In an emotional evening of adoration, the Who’s Who of motorsports gathered to honor Mario Andretti Thursday night at the 4th annual International Motor Racing Research Center Award Dinner held at the Corning Museum of Glass. AR1.com was there to record the highlights.
Those that could not attend sent in video tributes including Bobby Unser, Dan Gurney, Nick Craw, James Hinchcliffe, Richard Petty, Linda Vaughn, Scott Pruett, Roger Penske, Don Prudhomme, George Follmer, and more.
The IMRRC, a research and archival library focused on the history of all types of racing and all race tracks worldwide, presented Andretti with its annual Cameron R. Argetsinger Award for Outstanding Contributions to Motorsports.
Andretti is considered by many to be the greatest driver in the history of the sport, posting victories at virtually every level of racing in a career that spanned five decades
The award memorializes Cameron R. Argetsinger, founder and organizer of the first races at Watkins Glen almost 70 years ago. It was established to honor a person who is recognized universally for having advanced and improved the sport, who brings prestige to motorsports and who demonstrates commitment to the future of racing.
Andretti was clearly moved by the outpouring of love, respect and admiration from the sold-out audience that included a number of his fellow competitors, friends and fans.
“This is the most amazing evening that I’ve ever spent. I’ve never ever experienced anything like this, ever," Andretti said after being presented with the Argetsinger Award by IMRRC Governing Council Chairman Bobby Rahal and Peter Argetsinger, one of nine children of the late Cameron and Jean Argetsinger.
Among the salutes throughout the evening were videos from Dan Gurney, Edsel Ford III, Scott Pruett, Linda Vaughn, Don “The Snake" Prudhomme, James Hinchcliffe, Graham Rahal, Alexander Rossi and Bobby Unser.
Ganassi was on hand to honor Andretti, while other past award recipients Penske and Petty congratulated him on the big screen. Master of ceremonies Dr. Jerry Punch interviewed IndyCar star Dario Franchitti and longtime versatile racer Rick Mears in the audience.
Speaker after speaker told stories of being a young fan of Andretti and of the thrill of meeting him years later. Rahal set the stage when he said he was a teenage fan.
“Mario was the man," he said, continuing, “He’s not just a great driver. He’s a great gentleman. He’s the greatest ambassador for the sport we love."
Ganassi recalled being an 11-year-old asking Andretti for his autograph when he saw the famous driver having lunch at the Glen Motor Inn in Watkins Glen. Their careers would intertwine.
“Any success I’ve ever attained in the sport, you can draw a direct line back to your mentorship," Ganassi said.
Franchitti was a fan at an even younger age. He recalled being a 5-year-old, dreaming of someday meeting Andretti. It happened 19 years later at a race track.
“I was so flummoxed, afterwards I pretty much crashed," he said.
A common thread of attributes was woven throughout the comments from Punch and other speakers: a master of motorsports, a gentleman and a family man, a humble man of high integrity, a man passionate about and committed to the future of racing.
A heartfelt question and answer session between Andretti and Punch followed the award presentation.
Andretti told of his childhood plan to race motorcycles. A plan he thought dashed when his family moved to Nazareth, Pa., as refugees from Italy. But one week after moving to the States in 1959, he and his brother, Aldo, discovered a race track nearby.
His competition career began four years later, racing underage at 19.
“I just wanted to drive and drive and drive," he told the audience.
Andretti’s debut in Formula One happened at Watkins Glen – on the pole in the 1968 United States Grand Prix. Ten years later he was on the pole again and World Champion.
“I felt so good in the car," Andretti said about that 1968 start. “It was an amazing day for me."
Since then, he said, he has raced in four different series at The Glen.
“There is no other track like it," said Andretti, 77, who’s back at The Glen Sunday, behind the wheel of the American Honda two-seater, leading the field for the launch of the Verizon IndyCar Grand Prix at The Glen at WGI.
Andretti posted victories at virtually every level of motorsports in a career that spanned five decades. He is the only driver in history to win the Formula One Championship, the Indianapolis 500 and the Daytona 500.
“I feel so blessed. I’ve gotten so much out of the sport. You’re living the dream, and I’m still living it," Andretti said.
When asked how he wants to be remembered, Andretti answered simply: “I’m just a racer."
The evening was supported by NASCAR, the International Speedway Corp., Watkins Glen International, IMSA, Sahlen’s, Corning Incorporated, Bosch, Firestone and IMRRC Governing Council members Larry Kessler, Bob Newman and Archie Urciuoli. Several sponsor representatives also related stories of their relationships with the legend.
“You’ve been my hero since I was a little kid. It’s an honor to work at Watkins Glen International, knowing that you raced here," Michael Printup, WGI president, said.
On display in the entry were two cars from Andretti’s history: the 1964 Kuzma Watson Indy roadster he drove in the mid-1960s, owned by Lawrence Auriana, and the John Player Special Lotus 79/1, team car to the Lotus 79 that Andretti drove to his World Championship in 1978, owned by Paul Rego of Regogo Racing. Also on display was the IndyCar two-seater that Andretti now pilots, giving fans a thrill of a lifetime, courtesy of American Honda.
An original painting by famed artist Randy Owens, depicting the iconic cars Andretti drove in his decades-long career, was auctioned at the end of the evening, and a champagne toast and several standing ovations ended the gala evening.