By: Zach Sturniolo (Contributing Journalist for ’50 Years of The Tricky Triangle.’)
(April, 14 2021) No name in racing transcends the world of motorsport quite like that of Mario Andretti.
Yet for as internationally known and celebrated as the renowned racer is, his roots are firmly planted in northeastern Pennsylvania.
Andretti, 81, still resides in Nazareth, PA but his ties to Pocono Raceway lie within the asphalt – before the track even took its final shape.
The Italian-born Andretti quickly made a name for himself in American auto racing, amassing an astounding 31 wins in USAC Champ Car racing between 1965 and 1970 alone. While the now-defunct Nazareth Speedway was always his true home track, Andretti’s proximity to Pocono Raceway made him a valuable resource Dr. Joe and Rose Mattioli knew they could rely upon as they shifted from mere investors to project managers on the Pocono property.
“When the project was just about to take off, there was a lot of confusion,” Andretti recently recalled for Pocono’s 50th racing anniversary. “[Doc] just took over and then created a direction and they went on.”
With such a massive property, what would the track look like? Roger Ward rightfully receives much of the credit for shaping what eventually became the 2.5-mile Tricky Triangle, but Andretti himself had a say in how he thought the track should look, too.
“They didn’t know whether it was going to be a triangle, a rectangle,” Andretti said. “And then, at the end, we all decided that we’re going to make it three different corners: one banked, one sort of like the kink flat out – the tunnel turn – and then a nice wide radius [in] turn three.”
Andretti’s influence didn’t end there, though. Before the final layer of pavement was set to be laid, Doc Mattioli invited Andretti back to Long Pond to make sure the new track had Andretti’s seal of approval.
Not so fast.
“I went up there and had my Lotus S3 with me, a sports car,” Andretti said. “I took a ride around and it was bouncing up and down off the roof. I mean, I think that was a terrible job that they had done up to that point.
“I asked the contractor, ‘You better come in the car with me.’ And again, he had no idea how close the tolerances had to be for a racetrack. You know, he was used to paving regular highways and so forth.”
That experience led to Andretti suggesting Doc Mattioli enlist the help of Clarence Cagel, the longtime track superintendent at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
“[Cagel] is the one that actually coached everybody through to lay down the final coat and then after that, [the track] obviously was very good,” Andretti said. “So I contributed!”
As the first race day neared in 1971, Pocono Raceway was being billed as the “Indy of the East.” The opening week delivered its hype as enormous crowds trekked to Long Pond for the inaugural Schafer 500. The hype even took Andretti by surprise.
“I myself underestimated the crowd and I was stuck in traffic coming in for practice and almost missed practice,” he said. “I remember arriving at the tunnel, and here was Joey Mattioli trying to direct traffic. He had no idea where he was putting everyone because the infield was just terribly soft from rain the whole week prior to that, so they didn’t know what to do with all these cars.
“But they put them out there – three days to get them out and dig them out of there, I remember after the race. But all in all, I understand there were like 90,000 people that attended the very first race. So yeah, it was definitely the Indy of the East.”
Despite his early involvement with the raceway, it took 16 starts around Pocono for Andretti to land in The Tricky Triangle’s victory lane – and what a weekend to do it.
The weekend began on Saturday, Aug. 16, when Andretti’s youngest son, Jeff, won the pole and led 13 laps en route to a victory in the Indy Lights event. The family found even more success Sunday, when Andretti’s oldest son, Michael, claimed pole for the Domino’s Pizza 500 before Mario Andretti led 119 of 200 laps to earn his only career victory at Pocono Raceway.
“I use this as one of the highlights of my career as a family of course,” Andretti said. “Between the three of us, we cleaned house that weekend. And it was not noted so much, but we did, and we certainly celebrate it.
“Still to today, it brings back some just wonderful, wonderful memories as you can imagine. Precious memories indeed. We made our mark at Pocono at one point.”
To win at Pocono was a true treat for Andretti, who claimed wins internationally in Formula 1 and domestically in USAC, CART and NASCAR.
“To me – not because I’m talking to you guys – that was always my very favorite superspeedway to drive on because of the fact that it was not easy,” Andretti said of Pocono. “It isn’t easy today. But I think it just requires a little extra touch and I always felt that I loved the challenge.”
Pocono Raceway went through a long lull without open-wheel racing on its storied triangle from 1989 until IndyCar made a triumphant return in 2013, a return heavily influenced by none other than Andretti. But IndyCar’s return only lasted through 2019, with no return imminent while others like Andretti hold out hope.
“I think IndyCar belongs in the east as well,” he said. “They don’t have a track anywhere on the East Coast at the moment. And why not? A superspeedway — they were waiting for that, and [Pocono] was built for Indy cars. It was not built for anything else. And of course it can accommodate NASCAR very, very well, no question. But at the same time, IndyCar is always very popular here at Pocono, and I hope before too long, they come back as well. Believe me, I’m not giving up.”
Andretti’s ties to Pocono have tied him to the Mattioli’s forever. What may have begun as a business partnership quickly evolved into a family friendship with deep bonds.
“I mean, you’re talking about a friendship. What else can you say?” Andretti said. “And that was special and precious. Both ways. We’ve attended social events together and all of that. We almost feel like [we] grew together to some degree in the sport. And, yeah, that friendship continued forever.
“I remember how warm Rose always was right to the end, even when Indy came back. She said, ‘You know what, that’s what I really wanted too!’ It was so, so great to hear. And we always embraced. Again, yes, those are, those are special friendships. They’re there forever, warm and sincere in all of that.”
To see more content from our ’50 Years of The Tricky Triangle’ please visit: poconoraceway.com/50