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Andretti Takes American Dream, The 500 On Tour

John Sturbin | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Wednesday, January 5 2011

Mario Andretti, with stopwatch in hand and son Michael at his side, at an American race track. (File photos courtesy of the IZOD IndyCar Series)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

His name is synonymous with speed…the way LeBron James’ is with basketball, Oprah Winfrey’s is with entertainment and Dick Clark’s is with another rockin’ New Year’s Eve.

Mario Andretti’s list of official accolades may have peaked in 2000, when The Associated Press anointed him Driver of the Century. But Mario’s legacy extends far beyond the record books of various motor racing series.

“Well, I can tell you, I’m a perfect example of living ‘The American Dream’ because I’m an immigrant,” Andretti said during a recent interview. “I was able to realize, again, what I was still dreaming about when I left Italy.”

The only driver to win the Daytona 500 (1967), the Indianapolis 500 (1969) and the Formula One World Driving Championship (1978), Andretti has wrapped himself in the American flag since emigrating with his family in 1955. And in keeping with that, he was quick to accept an invitation to join a group of past, present and future Indianapolis 500 drivers who will visit Europe and the Middle East later this month as part of the Indianapolis 500 Centennial Tour.

Coordinated by the Morale Entertainment Foundation, the tour will see Indianapolis 500 veteran drivers and those with ties to “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” and the IZOD IndyCar

Mario Andretti going on tour.

Series visit American military personnel on active duty. Other confirmed participants are three-time Indy 500 champion Johnny Rutherford, two-time Indy 500 winner Al Unser Jr., second generation star Graham Rahal, Indy 500 veterans Davey Hamilton and Larry Foyt and Firestone Indy Lights regular Martin Plowman.

Jack Arute, longtime IndyCar television announcer, and Terry Angstadt, IndyCar president, Commercial Division, also are scheduled to make the trip. Arute will serve as moderator and lead panel discussions at all stops on a junket scheduled to leave Indianapolis on Jan. 12. The group will meet with approximately 10,000 troops and cover 15,000 flight miles during its 10-day trek.

“I’m quite happy that I was invited to this tour,” said Andretti, 70. “The invitation came while I was visiting the last race at Homestead. I happened to be taking a general from the National Guard for a ride in the two-seater car. He mentioned something about it.  The fact they said, ‘Well, maybe we’ll have the two-seater car shipped over there, and you can give some rides there.’ I said, ‘You know what, this sounds good, sounds like an incredibly good idea.’

“I’ve had the opportunity to visit bases around the world before, and I always welcome that opportunity. These young individuals that obviously are out there and serving our country and sacrificing in many different ways… if we can bring a smile to their faces for whatever reason, I think it’s a great feeling. I’m sure we have a lot of race fans in the military and we’ll see what kind of response we get.”

Certainly, the story of Mario and twin brother Aldo is familiar to racing fans of all generations. In 1948, the family of Luigi and Rina Andretti left Montona, Italy, during the post-World War II Istrian exodus, relocating to a refugee camp in Lucca, Italy. They emigrated to the USA in 1955, settling in Nazareth, Pa., with $125 and a surname that was destined to become iconic.

“I arrived in the States, and motor racing was the only thing in my mind – besides school, of course – at the age of 15,” said Andretti, who became a naturalized American in 1964. “I started driving here at 19. I would have never had the opportunity if I would have stayed in Italy, for instance. So I did fully realize it because of what this country can provide for you.

“If you work hard enough, if you really believe in yourself, those opportunities are out there. And I don’t think in any way ‘The American Dream’ is dying. Of course, it all depends which side of the aisle you sit on. At the same time, I don’t think we can give up on that in any way. I think that’s something that we need to keep fighting for because that’s made America the greatest country in the world. We can’t give that up. If we do, it’s shame on us.”

Mario’s tenure at Indianapolis Motor Speedway largely is framed by his victory in 1969 and the

Mario Andretti in the No. 1 car prior to the start of the 1970 Indianapolis 500.

controversial finish to the 1981 race. Overall, he competed in 29 Indy 500s, topped by his victory for car-owner Andy Granatelli in ‘69. Since then, the litany of incidents and near-misses encountered by Mario, son Michael and more recently grandson Marco have come to be known as the “Andretti Curse.”

Topping Mario’s list was the 1981 Indy 500, initially won by Bobby Unser. But the following morning, the sanctioning U.S. Auto Club announced that Unser had been penalized one lap for passing cars under a caution flag while exiting the pits. Andretti was declared the winner and participated in the traditional photo shoot at the start/finish line “Yard of Bricks” along with the Borg-Warner Trophy. However, Unser and car-owner Roger Penske appealed that ruling, with USAC overturning the decision four months later.

“When I look back at my stint at Indy, which goes from 1965 through 1994, in general a lot of people say, ‘Well, you know –The Curse – all that sort of thing,” said Andretti, first recipient of the Driver of the Year award in 1967 and a repeat honoree in 1978 and 1984. “But when I look at my record, even though I didn’t finish as many races as I would have liked to, I led more races than some of the four-time winners, most of them, all but one.

“The point I’m making is I had great experiences there. My memories about me driving at Indy are just totally positive. Again, yeah, you could talk about 1981, that being somewhat of a negative. It was in a sense because of the way it was handled. All in all, even though I finished second, I came in from I think starting last. So that in itself was a great day.”

That story is sure to be recounted during the trip celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Indy 500. The tour is being coordinated through Armed Forces Entertainment, a Department of Defense agency, and the Morale Entertainment Foundation. MEF is a non-profit organization made up of volunteers.

“We take great Americans to visit U.S. bases overseas. We help inspire our troops. We bring a

Mario Andretti and his son Michael, right, chat with Al Unser Jr. and Al Unser Sr. at Indy.

piece of America to the troops and boost their morale,” said Tom Lee, one of MEF’s founding partners. “Let’s not forget that the Indy 500 is run on Memorial Day, which also honors the troops each year. The Indy 500 is viewed by the military around the world. So this plays in beautifully to that. The drivers will meet nearly one-on-one with over 10,000 troops in Europe and southwest Asia.”

The tour is scheduled to start at Landstuhl Medical Center, in Rahmstein, Germany, where wounded warriors from Iraq and Afghanistan are taken mostly within 24 hours of being injured. It is expected that the group also will tour U.S. installations in Turkey, Spain, Qatar, Iraq, North Africa and the United Arab Emirates, and likely visit a deployed U.S. aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf or North Arabian Sea.

Lee noted the majority of troops in those locales are men and women between 18 and 24-years-old.  “I can share with you we had a concern about connecting with them on one of our recent tours,” said Lee, discussing demographics. “We took several of the great Apollo astronauts –Neil Armstrong, Jim Lovell and Gene Cernan – this was called Legends of Aerospace. We were concerned if these 20-year-old kids would connect with these historic figures that we read about in school.

“I have to tell you, it was absolutely amazing. They were rock stars out there. I guarantee you, when Mario, some of these other great drivers, some of the current drivers are out there as well, they’re going to connect. The opportunity that these young people would never have to meet these people…that will happen over and over again on this tour and we’re going to create fans for life in the military.”

Along those lines, Andretti recalled meeting one of his heroes, open-wheel star Eddie Sachs,

Michael and Mario Andretti.

as a youngster in Trenton, N.J., and how it affected him as a fan.

“I was shaking in my boots,” Andretti said. “He actually talked to me. I asked him a question about how he enjoyed the race in Monza, in Italy, when they went there to run on the high banks. He actually answered it to me. I know how those things work. There could be a day that would impress somebody, and that person could become a fan for life. Those are all the things that are important to remember also to create the fan base.”

Andretti said the fact he was born in 1940 overseas, during a war, has afforded him a different perspective on what it means to be an American. “I think so,” Andretti said. “If I would have been born here, obviously there are a lot of things that I would have taken for granted, which is natural.

“So having been displaced from my native land, even though at a young age, but old enough to certainly be aware of what’s going on…seeing my parents, my dad (a farm administrator), giving up everything he worked for all his life through no fault of his own, but looking and being concerned about the future of us, my twin brother Aldo, my sister Anna Maria. That’s why at this stage of his life he made the decision to come to America, all of that.

“Then again, coming over, realizing what America could provide as far as opportunities for us gives us a clear appreciation of what’s here. I think maybe I have different values. It gives me just a different viewpoint, for sure.”

– John Sturbin can be reached at jsturbin@racintoday.com

John Sturbin | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Wednesday, January 5 2011
One Comment

One Comment »

  • Terry says:

    Thank you John for TERRIFIC read……..
    This is why I love the off season….you get the best stuff then.
    We see so many of the open wheelers struggling today in NASCAR.
    Only SMOKE has made a fast transition.
    BACK IN THE DAY……
    I know you hate to here us geezers who start this way….
    Mario and AJ….and
    Dan Gurney..( who NEVER LOST a stock car race w/Wood Bros.)
    Made the adjustment with little trouble as I remember.
    I WISH I could have seen JIM CLARK in a big ole FORD out there just once. Man he could make one those English FORD CORTINA’S dance…
    Mario and every one of the drivers from AMERICA owe a little gratitude to the first man to go over and break the ice in F1.
    Masten Gregory..the KANSAS CITY FLASH….was the first American to take a podium finsh at a Grand Prix and won a Lemans 24 hour.
    Jim Pedley is going to a piece on him soon.
    Again…GOOD JOB…John!!!!