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Who are you, super Mario?


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Hurtling back to Crawfordsville from a work assignment in Greencastle a few years back, I ran up behind a slow-moving vehicle on State Road 231.

What to do? Well, I drove a Camaro. Dah! Pass ’em.

So I did. It was pitch dark, but I noticed as I zoomed past that, yes, this was a police car.

Double Dah!

Feeling rather stupid as the siren came on, I pulled over and watched as the officer approached my window. I

was about to hear one of the most famous lines from my childhood.

The officer was only about 28, but he delivered. “Who are you, Mario Andretti?”

No, I’m Jay. But I doubt very much you’ve ever seen Mario Andretti drive a car. Perhaps this is a line they teach at the academy, right before “Are you going to

a fire?”

Forty-five years have passed since Mario Andretti won his one and only Indianapolis 500, the race that holds its 98th version Sunday. Still, if you pulled someone aside on the street and asked him/her to name a past winner of the Indianapolis 500, I would wager that many would say, “Mario Andretti.”

Now consider that A.J. Foyt, Al Unser Sr. and Rick Mears all won four Indy 500s. Seven drivers have won three. Eight more triumphed in two.

That’s 18 drivers who have won more Indianapolis 500s than Andretti. So why didn’t my officer friend ask, “Who are you, Gordon Johncock?”

I never really tried to understand the fascination with Andretti, and why he was given Babe Ruth status. In fact, my household always shared in Andretti’s pained attempts to win at Indy one more time.

He could never do it. This part broke, or that part busted. Or a tire went flat, or a pit crew member goofed. It always was something. Andretti became as famous for not winning at Indy as he was for winning it.

I remember it all vividly because I grew up in the land of wonderful pizza, or a heavy concentration of Italian-Americans. If the Pope was No. 1 in my neighborhood, Andretti was a close second.

Year by year passed and, once again, Andretti couldn’t win at Indy. And even after he retired, his relatives named Andretti couldn’t win there, either.

The legend still grew. Why?

On Saturday, Indianapolis Motor Speedway hosts “Legends Day Honoring Mario Andretti Presented by Firestone.” Andretti will participate in a question-and-answer session at the IMS Pagoda Plaza Stage and will sign autographs. As he always has done, he will be a terrific ambassador for racing.

I thought I would read a little bit about this legend. It was enlightening.

Two years before he won the Indianapolis 500 to become the most famous driver in America, Andretti won a stockcar race that you might have heard of, the Daytona 500.

In 1978, Andretti won Formula 1 and IndyCar championships. Wow.

He won three times at Sebring and took first in the Pikes Peak Hill Climb.

This guy could beat you in a Soap Box Derby car.

There’s more. Andretti was born in Montona, Italy, as World War II broke out. After the war, his town became part of Yugoslavia and eventually became part of Croatia. His family left and for seven years lived in a refugee camp in Lucca in Italy.

In 1955, Mario Andretti and his family arrived in Nazareth, Pennsylvania, to start a new life. Young Mario started to concentrate on his love of racing and eventually raced in 1959 the very first car he re-built, a 1948 Hudson Hornet Sportsman. He didn’t retire until 1994.

In 2000, he was named “Driver of the Century” by The Associated Press.

This is a man who lived the American dream, dedicated his life to his love of racing and continues to be an ambassador for the sport at age 74.

So I’ll be ready next time I hear, “Who are you, Mario Andretti?”

I will take my ticket, look back and proclaim, “I wish.”

Jay Heater is The Republic sports editor. He can be reached at jheater@therepublic.com or 379-5632.

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