The auto racing industry today is dominated by NASCAR names such as Earnhardt and Gordon or Indy Car names such as Franchitti and Castroneves.
Now matter how many come and go, though, there is one name that always will be mentioned first when it comes to fast driving: Andretti.
Racing legend Mario Andretti spent Friday in Ellsworth, first educating high school students about driver safety and then helping a local business celebrate its 60th anniversary.
Although Andretti, now 66, still races occasionally, he spends most of his time advocating driver safety. He recently partnered with tire company Bridgestone Firestone to develop a safety curriculum that he takes to schools all over the country.
“I know what you’re thinking: How I qualified to talk about driver safety, right?” Andretti asked an audience of more than 600 Ellsworth High School students. “But improved safety is how I’m still alive doing what I do.”
Andretti offered the young drivers and soon-to-be drivers tips about checking tire pressure and tread, but he also stressed the importance of finding something to be passionate about.
“I always wanted to be a pro race driver; it was something that captured my imagination early on. I never really had a Plan B,” said Andretti, who is widely considered to be the greatest auto racer of all time and the only driver ever to have won the Indianapolis 500, the Daytona 500 and the Formula One Championship.
He encouraged the students to share his same passion for whatever “melts their butter.”
“It’s so healthy to have an idea early on,” he said. “Don’t hesitate to have ambitious goals.”
Ellsworth High School Principal William Connors said having Andretti speak to his students was an honor.
“We don’t get the opportunity very often to have someone of his stature,” Connors said. “But I was most pleased with the students.
“Many of them stayed behind to get his autograph, even though they probably weren’t even born when he was in his prime.”
Andretti followed up his appearance at the high school by visiting Harmon’s Tire and Service Center, a local business that is celebrating 60 years in Hancock County.
A large, inflatable Firestone tire with Andretti’s picture in the middle alerted residents of the racing icon’s presence. He met with several community leaders and signed autographs for members of the public.
“When I was setting this up, I never asked for [Mario] because I never thought it was possible that he would come,” said Harmon’s owner, Albert Harmon.
During an interview after his appearance at Ellsworth High School, Andretti spoke about his career in the industry and how racing has changed since his heyday.
“I think every sport evolves,” he said. “Racing now has become much more sophisticated and technical. But what really stands out is the dramatic changes in safety.”
Andretti is the head of one of many auto racing families. His sons, Michael and Jeff Andretti, both race, and his grandson, Marco Andretti, at age 19, is in his first full season in the Indy Racing League.
“Family seems to be more of a trend in racing than in other sports, but I honestly couldn’t tell you why,” the family patriarch said.
Andretti also spoke about young drivers such as his grandson and women drivers, such as Danica Patrick, who have infused the sport with more attention.
“I think it’s great when drivers can bring a new spark and generate interest among fans,” he said.