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Andretti touches down in Windsor
Mario Andretti on his way to victory at St. Jovite, Canada in 1968
Many times, Mario Andretti stared across in wonder at Windsor.

Thursday, he finally got to see the city up close and personal.

The only driver to win the Daytona (1967) and Indianapolis 500 (1969) 500 races, as well as a Formula One world title (1978), Andretti, 71, was in town to help the brother-sister act of Michelle Cecile and Steve Kipping, proprietors of Kipping Tire on Ouellette Ave., celebrate 20 years with Firestone.

Never one to shy away from speaking his mind, Andretti had plenty to say about the state of North American open-wheel racing, as well as the recently-announced departure of Danica Patrick, the face of IndyCar racing, from Andretti-Green Racing for the supposedly greener pastures of NASAR beginning with the 2012 season.

His take on Patrick’s decision?

Good luck, but IndyCar will be just fine without her.

“Quite honestly, if it was five years ago, I think it might have really put a dent into it,” Andretti assessed of how Patrick’s absence might impact IndyCar’s future popularity.

That was then. This is now.

“I don’t think the series now is depending on one individual, however strong she is,” Andretti said.

“We wish her well, of course. Danica has been a great asset to IndyCar, and she’ll be a great asset to NASCAR. But at the same time, the series is much bigger than one individual. The series will be just fine.”

A four-time North American open-wheel racing champion, Andretti believes that IndyCar is today a sport with a solid North American foothold, long past the days when the battle between IRL and CART splintered fans of open-wheel racing into separate camps.

“It was confusing and it disrupted the flow,” Andretti recalled. “What is Indy Car? Is it this, or is it that?

“Now, everything is back together, and it’s got great momentum, and great sponsorship with IZOD, who have done a tremendous job of promoting the series back into the mainstream.”

With a new car design slated to be introduced for the 2012 season, and three engine makers on board – Honda, Chevrolet and Lotus – Andretti believes IndyCar’s excitement and compete level will only grow stronger going forward.

“A lot of positive things are happening,” he said, noting one facet of IndyCar that’s never waned – Canadian passion for the open-wheel variety of racing.

“Canada’s always been a big supporter of the sport. We’ve got a lot of great fans up here. I think Canada has always been like that. In Toronto, and now in Edmonton, it’s been very popular. Of course, there’s Formula One in Montreal.

“You’ve got good gear heads up here. Motor racing is well-received here.”

Andretti first tasted Canadian racing when he drove midget cars in 1963. After that, there weren’t many Canadian tracks where he didn’t lay down some rubber.

“I raced in (Circuit) Mount Tremblant, at Mosport and downtown Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver,” he said.

“Canada has been very good to us as a family. Look at my son Michael. He’s won Toronto seven times. That’s going to be a tough one to top for anyone.”

Through all the years he stared across at Windsor from Detroit while racing on the downtown street course and on Belle Isle, this was the first time Andretti actually set foot in Windsor.

“We certainly got to see it from across the (Detroit) river,” Andretti said. “It was amazing.

“We would say, ‘Hey, there’s Canada.’ It seemed like you could touch it.”

Thursday, he finally touched down in town, and a large welcoming committee gathered to meet the racing legend. Windsor Star

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