Mario Andretti reunites with pace car from Indy 500

Mario reunited with 1969 Indy 500 pace car
1969 in same car
Mario reunited with 1969 Indy 500 pace car

When auto racing legend Mario Andretti won the Indianapolis 500 in 1969, he rode in a muscled Camaro for a victory lap with wife Dee Ann Andretti and team owner Andy Granatelli.

Flash-forward 46 years to Wednesday. That same Camaro, looking just as good now as it did then, cruised up to Andretti Winery on Big Ranch Road for an audience with the legendary Andretti himself.

Wade Ogle, a Napa native who had grown up with a love of classic cars, had brought his restored Camaro for Andretti's inspection, and perhaps for a walk down memory lane.

Only a few days prior to that 1969 win, the Camaro had been one of the first responders after Andretti's historic crash during the qualifying event. Andretti walked away from the wreckage with only minor burns to his face, but the car he was planning to race in the Indy 500 was destroyed.

Andretti captured the hearts of motorsports enthusiasts by returning to the track and winning the prestigious race with a backup car.

Andretti was an inspiration to Ogle during his formative years. After all, Andretti is the only man who has won the Indy 500, the Daytona 500 and the Formula One World Championship. He won the Pikes Peak Hill Climb and was victorious three times at Sebring. He won the Japanese Grand Prix in 1976 in heavy rain and took the F1 World Championship two years later.

Andretti won four IndyCar National Championships, becoming the first driver in racing history to win both Formula One and IndyCar titles. He was the first driver to break the 200-mph barrier at Indianapolis during a practice run in 1977.

Throughout his 50-year racing career Andretti earned 111 victories and continued proving himself in every area of racing. He was named "Driver of the Century" by RACER magazine and the Associated Press in 2000.

"I think seeing pace car no. 2 will bring back memories for Mario of the most wonderful moments in his life," Ogle said.

When Andretti, a Pennsylvania resident who was visiting his Napa winery on Wednesday, saw the car, he was flooded with nostalgia.

"You can imagine how I feel," Andretti said. "This car brings back very special memories.

"Winning the Indy 500 was a coveted prize. I wanted to do it for myself but also for Andy Granatelli, who had been trying so hard for many years. It was important to my family – we're a third-generation racing family," Andretti said.

Encouraged by Ogle, Andretti got into the car, turned the key and smiled as the engine roared to life.

After awhile, Andretti invited the Ogle family to join him in the car – even Zack's sister, 10-year old Caycie. The expression on all of their faces resembled those of children awaiting Santa's arrival at Christmas.

"This car is very impressive. This is the best I've seen," Andretti said. "What he (Ogle) has done with this is amazing. It is like brand new. It is truly a labor of love."

Inspired by the historic car and the presence of the iconic race car driver, winery visitors began reliving glory days.

"I was at Indy for the time trials when he (Andretti) hit the wall. When they lifted the wrecked car, it couldn't have been more than 4-5 feet long after it hit the wall. I'll never forget it," said Cal Martin, who was visiting with a group of eight fans from the Midwest.

"Of any American out there, he is the one I've wanted to meet the most. I watched his races with my dad, who is now 85. I've been routing for him since I was a kid," said Mike Keith.

The start of the 1969 Indy 500 with AJ Foyt on pole, Mario Andretti in the middle and Bobby Unser on the outside
The start of the 1969 Indy 500 with AJ Foyt on pole, Mario Andretti in the middle and Bobby Unser on the outside

As each busload of visitors arrived, Andretti stopped to sign autographs and pose for pictures with the winery's guests.

Between his duties as the visiting host, Andretti looked through several dozen photos that Ogle brought. "These photos show it all. They are fabulous photos," Andretti said.

As the two men looked through the stack of pictures, the years seemed to disappear for Andretti as he talked about each photo.

"If you look close, you can see the burn on my face from the accident a few days before in this one," he said.

"This is Elmer George driving," Andretti said, pointing to another photo. "He was married to Mari Hulman. George was murdered."

"That one was rained out."

"Is that you?" Ogle asked.

"I know it looks like me but it isn't," Andretti laughed. "That's Jim Rutherford."

"You can have them," Ogle responded. "You can have them all."

Andretti signed each of Ogle's photos and gave them back to him, keeping only a few.

Ogle gave Andretti a book he wrote about the restored Camaro. The book is filled with documentation, photos and news clippings.

Asked if he collects classic cars, Andretti said he is "too much into speed" to have the patience for collecting and restoring but that he appreciates those who do.

While Andretti was making a name for himself by breaking speed records on the track and winning race after race, Ogle was attending Mt. George Elementary School in Napa, followed by Silverado Middle School. He graduated from Vintage High School in 1984.

Ogle's family owned the former Volkswagen BMW dealership on Soscol Avenue, and some of his family still live in Napa, including his mother, Sandi Ogle. His brother, Michael Ogle, just graduated from Napa Valley College.

Growing up in a household of "car people," the knowledge of cars trickled down to him. For 15 years, Ogle, now a business owner and San Jose resident, has been collecting rare classic cars and now owns 30. He sometimes buys cars from television's car guru Wayne Carini of "Chasing Classic Cars."

"My collection isn't the biggest but it is the best – it is the rarest of the rare." Ogle said. "I learned about cars when I didn't have money.

As a "serious" collector, Ogle spends a lot of time doing research and documentation and "hounding the guy to let go of his car."

Someday, Ogle hopes to build a classic car museum in Napa on the property he owns on Silverado Trail behind Kevin Massie's Napa Ford.

In addition to his rare finds, Ogle still has his first car, a VW Bug that looks just like it did in 1984.

The hours spent with Andretti on his 6-year-old son Zack's birthday will never be forgotten, Ogle said.

"We had a great time. It was wonderful," he said. Rosemarie Kempton/Napa Valley Register

Leave a Reply