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Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Young boy comes full circle with Andretti behind the wheel

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While it’s now been a mind-boggling 52 years, I can still recall it as if it was yesterday. I was immediately hooked on IndyCar racing after my father loaded up that big ol’ Chrysler we had with a cooler full of sandwiches and sodas and took his 10-year-old skinny, gregarious son to watch the 1969 Indianapolis 500 through his glasses that were so thick they resembled Coke bottles.

As the cars would whisk by the grandstands we were seated in, I would ask who that guy was in the red No. 2 car that was clearly the class of the field that day. My father simply said “Mario” and plugged his earphone back into his transistor radio. After watching him win the race that day, I spent the entire time it took to drive back home to quiz him about this Mr. Andretti guy and why he was so much faster than all the other drivers.

Two days later, I made the decision to visit the little hardware store in our community and attempted to explain to the gentlemen behind the counter what color Mario’s car was and finally came up with a suitable can of spray paint and began the process of cosmetically transforming my trusty stingray into the Ford-powered Brawner Hawk that Mario had driven to victory just 48 hours earlier.

Over the years, I followed him religiously from sprint cars to stock cars and then Formula One. While IndyCar was my favorite I probably would’ve watched my idol race shopping carts or even skateboards as it didn’t matter as long he was the driver. Clearly I was infatuated with him and if you said something bad about “my driver” you better be ready to put your dukes up against a guy who couldn’t fight, but wouldn’t allow anyone to say anything disparaging about this phenomenal racer.

As I continued to follow his epic career, a fork in the road led to some television production work, and I got closer to him through those endeavors as opposed to simply living vicariously through him.

A few years later I convinced Shannon Williams at the Recorder that I was just the guy to cover the Indianapolis 500 for her paper, and the rest is truly history and a labor of love combined.

Suddenly I am interviewing the greatest, most versatile driver in the history of motorsports and somehow I didn’t faint.

Over the past 15 years we’ve discussed the changes in open-wheel racing and he’s always been polite and helpful to this Jimmy Olsen wannabe, so when the chance came up to travel around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in a two-seater car with him earlier this week, it was both overwhelming and a trip back into the days of my youth.

I will admit that while I have grown to be comfortable in his presence, I was more than a bit nervous with the fact that we’d be barreling almost 200 mph down the back stretch of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. When he exited the blend lane onto the racing surface, I suddenly realized it was not on my stingray racing around the cul-de-sac of the neighborhood elementary school and I was experiencing the G-forces that accompany the turns at IMS under those speeds. As we flashed down the front stretch where he took the checkered flag in 1969, just for a brief moment I pretended to be him, and why not?

He was in the front seat chauffeuring one of his biggest fans around the most famous race course in the world, who was both holding on for dear life while reminiscing the salad days of his childhood to boot.

This was actually happening and I couldn’t get enough.

After we came to a stop, I got out and pointed to him as to signify he had fulfilled my dreams and he looked at me and smiled. The next “passenger” hopped in and off they went, but I stuck around afterwards and we talked about the recent pole qualifications for the upcoming Indianapolis 500 and what we might see this weekend in the race.

His face glowed when I asked him about his grandson Marco and his attempt to win the coveted event in his only appearance in an IndyCar this year, and what a daunting challenge it will be for him.

After telling him I hoped there would be an Andretti family reunion in Victory Lane, I proposed a question to him. After winning everything there is in motorsports, how did transporting me around the hallowed grounds at 16th and Georgetown stack up in terms of his storied career? With a straight face he said it was the top of his list. After we both laughed uncontrollably, I walked away, still the 10-year-old boy who had fulfilled his dream.

Thanks, Mario, for allowing me numerous opportunities to be in your company and for treating our conversations about racing with so much interest and respect. I’ve learned so much about motorsports from you over the years, but today I realized one can turn back the clock to the simple days of their upbringing and experience the joy of what once was and will always be.

Notes: You, too, can experience the adrenaline that one derives from riding at high speeds with the likes of Mario Andretti by contacting the Indy Racing Experience. Go to indyracingexperience.com to schedule your ride at numerous tracks across the country.

Special thanks to Scott Jasek and Shonda Kennedy of the Indy Racing Experience for making it all happen. Their program makes a perfect gift or corporate outing, so let them create the memory of a lifetime for your favorite race fan.

Danny Bridges, who still wants to be Mario Andretti when he grows up, can be reached at 317-370-8447 or at bridgeshd@aol.com.

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