It was probably six or seven years ago that our paths first crossed, and since that time it seems as though I’ve seen Ben Shelton everywhere. He’s a busy guy and people have really begun to see the results of his hard work at OneDirt.
Over the past couple of years Ben and I have often tossed around the idea of sharing some of my experiences here
Sometimes you talk about an idea long enough and finally say, well, let’s just get it done.
So here we are with the first installment.
First, some background. Writing about motorsports has been at the center of my work life since 1980. At first I balanced the racing gig with a real job in the corporate world, but of course the real job was constantly making things complicated. That anchor went away in 1998 and the throttle has been wide open ever since.
Through the years I’ve covered just about every form of motorsports, and I’ve also done some work on television and radio. Several good people collaborated with me on book projects including Brad Doty, Jack Hewitt, Earl Baltes, Chris Economaki, Doug Wolfgang, Speedy Bill Smith, Larry Moore, and Rex Robbins.
Along the way, amidst all those deadlines and bylines and first drafts and rewrites, an enormous number of people left an impression on me. Some I wrote a little bit about, others, a lot. Some were famous, while others were more obscure. All were damned interesting.
That’s what Ben insisted OneDirt readers enjoy: hearing more about people who are damned interesting.
So here, once a month – maybe more if Ben thinks you can stand it – we’ll look back at some of those interesting people.
At first Ben and I talked about remembering the “legends” that I’ve known, and there have been more than a few. But sometimes the legends aren’t as interesting as the little guy who did something special. So while we will definitely talk about legends, we’ll also recall some people you’ve probably never heard of. Either way, we hope you’ll find them as interesting as I did.
Today, though, our subject is a legend – in all-caps. Mario Andretti is among the greatest racing drivers of all time, literally an icon of the sport. His career inspired and fascinated three generations of Americans, and he remains the only man in history to win both a Sprint Car feature and a Formula One race.
My initial encounter with Mario came at literally my first professional visit to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. I had attended time trials at Indy as a kid, so my first writing assignment there – for the Anderson Herald, a daily newspaper from my hometown in Indiana—brought a lot of butterflies.
Indy is the kind of place that swallows you up and makes you feel small. Since its inception it has attracted the biggest of the biggest, but ultimately none were bigger than the Speedway itself.
Even after all these years Indy still makes me feel small; you can imagine how intimidated I was on that day in May, 1981.
It was a weekday, and the track was open for practice. I needed to get a couple of quotes about a race at my local track – the Little 500 at Anderson Speedway – and I figured on approaching Johnny Rutherford and Mario.
Rutherford sat on the pole at Anderson in 1962, and he was eager to recall the occasion. Mario never ran the race, but he had a Sprint Car background, and I was fairly sure he had attended the race in the late 1960s as a spectator.
Approaching Johnny and Mario was like an out-of-body experience. I had idolized both, and it was surreal to consider that they would talk with me. I was as green and raw as a sliced cucumber.
Mario was standing in the doorway of his garage, watching his crew work on the race car. There were very few people nearby, and Mario and I made eye contact. Notebook in hand, I asked if he had a minute.
He nodded. I introduced myself—I noticed that he didn’t insist on writing down my name for future reference – and asked him about the Little 500. I can’t remember what he told me, but we spent a couple of minutes talking about the race, and Sprint Car racing.
Just then a TV crew came rushing over. It was as if I wasn’t even standing there; the guy said, “Hey, Mario, we need a quick interview.” And the guy stepped alongside Mario and got into position and held the microphone and faced the camera.
“I’ll be with you in a minute,” Mario said, looking the man right in the eye. “I’m not finished talking with this guy.” And he nodded at me.
He doesn’t know it, but at that instant Mario Andretti made me feel like I was something more than just another nobody with a notepad.
The TV guy looked at this skinny kid whose hands were shaking and then he and the camera guy and the others stepped a few yards away. Mario and I talked for another minute and I thanked him and walked away.
I’ve never forgotten his kindness. That’s why it was so unsettling years later when I wrote a tough column in National Speed Sport News, taking Mario to task for a derogatory comment he made.
It was 2002, when the deep wounds of the split in Indy car racing were still open and bleeding. Emotions ran high, and it was as though everybody had chosen sides. Nobody close to the situation – NOBODY, and that includes nearly everyone in the media – was without bias. I definitely leaned toward the side of the Indy Racing League, because it had given a number of short track racers—Steve Kinser and Jack Hewitt, among others – a shot at the Indianapolis 500.
Mario was a strong advocate on the opposite side, with CART. He was quoted in a story where he made a derogatory remark about the IRL drivers, and it touched a nerve. I immediately dashed off a column in which every word was composed in anger.
I wish I had that column back, and I wish I could take every surviving copy of that issue and put it under the cat’s litterbox.
To be clear, I still disagree with Mario’s comment, and I still feel it was wrong. But I, too, was wrong. I was guilty of the same thing as Mario; I allowed my emotions to lead me to say inflammatory things that didn’t help the situation in any way. I see that today; I didn’t see it at the time.
Our paths crossed again at Indy a few months later. Now, nobody in this business can assume that a man of Mario’s stature reads their stuff. However, the piece was in a national publication and I was fairly confident that somebody probably brought it to his attention.
But on that day nothing was said or acknowledged and life went right on.
A few years later – August 2009, to be exact – Mario came to Knoxville Raceway for a press conference to unveil the STP sponsorship of Donny Schatz at the Knoxville Nationals. Mario and STP had a long history together, and their logo was on his winning car at Indianapolis in 1969.
I was invited to emcee the press conference and lead a detailed interview session with Mario, Donny, Tony Stewart, and an STP rep whose name I can’t recall. As the day approached a thought occurred to me: I wonder if Mario ever saw that column from 2002, and I wonder if he might be pissed at me?
When Mario saw me at Knoxville, he stuck out his hand and greeted me warmly as though we were lifelong friends. Over the next couple of hours I watched as this world champion treated everyone on hand with class and genuine enthusiasm. He enthralled a large gathering of people and made them feel like they were all his personal friends. It was an extraordinary thing, watching Mario’s amazing gift of dealing with people.
Nothing was said that day about the words of 2002, and I was glad. I didn’t want one negative thing to infringe upon a wonderful moment, a wonderful day, a wonderful memory.
Legend? Mario Andretti is more than that. He’s a good, kind man. He helped a raw, skinny kid feel a little better about things way back in 1981. I’m still grateful.