By: Zach Sturniolo (Contributing Journalist for ’50 Years of The Tricky Triangle.’)
(April 1, 2021) – Few drivers today understand what Pocono Raceway was like in the early 1970s.
In 1972, there was no NASCAR in northeastern Pennsylvania. But there were stock cars. And where there were stock cars, there was usually a familiar name: Richard Petty.
‘The Tricky Triangle’ hosted a stock car race in July 1972, an event sanctioned by the United States Auto Club (USAC), and it drew the attention of NASCAR’s biggest name, Petty
Except, the trip wasn’t as easy as The King of NASCAR originally anticipated.
Petty, 83, recently recalled the event, participating in part because his longtime sponsor, STP, was also sponsoring an IndyCar team in a Pocono race that same weekend – the first time at Pocono that separate 500-mile races were held in consecutive days thanks to Hurricane Agnes’ delay of the IndyCar race.
“NASCAR wasn’t running that week, so we said, ‘whatever you want to do, [STP], that’s fine,’” Petty said.
But Petty, the Southern NASCAR darling, wasn’t initially well-received by his mostly Midwestern USAC competitors. Track founder Dr. Joe Mattioli didn’t stand for that very long.
“They gave us a little bit of trouble when we first went up there because we were outsiders,” Petty said of the USAC drivers. “But Dr. Mattioli came over and told them that if they started treating me bad like that, he’d just run them all off. So, it was pretty interesting.”
Fitting in was key for Petty on that July 1972 weekend, painfully aware he was around a new crowd. That point was proven during inspection, according to a New York Times report that noted Petty’s car “was subjected to the most minute teardown, for more than is customary in USAC inspections.”
Once Petty finally got on track, the NASCAR legend took in the sights of the facility and made time to get acquainted with the track during practice.
“It was like running around in a great big field,” Petty recalled. “It was sort of like running a road course deal because you had to run it to get used to the corners. Like, most racetracks are you go down here and turn left and that’s it.
“But these were different. You had to approach them different. They were different straightaways, different banking in the corner. It was really weird because we’d never run on anything exactly like that. But for some reason, our guys were pretty good about setting up the car for that, and I fit in right good.”
His first outing started well but ended early. Petty led 13 laps and was in contention for the win when his race came to a halt prematurely.
“I think we were racing for the lead or was leading or something. Blew a left-front tire and knocked an oil pump off the thing and then that was the end of that,” Petty said.
After 102 laps of 200, Petty was relegated to the garage and finished 22nd of 40 cars, while Roger McCluskey dominated to win the event.
USAC returned to Pocono with stock cars in 1973, though, Petty wouldn’t be denied a chance to finish the race on his own terms.
“I think we were so disappointed by having trouble the first race, it was one of those deals where you want to go back and conquer something – say, ‘OK guys, we can do this,’” Petty said. “So that gave us some incentive to go back and prove that we were pretty good at Pocono Raceway.”
In his famed No. 43 Dodge, Petty did just that and led 124 laps en route to his lone USAC victory, while defending winner McCluskey returned for a third-place finish.
Winning under the USAC banner was a major accomplishment for Petty. The first USAC start he recalls came on a road course in the late 1960s, an event in which Petty ran terribly.
“We didn’t do good at all,” Petty said. “So, it was kind of revenge to go back then and beat those same guys that beat me so bad before.”
After two years of stock cars racing around ‘The Tricky Triangle,’ the France family decided it was time for NASCAR to move its way northeast into the rolling hills of the Pocono Mountains.
The sport’s jolt to the northeast corner of Pennsylvania was new ground. The fanbase was not established in that part of the country until NASCAR expanded out of the Southeast.
“It was a deal where NASCAR really needed that territory,” Petty said. “When you looked at the map and where we were running races, that was virgin territory. We didn’t run around New York City or New Jersey or that part of Pennsylvania. That was an opportunity to take NASCAR into new spectators.”
Petty, with a two-year head start on most of his competitors, took everyone to school in the Cup Series’ inaugural Purolator 500 at Pocono, leading 152 of 192 laps in a rain-shortened race.
The relationship Petty and his family built with the Mattioli’s drew quickly, and to no surprise of Petty himself.
“That was just an automatic thing,” Petty said. “That was a family-run business. Petty Enterprises was a family-run business. We had kids about the same ages their kids were. First thing you know, we were part of their family and they were part of ours. Forget about the racing part.”
The Mattioli family took that connection to heart and ensured to show it when the Petty family lost 19-year-old Adam Petty, Richard’s grandson and Kyle Petty’s son, in a practice crash at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in 2000. Pocono Raceway renamed its garage the ‘Adam Petty Garage’ in the family’s honor, a tribute that still stands out notably 21 years later.
“It just made us feel really proud of being able to associate with the Doctor (Mattioli),” Petty said.
Petty, too, realized the significance of the role the Mattioli’s played in NASCAR’s growth over the past five decades. Before the sport’s rise began to take shape, the family allowed NASCAR a home in the northeast that introduced potential fans to a form of racing that was previously foreign to them.
“They opened up that part of the world to NASCAR,” Petty said. “They were our introduction to the people in New York City, upper Pennsylvania, New Jersey, all of that area was virgin territory for NASCAR. They opened it up and did a heck of job because of the advertising. They put on good shows there. They treated the people like they wanted to be treated.”
“Whatever was going to be good for everybody out there, that was going to be good for them.”
For more ’50 Years of The Tricky Triangle Celebration’ related content, including our Podcast with Richard Petty please visit poconoraceway.com/50.