• Racing legend Mario Andretti prepares to take racing enthusiast Tymia Gunn-Diaz for a lap at the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach on Friday, April 8, 2022. (Photo by Brittany Murray, Press-Telegram/SCNG)

  • Motor racing legend Mario Andretti scrolls through photos of his time with Lady Gaga on his phone. Andretti was moments away from taking racing fans for a spin during the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach on Friday, April 8, 2022. (Photo by Brittany Murray, Press-Telegram/SCNG)

  • Racing legend Mario Andretti prepares to take racing fans on a lap during the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach on Friday, April 8, 2022. (Photo by Brittany Murray, Press-Telegram/SCNG)

  • Racing legend Mario Andretti prepares to take racing enthusiast Tymia Gunn-Diaz for a lap at the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach on Friday, April 8, 2022. (Photo by Brittany Murray, Press-Telegram/SCNG)

  • Motor racing legend Mario Andretti scrolls through photos of his time with Lady Gaga on his phone. Andretti was moments away from taking racing fans for a spin during the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach on Friday, April 8, 2022. (Photo by Brittany Murray, Press-Telegram/SCNG)

If you didn’t know better, legendary race car driver Mario Andretti looked Friday, April 8, like he could race the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach on Sunday.

There he was, dressed in full professional racing uniform, complete with helmet, slipping easily into the cockpit of a two-seater IndyCar. Andretti was about to take a passenger for the ride of a lifetime around the Long Beach race track at speeds of up to 170 mph on Shoreline Drive. Andretti was expected to take several passengers around the track on Friday and Saturday.

Andretti just turned 82 on February 28. But he is healthy and fit and still filled with his lifelong passion for racing, which began to burn in him when he was a teenager in Italy.

When asked if he wanted to be able to take part in Sunday’s big race, Andretti hesitated, although perhaps a little wistfully.

“I’ve had a long and enjoyable career and count on my blessings every day when it comes to my racing career,” the superstar said. “I definitely feel very fulfilled. Now I enjoy flying the two-seater and following my son Michael’s team.

Andretti said he enjoys driving racing enthusiasts to the track – it’s a chance to meet interesting people.

“They usually give me interesting people,” he said. “I think everyone is having fun. I don’t know if they’re scared but I always go as fast as I can. I’ve driven people from different walks of life.

Those who ride with him sign a wall in his traler, he said.

“Perhaps the most memorable is Lady Gaga,” Andretti said, sharing photos on her cellphone. “We spent a lot of time together in Indianapolis.”

Indianapolis, birthplace of the Indy 500, is sacred racing ground.

But Andretti has had a love affair with Long Beach – and vice versa – ever since he entered the city’s first street race in 1975.

He hasn’t missed a Long Beach Grand Prix race in 47 years. He has been a driver or a spectator for all these years. Its first relationship with the city blossomed in 1977, when Andretti, South Africa’s Jody Scheckter and Austria’s Niki Lauda staged one of the most spectacular driving displays Formula 1 has ever seen, according to someone who was there, Chris Pook, founder of the Long Beach Grand Prix.

Andretti remembers that race like it was yesterday.

“I had a hell of a time behind Schecter for most of the race and Lauda was behind me,” Andretti said in a phone interview from his longtime home in Nazareth, Pa., before flying off. for Long Beach on Thursday. “It was do or die time and I was finally able to get past Schecter.”

Andretti held on and won the race, beating Lauda by less than a second.

This victory made Andretti a happy man.

But perhaps even happier were Pook and city officials, who relied on the Grand Prix to boost the city’s declining economic development. The first two years were financially difficult for the Grand Prix. It was on shaky ground – until Andretti won.

“It was the first time in Grand Prix history that an American had won a Grand Prix in his own country, and the media went crazy,” said Pook. “Long Beach and Mario were on the front pages of major newspapers nationwide and featured on network television stations and the front pages of sports sections of newspapers around the world.

“Mario’s win made a statement,” Pook added. “The Long Beach Grand Prix had arrived and it was here to stay.”

However, Andretti’s first impressions of Long Beach were not so good.

“I had never been to Long Beach before,” he said. “When I arrived there in 1975, there were a lot of condemned places. But thanks to Pook’s vision, the race grew and so did the city. It’s a wonderful place now.

Andretti’s 1977 win wasn’t the only time he helped Long Beach, Pook said.

A year later, Long Beach officials invited key business leaders, bankers and developers to attend the 1978 Grand Prix as guests of the city, Pook said. One of those guests was AN Pritzker, president of Hyatt Hotels.

“The Saturday before the race, City Manager John Dever, accompanied by Mr. Pritzker, asked me if someone could drive Mr. Pritzker in a Pace Car,” Pook said. “It was just before the start of qualifying, one of the most important moments of a Grand Prix weekend for a driver. Mario was asked if he would drive Mr. Pritzker and, without hesitation, Mario replied: “Absolutely”.

The ride was supposed to be two laps, but it turned into four.

Afterwards, Pritzker thanks Andretti and then turns to Dever.

“If you have enough spirit and determination to run this race through your streets,” the hotelier told Dever, according to Pook, “I’m going to build a Hyatt Regency here, and I’d like it to be located at this corner before the race track goes up the hill to the pit area.

The Hyatt Regency has been a Long Beach mainstay ever since.

Andretti ranks “at the very top of the people who have contributed to the success and longevity of the Long Beach Grand Prix,” said Pook, “and I would respectfully suggest the redevelopment of our downtown.”

Andretti and his family had a great fortune racing in Long Beach.

After winning the race in 1977, Andretti won the Long Beach Grand Prix in 1984, 1985 and 1987. His son, Michael Andretti, won at Long Beach in 1986 – ending his father’s bid for a treble – and again in 2002.

The eldest Andretti, a proud father, pointed to his son’s wins at Long Beach as the first and last of his 42 total wins in IndyCar races.

“We had a lot of thrills and precious golden memories at Long Beach,” Andretti said.

One of his favorite things about Long Beach, he said, is the vibe it creates.

“The people of Long Beach are so welcoming,” Andretti said. “Everywhere I go, I hear people calling me, ‘Hey, Mario, how are you?’ It’s almost like I feel part of a family when I come here.

While he was on the runway Friday, fans were constantly asking him for autographs and selfies. He was always kind and accommodating.

Speaking of family, Andretti talked about his birth on February 28, 1940, in Montona, Italy (now Croatia), about 35 miles from the city of Trieste.

After World War II, the Istrian peninsula, on which Montona was located, became part of Yugoslavia, a communist country. In 1948 the family decided to leave and they became refugees in a camp in Lucca, Italy for seven years. The family of five – his parents, Luigi and Rina; a twin brother, Aldo; and an older sister, Ana Maria – came to the United States in 1955 and settled in Nazareth, Pennsylvania, where an uncle lived.

Andretti’s father got a job at Bethlehem Steel. Andretti was 15 years old.

“On June 16, 1955, we walked past the Statue of Liberty, a day I will never forget,” Andretti said. “My sister sang the national anthem. We never looked back.

“I learned an important life lesson when we arrived in the United States,” he added. “A negative turned into a positive. The United States gave us opportunities that we never would have had in Italy.

But before coming to the United States, Andretti and his twin brother had traveled to Monza, Italy to watch the Italian Grand Prix and world champion Alberto Ascari, Andretti’s idol.

“That’s when I decided to become a racing driver,” said Andretti. “I didn’t know how, but I knew I was going to pursue this one and only dream. I never had a plan B.

When Andretti arrived in the United States, he said, he was thrilled to see a race track near his home. It was a half-mile oval track around which modified stock cars raced. Andretti and his brother got involved in racing there without telling their father, Andretti said. Their father reportedly forbade them from running, Andretti said, because of the danger involved.

Unfortunately, his twin, Aldo, was injured in an accident and their father discovered that they had run.

His reaction, Andretti said, was “not pleasant.”

But Andretti kept running.

Andretti’s Plan A worked well, of course, as he won the Indy 500 and hundreds of other races – all the while becoming an icon and legend in his profession.

Still, the past 3½ years have been difficult for him, with Andretti describing that time as a “difficult time”. Meanwhile, his 56-year-old wife, twin brother, sister and nephew John have passed away. Andretti leaned on his faith amid all this loss.

“My Catholic religion helps me,” he said. “There are things that are beyond our control. Just accept them and move on.

This week at least, Andretti will be having fun in Long Beach, the city he’s been visiting every year for nearly five decades.

Next Sunday he will be cheering on his son’s Andretti Autosport team.

And on Saturday, Andretti will get into a racing car again. He’ll take a lucky few for a spin on the track at the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach, a race he helped establish.

Staff photographer Brittany Murray contributed to this report.

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