Fordham Student Has His Sights Set on NASCAR Chase Mattioli, a 20-year-old sophomore business administration major at Fordham, reached under the bed in his dormitory room and pulled out a large blue plastic tub. He pried open the lid to reveal its contents: a steering wheel, a set of pedals and a gearshift.
When the mood strikes him (and when his Internet connection is trusty), he hooks the instruments to his computer and simulates racing a stock car online. He is not the only college student with a cool video game. But he is not just playing the game. He is practicing.
Mattioli, the grandson of Joseph and Rose Mattioli, the founders of Pocono Raceway in Long Pond, Pa., is planning to drive in 20 races this year in the Automobile Racing Club of America series, which is to the Sprint Cup Series what Class AA baseball is to the major leagues.
Mattioli aspires to be a full-time driver at the top level of stock car racing, but he says he understands that Sprint Cup fields are limited to 43 drivers, so it would be a good idea to have a backup plan. So he is also working on acquiring a bachelor’s degree — in the middle of the Bronx, figuratively about as far from a racetrack as a guy can get.
“I don’t wear a Nascar jacket out,” he said. “I don’t want people to judge me about it before they know anything about me.”
He is sort of taking a back road to get to the top of his profession. According to Nascar, Ryan Newman, who majored in vehicle structural engineering at Purdue and won the 2008 Daytona 500, is the only full-time driver in the Sprint Cup Series with a bachelor’s degree.
Mattioli, who graduated from a Jesuit high school in Scranton, Pa., enrolled at Fordham because New York had so much to offer a youngster from the Poconos. He enjoys museums and restaurants. He likes poetry. He is playing intramural softball for the first time.
“I’ve never thrown a baseball in my whole life,” he said.
Along the way, he has made friends, like Alex Puccio, a sophomore pre-med student, who did not know much about racing. “I thought people just drove around in a circle, but there’s so much more to it,” Puccio said.
Mattioli’s next race is April 11 at Salem Speedway in Indiana. When the semester ends, Mattioli will be racing almost every weekend. July 31 should be an interesting day, because he plans to drive in an ARCA race and a truck race at Pocono, where it all started 15 years ago.
Like everyone else in the family, Mattioli learned about the racetrack from the bottom up. When he was 5, he asked his grandfather, a dentist better known as Doc, for a job at the track. Doc Mattioli said he could pick up cigarette butts under the bleachers.
“That was the Winston Cup days, and there were about two billion cigarette butts under there,” Chase said, laughing.
He started racing at 7 at a quarter-midget track just outside Turn 3 at Pocono. One ride led to another — Formula Fords, GT Mustangs, dirt modifieds. He raced regularly at South Boston Speedway in Virginia, which is owned by his family.
By 2008, his senior year at Scranton Prep, Mattioli was ready to move into full-bodied stock cars. The ARCA series is an asset for young drivers. Danica Patrick, the full-time Indy Car driver who is looking to break into stock car racing, drove in an ARCA race in February at Daytona International Speedway to get acclimated to stock cars. (She finished 6th; Mattioli was 28th.)
“As a father, I would not like to see him move up the ladder so quickly that he would not be ready,” said Joe Mattioli, Chase’s father, a racing executive.
Apparently, patience and persistence are family traits. Doc and Rose, a podiatrist who shared a first-floor office with her husband in northeast Philadelphia, built Pocono Raceway. It began hosting major races in 1971 as an Indy-car track but almost went bankrupt three times.
They considered selling the track in 1975, but Bill France, the founder of Nascar, talked them out of it. The track has hosted two top-level races per year since 1982, but it has been profitable only in recent years.
“That’s why I’d love to see him get his education,” Rose Mattioli said of Chase. “Racing is something he has his heart and soul set on, and he’s pretty good. I don’t know if he has the time to put it all together, but I think he has a good chance.”
Rose laughed when she said, “One day, he’s going to wind up being an attorney, and I know he’ll be good at that because he always argues with me.” But she knows becoming a lawyer would be his second or a third option.
Just in case, he pursues his degree. Chase’s father talks about how he will walk into his son’s trailer at the racetrack and find him studying. Puccio, Chase’s friend, says no one would ever know Mattioli was a stock car driver from the way he moves around campus.
“I know racing is his career,” Puccio said, “but he fits in. It’s not like he’s some Southerner on a northern campus.”
Mattioli considers himself fortunate; although Doc made him keep the racetrack tidy, there was enough spare time on race weekends to meet the drivers and ask them questions. Pocono provided him with a baseline, and he has taken advantage of it.
But he understands, with prodding from his grandmother, that connections will take him only so far. He needs to be a well-rounded, educated person — and not just because it would make him more marketable to sponsors someday.
“The opportunity to experience the city is almost as big as the city itself,” he said on a rainy day that was less suitable for a race than for a trip to the Museum of Modern Art. NY Times