Happy Birthday, Mario Andretti

By Frank Santoroski, Contributing Writer

If there is anything that has been a constant in my 40-plus years of enjoying motorsports, it is Mario Andretti.

When I first started paying attention to racing as a boy, Mario Andretti was there.  He was driving a beautiful black and gold Lotus in Formula One, and he was winning races.  A year later, he took the Championship.

When I first started paying attention the the newly-formed CART Series, Mario Andretti was there. I was thrilled when he was named the winner of the 1981 Indianapolis 500.  While this was eventually taken away, the fact that Mario continued in the series piqued my interest.

When I volunteered with the SCCA, helping lay speaker wire before the 1980 June Sprints at Pocono, Mario Andretti was there. His son, Michael, was entered in the Formula Ford race. Over the years, Michael would become one of my all-time racing heroes.

When I attended my first Indy 500 in 1994, Mario Andretti was there.  It was Mario’s final 500, which is why I took a road trip from my home in Virginia and paid three times face value for tickets to ensure I was there.

When I began covering the CART Series in the late 1990s, Mario Andretti was there. He had retired from competitive driving, but he was there, decked out in Texaco swag, ever-present in the Newman-Haas pits.

When I get to the track today, and unload my gear, Mario Andretti is still there: the one constant in racing for years.

Always smiling, always approachable, always Mario.

It’s hard to put into words exactly what Mario Andretti means to me, and to the entire racing community.

Certainly, I could list his racing accomplishments, but we all know them. The impact he has made in the racing community is far beyond his incredible racing resume.

Andretti’s racing career spanned five decades, and he lived through one of the most deadly eras in Formula One, soldiering on as he fought through the pain of losing friends and teammates.

He is a true living legend. When a Police officer pulls over a speeder, the phrase, “Who do you think you are, Mario Andretti?” is still spoken to this day.

Like some of his contemporaries, including Richard Petty or A.J. Foyt, Mario Andretti’s name has become synonymous with racing.

But, as a man, this is where I have the utmost respect for Mario Andretti.

Andretti came from humble beginnings, being born in war-torn Europe. His racing achievements, business interests, and sponsor endorsements have made him a wealthy man.

But, he has never forgotten where he came from, and he puts a premium on family. He married his sweetheart, Dee Ann 55 years ago, and the two of them have built a strong family unit.

The Andretti family has maintained their residence in the rather small community of Nazareth, PA, far from the jet-setters of the world.

Sure, Mario enjoys some of the finer things in life like exotic cars, fine wine, or a Christmas Ham delivered to his home directly from Italian meat importers Citterio. He’s earned that, but he never seems to flaunt it.

He could, if he saw fit, surround himself with security. He could stay off of the busy pit lane, and enjoy the serenity of a private suite. He could shy away from fans and just enjoy his golden years.

But he doesn’t. The love of the sport that he first experienced watching his hero, Alberto Ascari, as a teenager still burns today.

You will find Mario Andretti in the thick of the action, following his grandson Marco on the pit wall. You will find Mario shaking hands and posing for pictures with fans. You will find Mario speaking to the media, not holding back with his thoughts. You will find Mario giving so much back to a sport that has given so much to him.

Always smiling, always approachable, always Mario.

Happy Birthday Mario Andretti, 76 years young today.

 

Image: Frank Santoroski/Tribute Racing

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A life-long racing enthusiast, Santoroski attended his first live race in 1978, the Formula One Grand Prix of the United States at Watkins Glen. Following graduation from Averett College, Santoroski covered the CART series through the 1990s and 2000s for CART Pages and Race Family Motorsports in addition to freelance writing for various print and web sources. He produces a variety of current and historical content for Motorsports Tribune and serves as the host for the weekly radio broadcast,Drafting the Circuits,

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