There are few first names in racing history that stir the soul solely on their own.
The mere mention of their names ignite a passion, an overflow of memories, a reverence for his or her accomplishments and a follow-up line that is something to do the tune of “wow, was it an honor to watch them race.”
To name four off hand, you could just say Mario, A.J., Dale or Ayrton, and leave it at that. Their last names aren’t required.
In Mario Andretti’s case, today is a day to pay tribute as he turns 75, a little more than a month after his longtime rival A.J. Foyt turned 80.
Andretti is still one of the most recognizable names whenever the conversation involves racing. His views now are as insightful and informative as they were 50 years ago. His accomplishments stand alone as the era of racing we see today doesn’t allow for the same level of crossover as he was able to accomplish.
Throughout it all, he remains oh so cool, and oh so down to earth.
You can rattle off the accomplishments as you want, and so you do almost effortlessly.
Andretti’s wins span from the 1967 Daytona 500 to the 1969 Indianapolis 500, and the 1978 World Championship always stands out, as he is the second and most recent American to have achieved that honor.
There’s the 52 wins in North American open-wheel racing between ovals, road courses, pavement and dirt. There’s the three USAC and 1984 CART championships.
There’s the fact that his last win in CART, in 1993, came when he was 53 years old and still at the top of his game.
The lone race that eluded him was the 24 Hours of Le Mans, a race Foyt conquered in 1967. But that’s hardly a blot of his copybook.
For me as a younger reporter, the mere mention of Andretti’s name still stirs the soul, and his presence still makes him one of the most iconic people in the paddock.
When you work with drivers and teams as you’re gathering information, you’re rarely awestruck. They’re doing their jobs, you’re finding out how they’re doing it and you go back to the press room and start working up the story on how they’re doing what they’re doing.
But when you see Mario, still, you almost have to stop for a second, take it all in and have a moment to appreciate the accomplishments and the man at that moment.
I’m pushing 100 races covered on site in my career over the last decade or so, but every time I see Andretti at a track I stop and pause from whatever it is I’m doing and just watch. And learn.
Ever the gentleman, Andretti is always stopping to sign autographs, take pictures, spend a second or two talking to whoever it is that is speaking to him, and does so effortlessly. He continues to amaze.
Selfishly, I’d love to see him, Michael and Marco share a sports car for one last 24-hour race, but I’m not sure that will happen.
Nonetheless, today and every day, he remains one of the all-time greats.
We wish him a happy 75th birthday this Saturday.