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LONG POND, Pa. - Joseph Mattioli sealed the deal to bring NASCAR to the Poconos over a plate of Southern fried chicken in 1972. When he thought about selling the race track, he reconsidered because of a note on the back of a business card.

The common thread was the Bill France family.

"Pocono wouldn't be here today if it wasn't for Bill," a teary Mattioli said Saturday.

Mattioli, the CEO and chairman of the board for Pocono Raceway, knows how much NASCAR on the mountaintop is owed to former chairman Bill France Jr.

It was France and Mattioli who finalized the deal over a chicken dinner. The two forged a personal friendship that lasted until Monday when France, NASCAR's former chairman, died after nearly a decade of declining health.

The 82-year-old Mattioli will honor his friend and influential leader at today's Pocono 500, where a simple tribute was planned for the prerace ceremony and flags have been lowered to half staff.

"From the time I met Bill in 1967, and his father, there were a number of things that happened over the years and the relationship really developed from there," Mattioli said. "They helped us much with sending us money so we could get financing and sponsorships. Every time I needed help, they were there. So the relationship got to be per-sonal."

Mattioli recalled traveling in 1972 to Daytona, Fla., to discuss bringing NASCAR to his 2.5-mile triangle track nes-tled in the popular honeymoon region. He got stuck in Orlando, so France sent his plane to pick up Mattioli and the two hammered out a deal.

In the mid-1970s, when the CART-USAC fight helped cause financial problems at the track, Mattioli wanted to sell until he received a call from France Sr. The two met in New York and France tried to persuade Mattioli to ride out the downturn and keep the track.

France pulled out his business card and scribbled this message:

"On the plains of hesitation lie the bleached bones who when within the grasp of victory sat and waited and wait-ing died."

The fortune cookie-worthy quote was enough for Mattioli.

Blown up pictures of France Sr., his business card and the note hang in the media press room dining area. It's one way Mattioli honors those important to him and NASCAR. The Nextel Cup garage is dedicated to Adam Petty, who was killed in a crash during a routine practice in 2000, and there's a road named after Dale Earnhardt.

"Those kind of relationships are very few and far between," he said. "They're very important."

Mattioli gives the Pocono Raceway Bill France Award of Excellence ever year to the person, corporation or organi-zation that has made outstanding contributions to NASCAR.

This year's winner is James Hylton, the 72-year-old who tried to qualify for the Daytona 500.

Mattioli also avoids traditional corporate sponsorship for his races. Spark plugs, soft drinks and beer companies were part of the race titles until 1997 when they were changed to the Pocono 500 and the Pennsylvania 500.

"I saw we were losing our identity," he said. "Nobody knew where Pocono was. This way the race is ours, it belongs to Pennsylvania, to the Pocono region and the goodwill I get locally and statewide has paid off tremendously."

Richard Petty won the first NASCAR race held on the triangle - the Purolator 500 - in 1974 and a second race was added to the schedule in 1982.

"We came up here and ran the USAC race. Then when we came back up here, I was the only one who had any ex-perience on this race track," Petty said.

The track underwent a 10-year renovation in the 1990s, adding new crash walls, a garage area and 150-site motor home park. And each year, questions are raised about whether a 500-mile race is too long.

"I think 400 would be plenty for the fans and drivers and teams and NASCAR," said driver Kasey Kahne.

Mattioli said he didn't care about the length of the race, and noted the complaining never stopped 100,000 fans from packing the place one weekend in early June and late July.

"The day Humpty Wheeler cuts his 600 mile down to a 500, I'll cut mine down to a 400," he said, chuckling. "It doesn't make a damn bit of difference. It's tradition."


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