Monday, September 7, 2009

The King of Speed

The year was 1969. Richard Nixon was president, the Beatles were at the top of the charts with "Abbey Road," we put a man on the moon, and Mario Andretti was the king of speed. For those to young to remember, America was obsessed with speed and power. It was they heyday of Detroit muscle cars, and every young man dreamed of owning and driving a Chevrolet Corvette, Camaro, a Ford Mustang, a Pontiac GTO, or a Dodge Charger, among other American made cars. And in much of the world, the race that epitomized speed was the Indianapolis 500. It was a much different time then, there was no Internet, there were only three commercial television stations, and our nation's collective attention was even more focused on major sporting events than it is now. With respect to popularity, the Indianapolis 500 was the Superbowl of it's time, everyone watched on television or listened to it on the radio. And Mario Andretti was a superstar. He remains the only driver to have won the Indy 500, the Daytona 500, and the Formula One World Championship.

I was fifteen in 1969, and among my idols were John Wayne, Neil Armstrong, Bart Starr and the rest of the Green Bay Packers, and Mario Andretti. So, you can imagine what went through my mind when I had the opportunity to interview Mario Andretti when he was in Knoxville recently. Andretti was in town to help unveil a tribute sprint car in celebration of his 1969 Indy car--a sprint car that Donny Schatz eventually drove to his fourth straight victory in this year's Nationals race. My youthful fascination with Andretti was gone, but I was still intrigued by the possibility of interviewing one of the greatest drivers and athletes of all time. For a few hours after the invitation to interview him, my mind kept journeying back those 40 years, remembering what those times were like, and how much life has changed.

I arrived at the Sprint Car Hall of Fame and Museum for the interview about a half an hour early, and watched the fans line up for a glimpse of Andretti, hoping for a word or two, a handshake, or an autograph. He arrived, spent some time speaking with fans and the media before the tribute car was to be unveiled. The interview went well, and we spent a considerable portion of it talking about his youth in war-torn Europe. Andretti was born in 1940 in Italy as the war began, and he spent much of his youth in refugee camps. He became a U S citizen as an adult. It is a compelling personal story, and I remember that his immigrant's success story was part of the reason that he drew so much of our attention during his prime racing years.

I was leaning on the rail of the staircase to the second floor of the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame and Museum when the tribute car was unveiled. I was part of a crush of media and fans that filled the lobby and staircase of the museum trying to get a glimpse of what was happening. Andretti was joined by the great drivers Donny Schatz and Tony Stewart for the unveiling, and all three made brief statements to the assembled crowd. When the car was unveiled, I watched all three drivers mill around the car, talking about it, touching it appreciatively, as media flash bulbs lit the room, and a crowd pushed their noses at the glass windows of the museum trying to get a glimpse of what was happening inside.

While Stewart and Schatz were clearly appreciative of the car, Andretti was different. He couldn't take his eyes off of it. He circled it with fascination, an admiring smile on his face. He touched it tenderly, respectfully, his gaze on it as if he were admiring a great work of art, or a beautiful woman. The other drivers walked away from the car to take seats to address questions from the media while Andretti lingered a few more moments, his mind in a whole different world than the rest of us.

Dr. Bob Leonard

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