and I so would like to be closer to him now that he is grown up."
While she has most often focused on the comfort of the drivers, families and fans, Dr. Rose is also integrally involved in the business aspects of the race track. She acknowledges that the economy has certainly had an impact, but shares that "ticket sales for the June 7th race have been good."
Although she tires of being asked the same few questions, she answers them thoughtfully and with conviction. In reference to the first question that is always asked as Pocono race weekend approaches, "No, we don't intend to ever sell the track," she firmly states.
Dr. Rose proudly reports that "all my children are involved in the track, as are many of the grandchildren." In fact, her oldest grandson Brandon Igdalsky is currently the President of Pocono Raceway.
Dr. Rose's granddaughter Ashley Igdalsky is the Assistant Secretary and Treasurer of Pocono Raceway. She has also assumed the role of Executive Director of the new resort at the Pocono Raceway call The Village at Pocono.
The next question that is always asked is if Pocono should have two races on the NASCAR circuit. "We have pretty much always had two races," said Dr. Rose. "We got our first race and then the second just a few years later." In her mind there appears to be no reason to change that fact and she is convinced that the fans want NASCAR to keep the two races on the schedule.
The final query is whether the races at Pocono are too long at 500 miles each with the Pocono 500 in June and the Pennsylvania 500 in August.
To that question, Dr. Rose most firmly replied, "if you have good racing, it is something to be proud of to race for 500 miles."
Have there been challenges for Dr. Rose throughout these years as an owner of a race track? There most certainly have been.
One of the major challenges that Dr. Rose faced was back in the day when women were not even allowed in the garage area. At that time, she was told that NASCAR could not have "honeys" in the garage as it would be "too hard for the drivers and teams to work."
That simply would not do for Dr. Rose. She went to her dear friend Bill France, Sr., who let her have a garage pass, dubbing her one of the medical personnel for the track. As Dr. Rose admits, the experience taught her to "be a woman but think like a guy."
There have of course been other challenges for the Mattioli family through the years at their beloved Pocono Raceway. Dr. Rose believes strongly that their proudest triumph has been that "we managed to stick it out, even during times when we had no money."
"We did what we thought was right all these years," said Dr. Rose. "We are proud to be able to bring this track up to the standards that we always hoped it would be."
And yet, even after all these years, Dr. Rose Mattioli still believes with all her heart that NASCAR racing at Pocono is just "breathtaking." She cannot wait until race day in Long Pond when she can once again "see her boys and their families."
Dr. Rose will send the drivers off to their race cars after a quick hug and a kiss during driver introductions. And she will soon prepare once more to feel her heart race as the engines fire up to take the green flag at Pocono Raceway.
For more information about Pocono Raceway or the Mattioli family, visit www.poconoraceway.com.
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