When I was a kid, we all knew the name Mario Andretti, a famous racecar driver. He was a handsome Italian-American who wowed the world with his track antics.
He was regularly featured on Saturday’s Wide World of Sports, even the sportscasters marveling at his latest run. He drove in rain and in sun, and once even in 2” inch hail—always against some of the other most famous names in the sport.
He had a beautiful smile, a full head of wavy hair, and his signature sunglasses made him even more mysterious and handsome. His lesser known brother was also a driver, but it was Mario and his mad driving skills, who rose to fame.
Sometimes he won his race, sometimes he crashed or spun out, but it was always with aplomb, peeling himself out of his cars to flash his bindingly white-toothed smile at a bank of paparazzi. Names like Formula One, LeMans, Grand Prix and Daytona became a part of our vocabulary thanks to Mario.
I remember one race where they fitted him with a camera inside his low-slung car, and we got a first-hand look at his prowess. He wove in and out of his competitors at breathtaking speed, all the while humming a quirky Italian tune. He was so cool.
Kids wore racecar driver coveralls with his logos on them for Halloween costumes. He made guest appearances on sitcoms, always playing a charismatic boyfriend or love interest.
Johnny Carson interviewed him, and female audience members swooned. He won races in three different decades, making him a generational household name.
When I put the pedal to the medal as a new driver, my dad would say, “Whoa, Mario Andretti. Slow down a little!” To this day, I highly doubt the story that Mario from Mario Kart games was named for a landlord at the Nintendo headquarters building. He must have been named for Mr. Andretti.
The racing phenom, now 82, has aged pretty well, now sporting the most beautiful shock of white hair, such a distinguished gentleman. He has since retired from racing, long before I could ever see him race in person. But I swear I thought I saw him just the other day right here in town.
It’s documented that Mario Andretti drove all kinds of vehicles, from go carts to high performance cars made just for him, and as a child, he drove on clay and red dirt circles. But the cul de sacs of suburbia? Could it be?
It was a beautiful spring day, the first hint of warmth we had felt in weeks. The air was filled with the sound of lawn mowers buzzing away in the background, the cries of agony from children tumbling off poorly secured backyard trampolines, and birds chirping about the latest, best porches and eaves on which to build a nest.
I was on my front porch, admiring my newly procured pedicure, and deep in a novel which had nothing to do with racing, except racing hearts. I heard the engine before I saw it.
I glanced up in time to see the top of the driver’s head, his classic mirrored sunglasses flashing in the sun. He was crouched low over the wheel, intent on having his body become one with the vehicle, but he somehow still knew he had an audience.
His vehicle was shiny and clean, proudly displaying an American flag duct taped to the roof. Its open design allowed what I am sure was a cooling air flow on the warm day.
It was then that the other driver pulled up slowly next to the first vehicle and revved her engine in response. It was like a matchup through time, with Danica Patrick challenging the old master.
There was no checkered flag. There were no pricey concessions, no t-shirt stands at the gate, and no RV’s parked for camping the night before. But the race that ensued might as well have been the Indy 500 final lap, minus only a baritone-voiced announcer narrating the matchup.
The drivers swerved, they changed leads, they careened around streetside parallel parkers. They risked it all for the unnamed prize. I swear the Danica wannabe had the vehicle up on two wheels at one point.
I hopped off the porch and raced to the sidewalk to see the neck and neck finish and determine who would have bragging rights. And in all truth, to make sure none of the drivers in the GOLF CARTS were injured.
When the competitor exited the vehicle in jubilant triumph, I was not too shocked to see his small stature, as the golf-cart drivers in our neighborhood are always up for an Andretti like race at their ripe old ages of 10 or 11 years old.
Welcome to warm weather in the Hood. Mario would be proud. Me? Just a little terrified, but along for the ride.