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Pocono, Dover among the last of the independents -- for now

The Monster Mile at Dover -- a super-fast concrete oval -- is a favorite among drivers and fans. AP Photo/Chris Gardner

LONG POND, Pa. -- Deep in these honeymoon mountains of Monroe County, amid tall hardwood trees, scenic lakes and waterfalls, is a 2.5-mile triangle of concrete known as Pocono Raceway.

By the time Sunday's Sprint Cup race is complete, it will have been a part of the landscape for 35 years. The track is so dear to owner Dr. Joe Mattioli and his wife, Rose, that they put it in a trust to keep it with their three children and seven grandchildren for decades to come.

It is one of only three tracks among the 22 that host Cup races not owned by Speedway Motorsports Inc. or International Speedway Corp. Dover and Indianapolis, which usually isn't considered on that list because of its ownership and history, are the other two.

If SMI chairman Bruton Smith has his way, Pocono or Dover soon will fall prey to consolidation. Smith recently purchased Kentucky Speedway with the intent of buying another track with two Cup dates so he could put a race there and a second race at Las Vegas.

Mattioli has resisted several offers to sell his property -- the same property that's been on the verge of bankruptcy twice and recently called "outdated" by four-time Sprint Cup champion Jeff Gordon. Mattioli insists it's not for sale to Smith.

But there are those who believe that could change, insisting the days of the independent track owner have passed. Mario D. Cibelli, whose company Marathon Partners L.P. is the largest outside shareholder of Dover Motorsports, said just that in a recent letter urging the board to sell.

"Both ISC and SMI can operate the Monster Mile more profitably than Dover Motorsports will ever be able to," he wrote.

NASCAR isn't concerned with the monopoly that SMI and ISC have created. The governing body's only concern is that the tracks are up to standards for competition and the fan experience.

"Other than that, ownership of the track is irrelevant to the decision-making process," NASCAR spokesman Ramsey Poston said.

Some believe SMI and ISC have been good for the sport, bringing tracks up to standard faster than an independent owner possibly could because of the larger shareholders' strong financial backings. Others say they have been bad for the sport, taking the focus off the racing and putting it on corporate affairs.

The corporate involvement also has resulted in the closing of several tracks such as North Wilkesboro and North Carolina Speedway in Rockingham.

"That costs us fans because the fans really care more about what's going on with Kyle Busch and Dale Earnhardt Jr. than they do whatever Bruton Smith's latest headline is," said Dennis McGlynn, the president and chairman of Dover International Raceway. "We're losing focus on our business.

"The good part is the competitive nature of the public companies has been such that all of the facilities are better now than they were in the day, ours included."

In the beginning
When Larry Carrier sold Bristol Motor Speedway to Smith for $26 million in 1996, the facility had 71,000 seats and was lacking in amenities. By 1997 it had grown to 118,000 seats and 22 skyboxes to make it the largest sports arena in Tennessee.

Today it has more than 160,000 seats and 100 skyboxes and is considered one of the crown jewels of the sport.

The corporate involvement has helped drive up the cost of other tracks to the point that SMI earlier this year paid $340 million in cash for New Hampshire International Speedway and its two Cup weekends.

"I started the consolidation with buying Bristol and [Infineon]," Smith said. "ISC kind of jumped in there because I went past them [in number of tracks] and became concerned.

"I was just doing it because I like to grow a business. That's all. There was no idea of getting an upper hand. I am pro-NASCAR all the way."

Bristol is one example of several tracks that have prospered since being swept up by SMI or ISC. Those companies also have built big facilities in new markets such as Chicago, Texas, Las Vegas and Kansas City.

But for every success story there also is a sad one. Bob Bahre, the former owner of New Hampshire, and Smith purchased North Wilkesboro Speedway in 1996 and promptly closed the doors to give the Cup dates to New Hampshire and Texas.

In 1999, Penske Motorsports sold North Carolina Speedway to ISC. One of its two dates was given to California in 2003 and the other to Texas in 2004 to help settle the Ferko lawsuit involving NASCAR, ISC and shareholders of Speedway Motorsports.

Darlington Raceway, the oldest superspeedway, wasn't sold, but in 2003 ISC gave the traditional Labor Day Southern 500 date to California. Two years later, the Southern 500 was eliminated altogether.

"It's very tough on communities," said Darlington Raceway president Chris Browning, who was the president of North Carolina Speedway before and after it was sold to ISC. "It's very difficult to lose races. These events are huge economic engines for areas."

Browning believes there remains a place for the independent track owners but acknowledged there are advantages to being owned by the larger companies.

"There are a lot more assets available to you, a lot more support and a lot of benefits, especially from the legal standpoint, from risk management," he said. "When you work for a larger company like ISC, they've got a lot of depth and experience that you can tap into."

Advantages also exist from a marketing side. ISC and SMI can offer companies multitrack deals that independent tracks can't.

"It's much easier in many ways," Smith said. "No. 1, you have the financial power to do something. I wrote a check for $500,000 [last month] for more safe walls at Las Vegas. Some speedways go, 'Oh, we can't do that right now.'

"We also can cut costs in many ways where an independent operator can't do it. There's a lot of things we can do that they just can't touch."

Old vs. new
McGlynn misses the days when most of the tracks were owned independently and owners frequently called one another to trade stories and ideas.

"We sort of learned from each other what the best practices were and how to improve our operations," he said. "[Consolidation] has sort of changed the chemistry of the fraternity. A lot of that cross communication doesn't happen anymore.

"More than anything, I miss the dialogue and relationships and friendships and ability to learn from one another."

McGlynn doesn't know how Smith will solve his problem at Kentucky and Las Vegas. Any sale of Dover would have to be approved by the board, and as far as he or executive vice president Mike Tatoian knows, no major discussions with SMI have been held.

Both ISC and SMI can operate the Monster Mile more profitably than Dover Motorsports will ever be able to.

-- Mario D. Cibelli

But McGlynn does believe it is possible for an independent track to survive, reminding that Dover has prospered despite large financial losses by the company's non-Cup tracks in Memphis, Nashville and St. Louis.

"Our model hasn't changed," he said. "We've sort of kept our eye on our own ball here and gone about executing our game plan. We really don't pay much attention to the other guys and what they're trying to do to grab headlines.

"We've got good business here. We've done some acquisitions ourselves with the three tracks we have outside the state. We still run a successful company here."

Dover likely would be at the bottom of NASCAR's list of tracks it would like to close. Its 1-mile, concrete surface makes it unique in a circuit filled with 1.5-mile blacktop tracks, and its location is in a strong market.

Pocono, despite being close to New York City and Philadelphia, likely would be missed by fewer people.

Gordon and Earnhardt, two of the biggest voices in the sport, were critical of the Long Pond track last week at Dover.

"It needs a ton of upgrades," Gordon said. "I think that the fact that it's in the Northeast is a positive thing, but I'm shocked that they've had two races as long as they have. I'll be surprised if that stays that way for the future, just because of the way this sport's grown and the markets that we need to be in, the type of races that we put on at our miles, 1.5-mile and three-quarter-mile tracks.

"I'm as curious as anybody else is to see the future of that track. Obviously, there's a lot going on right now with Kentucky and New Hampshire and with Bruton. I'm as anxious to see how it all unfolds as anybody else. When they create this schedule, that's where we'll go."

Smith hopes Gordon will go to Kentucky once and Las Vegas twice by 2010.

"He has like 2,000 acres or so, right?" Smith said of Mattioli. "I could buy that thing, and if he's in love with the acreage we might somewhere down the road give the acreage back to them."

Whether it's a smokescreen to drive up the price or not, Mattioli insists his track is not for sale. He reminds he owes no money. To those who remind he has no naming rights for his Cup races, he says there was a conscious decision to end those 10 years ago.

And as far as Gordon saying the facility is outdated, he strongly disagrees.

"In 1990, I looked at our track and realized we made a lot of mistakes," he said. "What did I do? I tore every damn thing down. Our track is really the newest tack on the circuit except for Kansas and Chicago. I spent $3 million a year, paid cash, didn't owe any money.

"Our track will stand up to any track, whether it's SMI or ISC. I will put everything I have on it. Our garage area, our media center, everything we have."

As for whether it's good or bad for NASCAR that SMI and ISC have driven the independent Cup track owner out of business, Mattioli doesn't have a problem with it.

"Hey, if anybody can get bigger, that's a natural thing," he said. "On the other hand, don't find fault with the little guy that wants to be by himself. We do our own thing. We're happy with the money we've made, and we've made a helluva lot of money.

"If we can do it as a single company, we're going to do it."

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.