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Mid-air refueling brings back memories for Mario Andretti
Mario Andretti in the pilot's seat
By Mario Andretti, Special for USA TODAY

Mario Andretti, the only driver to win the Daytona 500 (1967), the Indianapolis 500 (1969) and the Formula One World Driving Championship (1978), is on a 10-day goodwill trip visiting U.S. service members in Europe and the Middle East with an IndyCar contingent that also includes Johnny Rutherford, Al Unser Jr., Sarah Fisher, Davey Hamilton and Larry Foyt. Andretti will share his observations about the tour in an online diary for USA TODAY:

I had the opportunity along with other members of the tour to lie on my stomach next to the mid-air refueling boom operator at the tail end of a KC-135 Stratotanker, which is our primary mode of transportation on this trip, over the Atlantic. That was very interesting and made me remember that I was on the other side of the boom.

After a hard race in Cleveland in 1985, ESPN used to have the question of the week for somebody and it was my turn. The question was what might have been your alternate career if you weren't a race driver and I said fighter pilot. The following Monday I get a call from the Pentagon and it was the TAC commanding general. He says, 'I was watching your race in Cleveland and caught your interview. You mean what you said?' and I said 'Yes, sir, general.' He then said 'I would love to show you what you've missed. Anywhere in the world you find yourself near an Air Force Base let me know and I'll arrange it.'

The pilot I had at the time, he also was in the Air Guard. He said, 'Why don't we do it at Langley. That would be easy with us living on the East Coast.' We made the arrangements and we received wonderful hospitality the whole time. They were doing a combat training mission and they put me in the back seat of an F-15. We did that sortie for about 45 minutes and then went over the ocean and went supersonic. That was really an incredible experience.

Later that year, we got a call and I was invited to speak to a Wing Commanders' Conference in Homestead (Fla.). So we set it up that the day after the 1986 race in Phoenix we went to Luke Air Force Base I was in one F-16 while there was another one next to us for the trip. Our call letters were Racer 1 and Racer 2. It was a long flight to Florida and we did a mid-air refueling over Texas, which was very interesting how involved it all is.

Soon afterward, the pilot said 'Mario, it's all yours. Do whatever you want. You have four minutes of afterburner.' We turned the transponder off and were all over the sky. However, the radar center could still pick us up and asked, 'Are you boys having fun up there?' It was the most phenomenal experience of my life.

The best part was speaking to all the commanders gathered at the conference. The camaraderie that exists, but also the stories they were telling me. One in particular said, 'Mario, remember (the Formula One race) in 1978 in Holland there was a big banner on the side of a hill that said Go, Go, Mario with the American flag. I was stationed in Germany at the time and a bunch of us guys went up there to cheer you on.' That was so touching. Every experience that I've ever had with the military has been one that I'll never forget. I just have so much appreciation for the discipline, the quality of individual that is in the military. Every opportunity I get I embrace it to be able to visit with them. USA Today

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