Racing World Salutes Driver/Ambassador Andretti

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Wednesday, September 13 2017

Mario Andretti (RacinToday photos by Martha Fairris)

CORNING, N.Y. – Mario Andretti’s American dream-of-a-life inside and outside of racing was recognized and honored recently with presentation of the Cameron R. Argetsinger Award for Outstanding Contributions to Motorsports by the International Motor Racing Research Center.

International racing stars, captains of the motorsports industry, local dignitaries, race fans and media gathered to honor the man considered auto racing’s all-time ambassador during dinner ceremonies at the Corning Museum of Glass. The award memorializes Argetsinger, founder and organizer of the first street races in downtown Watkins Glen nearly 70 years ago.

Andretti became the fourth driver to receive the award’s glass trophy, joining previous honorees Chip Ganassi (2014), Richard Petty (2015) and Roger Penske (2016).

Andretti , 77, clearly was moved by the outpouring of respect, admiration and love from a sold-out audience that included a number of his open-wheel peers.

”This is the most amazing evening that I’ve ever spent,” said Andretti, named Driver of the Year in three decades (1960s-1980s). “To hear all these accolades from my competitors and so forth is something that’s just beyond my wildest imagination. It’s unbelievable. I just can’t soak it all in yet.

“Quite honestly, I’ve been so fortunate _ I never, ever have experienced anything like this _ ever! I could not have imagined an event like this. And I’m so grateful. I’ve gotten

The No. 5 John Player Special Lotus that Mario Andretti drove in Formula One.

so much out of the sport. All of it means I’ve lived the dream. I’m still living it.”

The award was presented by Bobby Rahal, IMRRC governing council chairman, and Peter Argetsinger, one of nine children of the late Cameron and Jean Argetsinger. Peter Argentsinger recalled his father’s vision in bringing an European-style street race to the small Finger Lakes community in 1948 _ and Andretti’s place in the history of the Watkins Glen International road-course that followed.

“Like everyone in this room, my father admired Mario Andretti,” Argetsinger said. “He told me at the very beginning it was he and my mother alone. But what really made the thing work was the community got behind it _ the community embraced the idea of a race at Watkins Glen and made it successful.  And later when he brought the (Formula One) United States Grand Prix here it was the same thing. He said, ‘You can’t do these things alone. It takes family, it takes a community.’ The grand prix drivers got behind the idea, then the team-owners got behind the idea, then the entire motor racing community got behind the idea of a grand prix race at Watkins Glen and it was a big success.

“So it’s great honor to not only present this award on behalf of my family but on behalf of the entire motor racing fraternity. It’s most fitting that all of us should give this award of excellence to the ultimate racer, Mario Andretti.”

Rahal competed against Andretti during their Championship Auto Racing Teams careers, with each winning one Indianapolis 500. Andretti won his in 1969 for colorful car-owner Andy Granatelli; Rahal won in 1986 for team-owner Jim Trueman. Both have been followed into the open-wheel ranks by sons, and in Mario’s case, grandson Marco Andretti.

“I’m a fan and I’m a student of the sport,” Rahal said in his opening remarks. “What I’m most proud of is that in 19 years we (the IMRRC) really have become one of the world’s leaders in the archival collection of all aspects of the sport. We’re so appreciative of the support we’ve received over the years.

“Mario was described as the Driver of the Century. For me personally, I first saw Mario as a teenager at Sebring (Fla). I read about him, never thought I’d have the opportunity to race against him and that did happen. I have to tell you, I always looked at Mario as the yardstick…and I didn’t feel that way about anybody else. Mario was the man. Aside from being a great driver Mario has been the greatest ambassador for the sport we love.”

Ganassi was present with members of his Verizon IndyCar Series team, while past award recipients Penske and Petty congratulated Andretti via big screen video messages.

”My great friend, Mario Andretti, is a person who deserves the Cameron Argetsinger Award as someone who has put so much into racing as a great athlete and race driver,” said Penske, the most successful team-owner in domestic open-wheel history. “Mario and I go back many years; Mario’s a winner. He’s got high integrity and he’s done so much for this sport _ winning in sports cars, winning the Indy 500, winning at Daytona _ his record is just outstanding.  To me, the Andretti name will always be in the halls of fame anywhere around the world when you think about Formula One, when you think about Indianapolis.

“Again, I want to congratulate him. Certainly Cameron Argetsinger would be very proud tonight to know that Mario is receiving this wonderful award. Again Mario, you’re a great friend and a true leader.”

Ganassi recalled being an 11-year-old who asked Andretti for his autograph during lunch at the Glen Motor Inn in Watkins Glen. Eventually, their careers would intertwine.

“When I made it and was a rookie at Indianapolis in 1982, I drove Mario’s 1981 car,” said Ganassi, now a rival to team-owner Michael Andretti, Mario’s eldest son, in INDYCAR. ”He took me under his wing. And I think his mentorship in all facets of the sport _ on the track and off the track, what drivers were doing at the time _ I can honestly say, Mario, that any success I’ve ever attained in this sport you can draw a direct line straight back to your mentorship. And as I’ve told you many times, I thank you for that. He is simply the greatest of all time.”

Master of ceremonies Dr. Jerry Punch interviewed retired IndyCar star Dario Franchitti, a four-time Verizon IndyCar Series champion and three-time Indy 500 winner, and four-time Indy 500 winner Rick Mears in the audience.

“I was almost called Mario,” said Franchitti, re-telling the compromise reached between his Scottish parents on his first name. Franchitti also recalled being a 5-year-old, dreaming of some day meeting Andretti. It happened 19 years later at a racetrack.

“I was so flummoxed, afterwards I pretty much crashed,” Franchitti said. “You’re my hero. It’s fabulous to have you as a friend. That passion you have for driving a racing car, you still have that glint in your eye when you’re driving that (INDYCAR) two-seater. That passion is there…and I think it’s what makes you so special. You’re just the greatest and thank you for everything you do for this sport.”

Mears noted his big career break with car-owner Penske occurred while Mario was chasing the F1 World Driving Championship in 1978.

“I owe Mario a lot,” said Mears, who Penske discovered off-road racing in and around Bakersfield, Calif. “When Mario was going for the World Championship with (Team) Lotus he was going to miss some (Indy car) races and Roger needed a part-time driver, and that’s how I got the opportunity. To have that opportunity and then to be teammates with Mario after that…Mario was a great teammate. He was always wide-open with me, any question I had or any help I needed he was more than happy to help me out. Thank you for all that and huge congrats.”

Mears added an Andretti anecdote that drew the evening’s loudest and longest laughs and applause. “I was on my way to Nazareth (Pa.) to test one day and I’m late as usual,” Mears said.”So I’m running down the freeway quick as I can go, and coming around the last bend before we turn off to go to the racetrack, there’s an officer sitting there with a radar gun. He had me cold, so I just pulled over.

“And he said, ‘Let me see your license.’ I give him my license and he looks at my license…and he looks at me…and he looks at my license…and he’s already starting to write…and he looks at me and says, ‘All right! I just got Mario last week.’ And he kept writing. So you owe me a ticket.”

Among the salutes were videos from Dan Gurney, Edsel Ford III, Scott Pruett, Linda Vaughn, Don “The Snake” Prudhomme, Graham Rahal, James Hinchcliffe, Alexander Rossi and Bobby Unser.

A question and answer session between Andretti and Punch followed the award presentation. Punch reminded the audience that Andretti was born in 1940, just as World War II was disrupting life in Europe. Andretti’s family spent time in a refugee camp before emigrating to the United States in 1955.

Andretti said he thought his childhood plan to race motorcycles ended with that move to Pennsylvania. His family, in fact, did not own an automobile until they settled in Nazareth. Fittingly, in 1959, 19-year-old Mario and twin brother, Aldo, discovered a nearby track where they raced stock cars.

“But I feel in love with the sport in Italy in the 1950s,” Mario said. “I used to go to the movies for the news reels and they would show motor racing all over the world. It just captured my imagination. I just wanted to drive and drive and drive.” Andretti quickly moved from stock cars to open-wheel Sprint Cars, a class that during that era regularly was populated by current and aspiring Indianapolis 500 drivers.

Andretti won the Indy car National Championship four times and was a three-time winner on Sebring International’s rough airport road-course. Mario was named Driver of the Quarter Century in the late 1990s, and The Associated Press selected him as Driver of the Century in January 2000.

“Coming through the ranks, the objective is to be at the top level and that was Indy car racing,” Andretti said. “You usually had to wait for somebody to get hurt. Roger (Penske) was a very prominent driver at the time and he was in line to get a test in the Clint Brawner car when Chuck Hulse got hurt. Roger couldn’t make it _ I think Roger got a big bellyache _ so they called me…and the Firestone engineers seemed to like that I was fresh, I was not set in my ways. So somehow that got me into the circle of one test to another. I wanted to be at all the tests because I knew how valuable it was.”

Andretti was prominently involved in the start-up Ford GT program for the 24 Hours of Le Mans when he approached F1 team-owner Colin Chapman after the Indy 500 in May 1965. “I was trying to befriend Colin Chapman and Jim Clark after he won the race,” Andretti said. “After the banquet before they left I went to Colin and said, ‘You know Colin, some day I want to be in Formula One.’^” Andretti said the Englishman told him that when he figured he was ready for F1, to give him a call.

Andretti’s F1 debut in Formula One occurred at Watkins Glen _ on-pole for the 1968 U.S. Grand Prix. “I had never seen the place and we put the thing on-pole,” Andretti said.”I felt so good in the car. It was an amazing day for me.” Ten years later, Mario was on-pole again as F1 World Champion for Chapman’s storied team. Andretti and the late Phil Hill remain the only Americans to have won the F1 title.

Mario’s resume around The Glen’s 3.37-mile/11-turn “long course” has covered a variety of series. “When I look back, there’s no other venue that I raced so many disciplines _ I raced Formula One, I raced Indy cars, Can-Am, prototypes, pretty much everything that they raced here,” Andretti said. “And I’m leading every race here, on-pole. There is no other track like it.”

WGI President Michael Printup said Andretti’s all-time stats include 68 wins, 583 races and 51,067 laps completed, not counting practice laps. “You’ve been my hero since I’ve been a little kid,” Printup said. “And who didn’t hear when they started driving…’Don’t think you’re Mario Andretti.’ I know I heard it. All your stats, all your accolades, it’s an honor working at Watkins Glen International, knowing you raced here. There is instant respect and adoration for this man sitting here.

“He is a racer, a champion, a family man and a father. You’d be hard-pressed to find a better person in motorsports than Mario.”

Andretti posted victories in virtually every level of motorsport during a career that spanned five decades (1950s-1990s). He remains the only driver in history to win the Formula One World Championship, the Indianapolis 500 and the Daytona 500.

“Think about Mario and he’s got this one quote…’If everything seems like it’s under control, you’re just not going fast enough,’^” said Joie Chitwood, executive vice president and chief operating officer of International Speedway Corp. “How appropriate is that quote?

“When you think about sports there are records and there are things in sports that are truly unbreakable. I will tell you there is something Mario has done that there is no way anyone will ever replicate. To think that he won an Indy 500, a Daytona 500 and a Formula One world championship _ there is no way anyone on this planet, or any other planet, will ever do that. That’s excellence. It’s not just excellence, it’s perfection.“

Dr. Punch asked Mario if A.J. Foyt Jr. _ Indy car’s all-time winner with 67 victories and first four-time Indy 500 champion _ was his biggest, most bitter rival. “For sure he was one because he was very boisterous, he would really express himself,” Andretti said. “A.J. has mellowed considerably. Matter of fact, I’m lobbying him like crazy to ride in the two-seater, maybe next year at Indy. I’ve told him, ‘A.J. you’re the master, I’m the pupil. See just how much you’ve taught me.’^”

Asked how he would like to be remembered, many years from now, Andretti said:  “I’m just a racer.”

On display were two cars from Andretti’s history _ the white 1964 Kuzma Watson Indy Roadster he drove in the mid-1960s, now owned by Lawrence Auriana; and the black John Player Special Lotus 79/1, team car to the Lotus 79 Andretti drove to his F1 World Championship in 1978, now owned by Paul Rego of Regogo Racing. Also on display was the IndyCar two-seater Andretti now pilots for fans at Verizon IndyCar Series events, courtesy of American Honda.

An original painting by artist Randy Owens, depicting some iconic cars Andretti drove, was auctioned at the end of the evening, which concluded with a champagne toast and several standing ovations.

Andretti has supported the work of the Racing Research Center since its opening in 1999. He serves on the Center’s Drivers Council and twice has been chairman of the annual membership campaign. “The Racing Research Center is doing valuable work, taking care of the history of racing,” Andretti said. “The collections are a great source of information and they’re always expanding. This success shows that we in racing understand how important the work is, and I’m proud to have been involved with the Center from the beginning.”

The Racing Research Center, located in downtown Watkins Glen, N.Y., is an archival library dedicated to the preservation and sharing of the history of motorsports, all series and all venues, through its collections of books, periodicals, films, photographs, fine art and other materials. The IMRRC is a 501 (c)(3) charitable organization.

The evening was supported by NASCAR, the International Speedway Corp., Watkins Glen International, IMSA, Sahlen’s, Corning Inc., Bosch, Firestone and IMRRC Governing Council members Larry Kessler, Bob Newman and Archie Urciuoli. Other event supporters were Honda, Chip Ganassi Racing, Team Penske, Sports Car Club of America, Smithfield Foods, AmeriCarna, Stone Bridge Gallery, Williams Auto Group, the Hilliard Corp., Elmira Savings Bank, Welliver, Corning Automotive Glass Solutions, Lotus WNY, Regogo Racing and Glenora Wine Cellars.

For more information about the Center’s work and its programs,visit www.racingarchives.org or call 607-535-9044. The Center also is on Facebook and Twitter.

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Wednesday, September 13 2017
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