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What A Day!
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May 17th 2011 - Mario Makes My Day
By Jim Gorecki

West Allis, WI June of 1974

In June of 1974, a sunny weekday, just a few days after Johnny Rutherford won his first Indy 500, there were some cars practicing at the Milwaukee Mile, located on the Wisconsin State Fair Park grounds. As a ten year old, and an avid race fan, I spent many days watching cars practice during the week prior to the weekend’s upcoming races. (The Rex Mays Classic followed the week after Indy.)

That day, I could hear the howl of the engines from my home on South 79th Street, and pedaled my blue Schwinn Stingray as fast as I could to the track. My cousin Dean, age 12, was with that day, and he too rode his bike like the wind to catch a glimpse of the cars.

Since the track was less than a mile from my backyard, we were there in minutes. As I pulled my bike into the unlocked grandstand area, I could see a white and red #5 Indy car pulling into the pits. I recognized the car from TV just a few days earlier, as the one being driven by Mario Andretti. That was in the days of black and white TV in my house, and I was amazed at the brilliant color! Andretti was the winner of the 1969 Indy 500, and was (and still is) one of the most popular drivers in the world.

There were two other cars there, Mario’s teammates at the time, Al Unser and Joe Leonard. As Mario took off his helmet, Dean shouted, “Hey Mario!” The track being rather quiet at the moment, Mario heard him, and yelled back across the track, “Come on over!”

Can you believe that? During this day and age of security, and lack of access to drivers, Mario waves us on over into the pits? So Dean and I climb the fence, run across the track, and were greeted by Mario himself as we climb over the pit wall.

After Mario asked us a few questions, he introduced us to Al Unser and Joe Leonard. I can remember Joe Leonard telling us that he had once raced motorcycles at the mile, back when it was a dirt track. Both he an Al Unser were very nice, but it was Mario who made my day. Being that I was a lot smaller than my cousin, Mario asked me if I wanted to sit in his car. I can’t remember saying anything, but he picked me up, and placed me in the car! I can still feel of the steering wheel in my fingers, already warm from the sun beating down upon us. I was in heaven, then, Mario placed his helmet on my head, and I felt like my heart was going to burst open with joy! I could barely see through the small windscreen, but what an experience!

The drivers visited with both Dean and I for a while, gave us some racing stickers, and signed autographs for us. Then they told us it was time for us to go, we ran back across the track, climbed the fence, and rode our bikes home as fast as we could to tell everyone, anyone that would listen, what had just happened.

I don’t think my mother believed me right away, until I showed her my “gifts” from Mario. That is 37 years ago, but it is a memory that will be etched into my mind forever.