'Not even close to quitting'

September 15, 1997|By Joe Nawrozki | Joe Nawrozki,SUN STAFF

Joseph Mattioli III cherishes the tale of his grandfather, who avoided the treacherous coal mines of Pennsylvania in the 1920s for a less hazardous calling -- prizefighting.

To avoid the discrimination that Italian-Americans faced, Joseph Mattioli Sr. adopted the ring name "Pep O'Brien" -- masquerading as an Irishman -- and supported his family from the many victories in coal-town boxing arenas along the East Coast. He became a lightweight champion in Italy and fought for the U.S. title but lost.

"That taught me a couple of lessons," says Mattioli. "One, nobody has cornered the market on discrimination. And my grandfather's determination showed me you can do anything you want to do."

Mattioli, 44, faces a fight of his own -- he is the driving force behind plans for a $100 million motor speedway in Middle River.

To business leaders and some Baltimore County officials, Mattioli, the chief operating officer of Middle River Racing Association (MRRA), is a symbol of the salvation of the economically troubled east side.

But many east-siders view Mattioli as a wealthy carpetbagger willing to sacrifice the peaceful life of White Marsh, Bowleys Quarters and Wilson Point for the profits of a speedway with an uncertain future.

"Mattioli's nobody around here," says Joe Gross, a lifelong White Marsh resident who owns a liquor store on Bird River Road. "He wants to put a speedway outside our back doors. You just don't know what people from out of town will do; they don't care about us. It's a get-the-money-and-run kind of thing. I don't trust any of them."

To his critics, Mattioli says, "People fear what they don't understand.

"I have come to understand the pride and sensibilities of people who live in eastern Baltimore County. I realize they have been dumped on, had promises broken by government before, but once they see the track in operation and what it does for the entire region, they will change their minds."

To that end, Mattioli and other MRRA executives are crisscrossing the east side, attending community meetings in churches and halls.

At one summer meeting, as ceiling fans whirled in the crowded hall of the Cowenton United Methodist Church in White Marsh, Mattioli discovered that finding converts won't be easy.

When he stepped in front of more than 100 members of the White Marsh Civic Association, arms crossed in the audience. Frowns formed on faces.

As he attempted to speak, he was shouted down by residents, many retired blue-collar workers or farmers.

So Mattioli, red-faced and frustrated, wended his way through the crowd and out the door.

"We were led to believe it was an open forum, where people were given the courtesy to speak," he says. "The meeting ended up being something completely different."

Mattioli, a fast-talking former college boxer, got his start in racing at Pocono International Raceway, a family business.

As a struggling but willing novice, he mowed acres of grass and painted rocks before he enrolled at Lehigh University. On summer breaks, he sold hot dogs and took tickets before his parents gave him a chance in the track's public relations office.

In 1977, he became Pocono's general manager. He also worked for a short time for NASCAR at races where he "crawled under the race cars, checked them, better understood the sport."

Two years ago, Ed and Missy Berge -- she the primary financial backer of the speedway plan -- lured Mattioli to head the Middle River project after he resigned his position as Pocono's president.

Dr. Joseph R. Mattioli Jr. says his son "grew up with the race track, reached the top, and Pocono lost its challenge. He got bored and moved on. He can return anytime he wants."

The son says no animosity lingers from the move. "My father has been my best adviser since I left Pocono. I needed a new mountain to climb," says Mattioli, who averages 12 to 15 hours a day working in his Timonium office, meeting with east-siders or seeking financial backers.

He also spends time in Pennsylvania with his wife Lovina -- comptroller at the Pocono track -- and sons, Joseph IV, 12, and Chase, 7. To relax, he enjoys skiing with his family.

"My parents came from nothing, invested every nickel in the Pocono track to make it work, and that's what I teach my two children, who will one day take over from me," he says.

Mattioli and his two sisters still own controlling stock in the

Pocono raceway; his father remains CEO and runs the 2.5-mile tri-oval track -- the same configuration planned here. But these days Mattioli is focused on the proposed Essex International Speedway.

"It will break my heart if people don't realize what a great asset this would be to Baltimore County," he says.

"We have no towels in our corner. We're not even close to thinking about quitting."

Pub Date: 9/15/97

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