For Andretti, induction cheers come from heart


TALLADEGA, Ala. -- The spotlights are on the stage at the International Motorsports Hall of Fame. The audience, which has already seen A. J. Foyt, Don "The Snake" Prudhomme, Craig Breedlove, Ayrton Senna and Nelson Piquet inducted, has come to its feet for the first time, drenching Mario Andretti with their affection.

It seems the only major difference among these great drivers. Foyt, the indomitable Indy Car legend, is respected. Senna and Piquet, two of the greatest Formula One drivers; Prudhomme, of drag racing fame; and Breedlove, who spent his career pursuing land-speed records on Utah's Bonneville Salt Flats, are admired. But only Andretti pulls on this audience's heartstrings.

And that, perhaps as much as anything else, is truly a victory.

If you could gather Johnny Unitas, Muhammad Ali, Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky, Willie Mays and Jack Nicklaus in the same room, you'd have an idea of the class of these motor sports inductees.

Among them, they have won everything motor sports have to offer. But it is Andretti who is most demonstrative and most gracious in respect to his fans and fellow drivers.

"It is the ultimate to be voted into your Hall of Fame," he said early in the day. "It's the ultimate checkered flag. You have goals when you are racing, but the Hall of Fame probably isn't one of them.

"You just run and run and run and then one day you find you get mentioned. And one day you find yourself thinking it would be nice if that happened. And then, on the day it happens, you feel this ultimate satisfaction, this ultimate compliment. There is nothing like being appreciated for your career."

On the stage, Andretti's twin brother, Aldo, is Mario's presenter. It is an emotional moment. Aldo also was a race-car driver before his career was ended by a serious accident. And it was Aldo whose talent was thought to be the greater of the two brothers.

And so, you have to wonder what is in Aldo's mind as he stands up there with Mario. Mario seems to have no doubts.

"When we were kids, Aldo and I would sneak into the Italian Grand Prix at Imola," said Mario, speaking as much to his brother as to the crowd. "Alberto Ascari won and he was our hero. Remember? It's all we ever talked about. He's the guy we both wanted to grow up to be. I know your dreams were my dreams."

It was touching. It was emotional. It was pure Andretti. Just as Foyt's moment had been pure A. J.

Big Tex was presented by Indianapolis Motor Speedway president Tony George. George identified Foyt as "the son my grandfather never had, the man my father loved as a son and the man my mother argued with like a brother. When he came to Victory Lane as the car owner last year after winning the Indianapolis 500 and was asked how he was, his response, 'I'm so wonderful,' summed him up perfectly."

Foyt hasn't been exactly glowing over awards, however, since he learned he had to share the Driver of the Century honor with Andretti. In his mind, as in the minds of most great competitors when thinking about their talents, no one else measures up.

Foyt didn't take the time to appear for pre-induction activities and Prudhomme made sure everyone knew, saying, "A. J., I want you to know, Mario and I covered for you the last two days. You know, I have two dogs. One is a good dog and I named him Senna. The other is the meanest dog you'd ever want to see and I named him A. J."

And when Foyt did show up for the black-tie induction dinner, he came in a sports coat and open collar.

"I'm old enough," said Foyt, 65. "I think I've earned the right to come dressed the way I want. It's a great honor."

Foyt and Andretti are no doubt this country's two most versatile drivers of all time. But since the split in open wheel racing between CART and the IRL, they have been estranged. These days, Foyt (an IRL supporter) is as stingy with his compliments to his old competitor (whose loyalty is with CART) as he was sparing with the space he used to give Andretti on the racetrack.

"A. J. is an icon," Mario said. "He was a force to be reckoned with, and he was an inspiration to me because of his versatility. He's done it all. I never was ashamed to finish second to him.

"But we are different personalities, and we don't agree on a lot of things. He has his theories and I have mine and so be it. But I've always respected him as a driver."

So, too, has nearly everyone else. But when it comes to love, it is Andretti who holds the key to the ignition.

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