The big thing in my hometown when I was a kid was basketball. Everyone followed the Knicks. One of the surest paths to popularity was to be graceful on the court. Close after that was football, bringing with it the Giants vs Jets rivalry. You were OK with baseball, although you HAD to be a Yankees fan. Hockey was acceptable if slightly out there. Soccer was something they played far away; this was years before AYSO made its presence felt.
My extreme introvert's response was to focus on solitary sports like bicycling and track, and on pastimes that none of us could actually play.
The problem was that I was terrible at all of them. Small, shy and nearsighted, I was one of those poor sad-sacks who got picked last when teams were formed up in gym class, listening to the team captains and star players argue over why they should not get stuck with me again. My extreme introvert’s response was to focus on solitary sports like bicycling and track, and on pastimes that none of us could actually play. This led me to develop a fascination with auto racing and to idolize Mario Andretti.
Andretti was my guy because he was both small in stature and Italian. His successes in open-wheel racing were an inspiration to at least one small Italian-American kid, probably a lot more. He didn’t even live that far away! Racing became my answer to basketball, football and the rest. I soaked up racing stats and lore. I knew who was winning and losing and crashing and occasionally dying in Indy cars, the Formula 1 circuit, Can-Am and the big sports car contests like LeMans and Sebring. My mind was filled with visions of being first to the checkered flag, of taking my place alongside Fangio or Nuvolari, Jim Clarke or Bruce McLaren. Or Mario. Technically, these things were possible, if wildly unlikely. Far enough removed from my reality to be a safe haven for my dreams.
As a bonus, there were two genuine speedways within a fairly easy drive. One was in Trenton, NJ, the other was in the Poconos. My Dad kindly indulged my obsession by taking me to races on a regular basis.
Anyone who followed the career of Mario Andretti knows that he was a superbly talented driver, but had amazingly bad luck. It seemed that he would either win, crash or his car would let him down. In all the races I went to, I never saw Mario win. Only once did I even see him finish. And one time, I met him.
It was at Trenton, some time in the 70s. Probably the early 70s because I was still young enough to believe in heroes. I remember that the day was warm. I’d gone to one of the concession stands for a Coke. Mario’s car had broken down again. Heading back to my seat, walking along a chain link fence, I saw, trudging dejectedly on the other side, helmet in hand…Mario! I wasn’t the only one, and in seconds I was one of a gang of kids up against the fence, waving programs and calling his name. Now he was undoubtedly tired, hot, sweaty in his fire suit and annoyed at being out of contention. I am sure he was heading for a cold drink and a shower. But he looked up, saw us, and came over to the fence. For a few minutes, he chatted with us, listened to our sympathies and thanked us for being his fans. He signed programs that we rolled up and stuck through the chain link. I treasured mine for years, until, older, I lost track of it forever. We are today bombarded by tales of bad celebrity behavior, but on that warm New Jersey afternoon, one celebrity made a bunch of kids feel special, feel like part of the team.
It’s been said that it is better to never meet your childhood heroes, because they are sure to disappoint you. But sometimes, they don’t.
A hyper-annuated wannabee scientist with a lovely wife and a mountain biking problem.