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One of the sport’s legendary racetrack owners, spearheading the last independently-owned Sprint Cup facility has died. Dr. Joe Mattioli, 86, passed away Thursday afternoon at the Lehigh Valley Hospital Center after a lengthy illness. A dentist by trade, the patriarch of one of the most influential NASCAR families staked the biggest portion of his reputation on racing, constructing the 2.5-mile Pocono Raceway in Northeast Pennsylvania and convincing the most popular series in the country to stage races there. Constructed in the early 1960’s, the “Tricky Triangle” as it’s become known has hosted a total of 68 Cup Series events, beginning in 1974. Pocono Raceway is also home to a successful driving experience, a mainstay for the ARCA Series (two races per year) and has recently hosted one Camping World Truck Series event per season. Open-wheel cars also once graced the asphalt at a facility that has grown to hold over 100,000 fans.

But Mattioli’s legacy reaches far beyond the racetrack. His land in Northeast PA is now home to a 25-acre solar energy system, made up of 40,000 American-made photovoltaic modules that will produce more than 72 million kilowatt hours (kWh) of energy over the next 20 years. Opened in 2010, it makes the raceway the largest solar-powered sports facility in the country, spearheading NASCAR’s push towards protecting the environment and renewable energy.

A Navy medic during World War II, Mattioli went to Temple University in Philadelphia, PA through the G.I. Bill and established a successful dental practice in the area. Investing in real estate during the ensuing decades allowed him to accumulate wealth and establish the funding necessary to build the racetrack, which now has expanded to include nearby lodging year-round among other projects, past, present and future which have helped boost the economy in the Pocono Mountain Region.

“‘Doc’ was a true leader in every sense of the word,” said the Mattioli family in a statement. “As a visionary, he brought an unknown sport into an alien place, where he along with his unstoppable will and undeniable tenacity built one of the biggest monuments of sports. His passion for his projects was only overshadowed by his deep love for his family, which he gave to all of us hand over fist.”

For years, other corporations have looked to buy the speedway and the surrounding land but Mattioli would never sell. That leaves Pocono one of just three tracks on the NASCAR schedule not owned by NASCAR-linked International Speedway Corporation or Bruton Smith’s Speedway Motorsports, Inc. (Indianapolis and Dover are the other two). Mattioli also steadfastly clung to the track’s 500-mile distances, a tradition that was only recently changed for 2012.

The good doctor leaves behind his wife Rose – the couple was married 63 years – three children, seven grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. In August, 2011 he had retired from his role as President of the Raceway and left the day-to-day operations in the hands of grandchildren Brandon, Nick, and Ashley Igdalsky. There are no plans to sell the facility in the wake of his death; in fact, it was left in a trust so the track will remain in family hands for generations to come.

“They can’t touch it,” he said last year in a conversation recounted by Brendan Gaughan Thursday on SiriusXM’s NASCAR channel. “They’re going to learn how to run it or starve.”

Chances are, with the great teacher the grandkids had to learn from success, not starvation will be the modus operandi for years to come.

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