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04/17/08
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Andretti and Jones to be inducted at Long Beach  UPDATE They will be inducting today at 11 a.m. two of the legendary figures of American car racing, Mario Andretti and Parnelli Jones, as well as the one-time world land speed record holder Gary Gabelich posthumously into the Long Beach Motorsports Walk of Fame in front of the Convention Center on Pine Ave.

They will discuss the immense achievements of Andretti and Jones and Gabelich, the late husband of Long Beach City Council member Rae Gabelich who established his milestone 622.407-mph mark on Oct. 23, 1970 on a dry lake bed at Bonneville Salt Flats in Wendover, Utah.

They will talk about courage and competitiveness and skill behind a steering wheel, and no one figures to be more emotional at the ceremony than Andretti because of the memorable times he had across the years in the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach.

Mario Andretti on his way to winning the USGP on the streets of Long Beach in 1977
Indeed, both Chris Pook, the founder of the race, and Jim Michaelian, its current boss, often point to Andretti's dramatic victory in the 1977 Formula One affair as being the momentum-turning linchpin for an event that was then in its struggling infancy.

"That victory by Mario in which he edged out Niki Lauda and Jody Scheckter was as instrumental as any single event in terms of solidifying Long Beach's position as a premier motorsports event," says Michaelian. "It was a tremendously exciting race, and we were able to build on it in a most positive way."

And, of course, Mario Andretti, who in 1978 would win the Formula One world championship, would return to have more success in Long Beach after Formula One departed the scene after 1983, winning three of the first four Champ Car races.

"Ah, I always will have a special feeling for Long Beach," says Andretti. "I'm very flattered for the honor they'll be giving me because I have so many great Grand Prix memories from the Long Beach event that was so important to my career."

Not that Mario Andretti was exactly an unknown commodity before he had his successes in Long Beach.

He already had won three Champ Car titles - he wound up winning four - and also shined in the stock cars, winning the Daytona 500 in 1967.

He competed in the Indianapolis 500 29 times, but was waved the checkered flag only once - in 1969 - as the fates continually conspired against him.

"Could've easily won the Indy five or six times with a little luck," says Andretti, the first driver at Indy to exceed 200 mph during a practice run prior to the 1977 race. "I had several unfortunate breakdowns that cost me."

By while Mario Andretti and his son Michael and grandson Marco also have found the old brickyard ill-starred - it's became known in Indianapolis as the Andretti Curse - the family patriarch still etched a historic legacy in a sport in which he was a high profile figure for four decades until retiring in 1994.

He is the only driver ever to win the Indianapolis 500, the Formula One world championship and the Daytona 500 and also won three 12 Hours of Sebring endurance races and one 24 Hours of Daytona.

"I sometimes pinch myself because of just how lucky I've been," says Andretti, who wound up with 109 major victories in his career.

"So many of my racing friends were killed. I got in some bad accidents, but never got too seriously hurt. And, considering where I came from, my life has been pretty amazing."

Mario Gabriele Andretti was born on Feb. 28, 1940 with twin brother Aldo in Montona d'Istria, Italy, and it didn't seem he would one day be destined to be inducted into almost every motorsports Hall of Fame and have his name put on the Library of Congress Living Legend list.

The province was annexed by Yugoslavia after World War II - Montona is now a part of Croatia - and most of the 350,000 Italians in the area at the time soon departed, including the Andretti family that for the next seven years would live in a refugee camp in Lucca in the Tuscany part of Italy.

In 1955 when Mario Andretti was 15, his parents, Lugi and Rina Andretti, came to the United States, settling in Nazareth, Pa., where the Andrettis' father worked in the Bethlehem Steel mill.

"Couldn't speak a word of English when I came here, and knew nothing of car racing," recalls Andretti. "But just after we got here, one evening at the nearby fairgrounds my brother and I saw bright lights and could hear some loud noise. We walked over to find out what was going on, and there was a stock car race going on in a half mile track. Immediately, we both got interested, and soon built our own car and started competing. Car racing became like a magnet for me. I couldn't get away from it. Obviously, I'm glad I never did."

Mario Andretti soon would discover that he had a knack for driving a car fast and skillfully on any kind of terrain.

"What sets both Mario Andretti and Parnelli Jones apart from so many other drivers is their tremendous versatility," says Jim Michaelian. "You put them in a car that has four wheels and an engine, and I don't care what kind it is. They'll be able to drive it like they were born to be in it."

Mario Andretti is 68 now, and still resides in Nazareth with his wife of 47 years, Dee Ann, and he is involved with all of sorts of commercial entities like Chevron and Firestone Tires, as well as having a chain of gasoline stations, a clothing line, a Toyota dealership and even a winery in Napa Valley.

In addition to his two sons and daughter, Andretti has five grandchildren and closely has been monitoring the IRL activities of the 21-year-old Marco Andretti, who finished second in the 2006 Indianapolis 500.

"I feel so blessed in my life," says Mario Andretti. "The kind of life I've had can be very destructive with all the fame and temptations, and yet here I'm still happily married after all these years and have such a good family. Like I've said so often, somebody up there likes me."

Like all the established figures in open-wheel racing, Mario Andretti is thrilled by the recent peace agreement between Champ Car and IRL after 12 years of self-destructive warfare.

"I'm so happy to see that a whole new page has been turned in open-wheel racing," he says. "It's going to be fun again. I look for our sport to soon be back to its glory days now that we're all back together. And, of course, it'll be great next year when another Andretti once again will be racing in Long Beach." Long Beach Press Telegram

04/07/08 The City of Long Beach and the Grand Prix Association of Long Beach will honor racing legends Mario Andretti, Parnelli Jones and Gary Gabelich, at the third annual Long Beach Motorsports Walk of Fame induction ceremony. The event will take place on Thursday, April 17, 2008 during the annual Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach week.

"This is an incredible group of racing legends," said Mayor Bob Foster, who will be presenting the awards. "Andretti and Jones defined Motorsports racing and Gabelich had set records since he was a teenager that the rest of us could only dream about."

The ceremony begins at 11:00 am at the Long Beach Motorsports Walk of Fame, located on South Pine Avenue in front of the Convention Center, just south of Ocean Boulevard.

Parnelli Jones - 1962 Indy 500
"This year's inductees are the crème de la crème," said Jim Michaelian, CEO of the Grand Prix Association of Long Beach. "Versatility is the operative word for these performers, because Andretti and Jones both raced and won on every conceivable type of track and in a variety of cars. Gabelich not only set speed records in automobiles, he also did the same in power boats."

Mario Andretti won four IndyCar championships and became the first driver to win IndyCar races in five decades. He is the only driver to have won the Indianapolis 500, Daytona 500 and a Formula One World Championship. Andretti is the last American to have won a Formula One race (in 1978) and he won a total of 111 races on major circuits. He is also one of only three drivers to win races on road courses, paved ovals and dirt tracks in one season, something he accomplished four times.

Parnelli Jones began his racing career in jalopy cars as a 17-year-old in Gardena. He moved to stock car racing, winning 15 races in the NASCAR Pacific Coast Late Model Series. In 1962 he was the first driver at Indianapolis to qualify over 150 mph and the following year started on the pole and won. In 1964 he won the USAC Stock car championship. He went on to win four NASCAR races, 25 midget car feature wins and 25 sprint car victories. He also participated in off-road racing, winning the Mexican 1000 twice, the Baja 500 and the Mint 400.

Gary Gabelich, a San Pedro native, began racing as a teenager, winning first place in the stock eliminator drag racing class at Santa Ana at the age of 16.  At 19, he won the world's first jet dragster race topping 250 mph.  He was the first man to break into drag racing's seven-second bracket, driving a Double A fuel dragster at 7.05 seconds. On October 23, 1970 he drove the Blue Flame, a vehicle powered by a liquid gas-hydrogen peroxide powered rocket engine at the Bonneville Salt Flats, achieving a land speed record of 622.407 mph, which stood for 13 years.

Gabelich, who died in 1984, will be represented at the ceremony by his widow, Long Beach City Councilwoman Rae Gabelich, who represents the 8th District.

"Recognizing these celebrated individuals and their families each year is adding a new highlight to our Grand Prix week," added Foster.  "It is especially meaningful this year with Councilwoman Gabelich and her family able to participate.  As the Walk of Fame grows, racing fans will be able to share in the achievements of those racing legends who have made exceptional contributions to the sport."

The Walk of Fame medallions include renditions of the racers' cars and their major achievements in motorsports. Additional information about the inductees' illustrious careers will be available at the event or at www.lbmotorsportswalkoffame.com.

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