Petty’s Pocono Double Dip

0
148
Richard Petty in victory lane at Pocono Raceway in 1974.
Richard Petty in victory lane at Pocono Raceway in 1974.

On Aug. 4, 1974, fans of NASCAR Cup Series racing filed through the turnstiles of Pennsylvania’s Pocono Raceway to witness history in the making.

In the midst of its 25th season, NASCAR was growing as it sought to find its place among America’s well-established stick-and-ball sports. Pocono Raceway’s founder and owner, Dr. Joseph Mattioli, was a visionary who foresaw NASCAR becoming the giant t is today.

The story began 14 years earlier in 1960 when Mattioli was working day and night to build his dentistry practice in Philadelphia. Realizing the grind was bringing him very little joy, he bought a 1,000-acre spinach farm off Interstate 80 in northeast Pennsylvania in hopes of transforming the land into a successful racing facility.

The cornerstone of that success was put into place with NASCAR’s first visit to the sprawling 2.5-mile tri-angular-shaped superspeedway.

Mattioli bought out the small group of initial fellow investors for what was to have originally been a three-quarter-mile paved track. Mattioli wanted something unique that fans couldn’t see anywhere else. That idea eventually transformed into a unique three-turn speedway.

NASCAR founder Bill France was excited about the track’s opening with Indy cars in 1971. It was the perfect venue for bringing the sport to the important New York market where he could showcase stock car racing to the highest levels of corporate America.

The lifeblood of any track promoter is to have as many scheduled events as feasibly possible. Mattioli had struggled at times to keep the seats filled and was eager to hear what France had to say, and the two made a deal that has lasted 45 years since their initial conversations.

The inaugural Purolator 500 NASCAR Cup Series event in August 1974, drew a crowd estimated at 40,000, which was 60,000 shy of the gathering for the Schaefer Indy car event at Pocono weeks earlier.

There is an interesting backstory leading up that inaugural Cup Series event at Pocono. Eventual seven-time Cup Series champion Richard Petty visited the track for the first time during an off weekend for NASCAR in 1972 and led 13 laps in the Pennsylvania 500 for USAC stock cars before a sour engine sidelined his Plymouth after 102 circuits.

The following July, Petty returned to Pocono and led 124 of 200 laps to win the Acme Super Saver 500 in a close battle over USAC star Butch Hartman.

The experience Petty gained during those USAC races helped his team prepare for NASCAR’s first event at Pocono.

Petty put his famed No. 43 Dodge in the lead for 152 of 200 laps after starting third behind pole winner Buddy Baker and second-place starter Bobby Allison.