Mario Andretti Talks IndyCar Racing

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Mario Andretti

Mario Andretti meets so many people, he should probably be consulting with the Census Bureau. Even at 74 years old, he’s spokesman for this, ambassador for that. On the morning before the ninety-eighth Indianapolis 500, I had no reason to expect him to remember me. Yet don’t we all know Mario as an uncle or brother and crave his recognition? These were my thoughts as he presided at Firestone Racing’s media breakfast, explaining how he’d first run tire tests for them in 1964, and how this testing had refined his driving skill. “I owe Firestone so much,” he said, as charming and handsome as ever.

Mario Andretti’s right-rear wheel had stuck to the hub during his 1969 victory. The Firestone tire held up anyway, and he beat Dan Gurney, on Goodyear tires, by nearly a lap. “No other motor race on this planet is as well-known or as important as this race,” he said. “I could go on till six-thirty.” But breakfast was now over. Mario would pose for photos with those who wanted to, though, and I damn well wasn’t letting the opportunity pass. In fact, I took a chance that he might remember me from the 2003 Baja 1000, where he was official starter. In Ensenada, he had presided at a similar breakfast for, ahem, B.F. Goodrich, and I’d handed him an old racetrack photo. It showed my father’s stock car in a tangle, locked onto another old Ford.

“To Walt,” he wrote at my suggestion, “I can relate! Mario Andretti.”

Today, Mario Andretti shook my hand. “I remember you,” he said. And the shutter clicked. It may be possible that he does remember. After all, he said that he subscribed to the magazine.

I have no idea what Jimmy Vasser reads, but an hour later at the Speedway, the co-owner of KV Racing Technology brushed past during the drivers’ meeting, when he and partner Kevin Kalkhoven would accept their rings for fielding Tony Kanaan’s winning car in 2013. Seeing him made me remember events of that aforementioned Baja 1000 race eleven years ago. The Groff Motorsports buggy had three drivers: Mike and Robbie Groff and Jimmy, their friend since childhood karting days. With B.F Goodrich and Havoline sponsorship, the buggy started the race carrying Robbie Groff and co-driver Rocky Shelton, a tire distributor from Phoenix; their opening segment was hindered by an engine that twice stalled in turns, with fans pushing the car to re-fire it. Rocky discovered the ride “knocks the snot out of you. It’s like being in a football game.” He vomited twice, without affecting the outcome.

Meantime, Mike Groff’s co-driver for the second segment was yours truly, and about forty miles into it, we hit some whoop-de-do’s that led to my vomiting as surely as Labor Day used to lead to Jerry Lewis. Furthermore, it led to my temporary uselessness as a navigator. To make the tale brief, we ended up on some boulders, the clutch fried, and ultimately enjoyed an overnight camping experience with several other contestants who’d taken the same turn. The next night, at the Groff team’s dinner back in Ensenada, I sat beside poor Jimmy, who’d never turned a wheel. Yet the esprit de corps was so strong, he declared, “Baja is what racing’s all about!”

“Jimmy Vasser!” I said now. He tried to pass by without noticing me, but I persisted. “I was your teammate at Baja in ’03.”

He paused, perhaps tasting anew the disappointment. “I remember you,” he said, without throwing a punch, and continued on his way in order to stay ahead of whatever bodily fluid might be forthcoming.

As exclusive Indy 500 tire supplier, Firestone’s pull is so strong that all 33 drivers attend an autograph session for the hundreds of tire dealers and sales staff in attendance. Jack Arute was on hand in the Marriott’s ballroom to welcome each arriving driver. (Yes, he really does grin like Jack Nicholson in The Shining.) I was trying to figure out how to drink free beer while also shooting pictures when, remarkably, dead space developed around three-time champ Helio Castroneves. (“Is he the guy on Celebrity Wife Swap?” a friend had earlier asked.) Seizing the moment, I got into his face. Did he remember visiting Automobile’s Liberty Street office in 2006? It was before he kicked Floyd Mayweather, Jr.’s ass on Dancing with the Stars. That blessed day, Helio spent a good hour with us. I set my tape recorder on the conference table. But, oops, it was set on “pause” for the duration. The hour ended gruesomely, with demands from women in the art and production departments to fondle his Champion of Champions ring.

Hearing this summary, Helio trained his brown eyes on me. The slackness in his face made it clear he had no recollection whatsoever of the visit.

“Nice to see you again, sir,” he said.

Something is evidently missing in our relationship. Mario Andretti wrote on an old glossy. Jimmy got puked out of a race. They remembered. But my earnest questions about suspension setups eight years ago earned Spiderman’s black flag.

Helio, dude! My iPhone has a failsafe voice recorder. Who cares about Ryan Hunter-Reay’s pass in the grass, leading to your finishing second by 0.06 second? If you’d ever like to reveal anything good about Celebrity Wife Swap, I’m here for you.

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