Eric and Bunkyís son, Ethan, grew to be good friends. Both boys decided to try to make a career in racing, and to that end they enrolled in a Mechanics Training Program (MTP) at the Jim Russell Racing Drivers School at Sears Point Raceway north of San Francisco. It really was a good deal since the tuition was only $5,000 for the year. For that, each student was given a nice set of Snap-on tools, complete with tool box worth about $3,000. They also got ten t-shirts, two sweat shirts, a jacket and a hat. On top of that, they got to go through the highly regarded Russell Racing Driverís School and race a couple of times with other Russell customers.
It was a good deal for the school, too, since they received basically free labor to maintain all the racecars the school used. All they had to do was teach the students what to do. The course lasted a year, and a new class would start every six months. While the new "juniors" were learning, the "seniors" were gaining experience.
Liz, Eric and I flew out for an orientation at the school. We got to meet the staff and they gave us a nice tour and explained all about the school - what they expected and what we could expect. While there, we scouted around for a place for Eric and Ethan to live, since the boys were to be roommates. Bunky and I had agreed to split the rent and other expenses. We found a nice place for them in Rohnert Park, about 45 minutes from the track and school.
To move them out there, we used Bunkyís pickup truck and race trailer. Bunky had bought a Formula Vee for Ethan to race when Ethan was 16. They had had a nice, small, enclosed trailer to transport the racecar that would work well to move the boys and their furniture to the west coast.
Bunky could not afford to take the time off to drive them out to California, but I could, so I agreed to drive the truck and trailer out there. Jimmy, who was now retired and had plenty of time on his hands, agreed to help me. We had a three-vehicle convoy as Eric followed Jimmy and me in the Nissan Pathfinder I had given to him when he was a sophomore at the University of North Dakota, and Ethan was in the Mazda Miata Bunky had bought for him. I bought some two-way radios so we could keep in touch. On a Saturday morning in early December, we headed west.
Not wishing to drive straight through, we stopped and got hotel rooms each night. Eric and Ethan would stay in their room and play video games. Jimmy and I would head to the hotel bar. We arrived in Rohnert Park, California and the apartment we had rented for them on Tuesday morning. We unloaded the truck and trailer that afternoon, and Wednesday morning, Jimmy and I headed back east, arriving at my home the next Saturday.
That trip was the most time I had ever spent alone with Jimmy, who had a habit of repeating the same stories all the time. Over the years, I had heard all of Jimmyís stories several times, but I heard them all a couple more times on this trip. I must admit I got a little tired of it on the trip out, and still had the return trip to come. Eric had taken a couple of audio books to listen to on the way out. He had finished one, and I eagerly took it for the trip home, even though I had already read the book. Since we were listening to the book, I was spared any further repeats of Jimmyís stories.
We lost Jimmy to cancer a couple of years ago, and I really miss my old friend. We all do. I would give almost anything to be able to listen to him tell his stories one more time.
The boys had finished their driverís schools in March and their first race was scheduled for July. It turned out that Eric was among the slowest of the mechanics in the schools and Ethan was the fastest. But then Ethan already had a lot of race experience.
Ethan climbs out of his Vee after winning the Loooong race
Ethan had performed well with the old FV they first bought, but Bunky wanted to know what Ethan really had in him, so he rented a front line national car for him. Instantly, Ethan was running at the front in SCCA Nationals. Based on this, Bunky bought a more competitive car and they concentrated on SCCA National races. Ethan did well enough that he qualified for the Runoffs, which had moved from Road Atlanta to Mid-Ohio. Bunky even paid for a trip to Europe and enrolled Ethan in a highly acclaimed driverís school in France - the same school that had turned out the likes of four-time world champion, Alain Prost.
Eric enjoys driverís school at Russell
Liz and I decided to go watch the boys first race. We wound up having quite a group for the event, since Pat met us out there and Bunky and Mary Ann were there with Betty (Mary Annís mother and my second mom). Jerry and Judy made the trip out as well. Even Lizís sister, Vicki, and her husband, Jan, were there.
While watching TV one night before their first race, Ethan trying to be politically correct asked Eric since he was the slower of the two if he would block for Ethan if he needed him to do so. Eric said, "Heck yeah! Iíve know you a lot longer than the rest of those guys." It turns out that is almost exactly what happened.
This was Ericís first race and, predictably, he was running at the back of the pack while Ethan, with his experience, was running at the front. They were in a race with regular Jim Russell customers, and one of those guys was leading the race with Ethan a close second. On the last lap, they came up to lap Eric and caught him coming into corner ten which is an extremely fast right hander leading into the final hairpin. Eric saw them coming in his mirrors but held his line through the corner. This slowed up the leader a little since he had to back off some to avoid hitting Eric and Ethan was able to close up right behind him. After the corner Eric promptly moved over to let them by. However, because he had been held up a bit by Eric the leader was slow going into the hairpin and Ethan slipped past him and took the win.
Naturally the rest of the mechanics and the staff at Russell accused Eric and Ethan of having team orders, which like most F1 team principles they neither confirmed nor denied. Eric was as happy for Ethan as he would have been had he won the race himself.
Eric in a Formula Russell at Sears Point
They had a podium ceremony, minus the champagne, to hand out the trophies. All the students in the MTP joined us for the ceremony. They were thrilled because one of their own had won the race. We all cheered as Ethan stepped to the top of the podium and was awarded his trophy. It was a lot of fun.
Ethan and Eric celebrate Ethanís victory!
The next day Liz, Pat, Vicky, Jan and I headed off to see the wine country. Our first stop in Napa Valley was the winery owned by none other than Mario Andretti. His winery turned out to be a beautiful place with a nice courtyard, complete with a fountain. It had a very Italian villa look about it. The tasting room was very nicely done, with only a few tasteful pictures of Mario on the walls.
We found the wine to be very good as well, and Liz and I ordered three cases to be shipped back home to us. We loaded up on some souvenirs, and I thanked the two people who had waited on us. They had been very nice and treated us very well. I told them I would tell Mario what a great job they had done the next time I saw him. They laughed, and said thanks.
Later that summer, we had our motor home parked on the inside of corner eight at Road America for the CART race. We had traded in the old Itasca and now had a 32-foot Winnebago Brave. Road America allowed camping at the track, and even offered reserved campsites along the fence line in some areas of the track. We had one for the weekend, which sure beat packing up and moving to the Gun Club each Saturday, and then getting up early to get in line on Sunday.
By this time, Pat was joining us at nearly all of the races we attended and was with us as usual. We drove up on Friday morning and parked in our reserved spot, after we got the person who was already parked in our spot to move. We set up camp, and I hiked off to collect the golf cart I had rented for the weekend.
Another improvement at RA was a building overlooking the kink, with flush toilets, showers and a concession stand. They had also put in the Briggs and Stratton Motorplex, a Go Kart track across the way and, in fact, they were holding Go Kart races that weekend as well. That Friday afternoon, I jumped into the golf cart and drove it across the Snap-On Tool Bridge over to the flushers.
When I left the john, I drove my golf cart through the Go Kart paddock, which was just north of the new concession stand. To my surprise, I saw Mario Andretti standing there, next to a trailer that said "Andretti Racing" on the side. Turns out his grandson, Marco, was racing Go Karts there that weekend. Mario had retired as a driver by then, but was usually at the CART races with the Newman Haas team to watch his son Michael and now was watching his grandson as well.
I pulled my golf cart up next to Mario and said hello. I told him that we had visited his winery in Napa and loved the wine. I also fulfilled my promise and told him what a great job his staff in the tasting room had done. He smiled and said, "Well, that is always nice to hear. I am glad you enjoyed your visit." I assured him we had and said, "In fact, we have some of your wine with us if, you would like some. We are in that motor home right over there across the track." He smiled some more and said, "That sounds good. I might take you up on that." "Well, you are welcome any time," I said. He said thank you and I headed back to the motor home.
As I neared the Snap-On Tool Bridge, Mario pulled up alongside me on his scooter and asked, "Where are you parked exactly?" I said, "Follow me, and I will lead you there." He said, "No, I donít have time now, practice will be starting soon and I have a meeting I have to go to." After we crossed the bridge, I stopped and pointed out the motor home to him. He said, "OK, thanks. I will see if I can stop by later," and then he rode away on his scooter.
Corners eight and nine and the Snap-on Tool Bridge at Road America
When I got back to the motor home, Liz and Pat were sitting under the canopy, reading. I parked the golf cart and said, "We may have company later today." Liz looked up from her book and asked, "Who?" assuming it was some old racing buddy. I said, "Mario Andretti. I saw him over by the go karts and invited him to stop by for some Andretti wine. I think he will." Liz laughed and scoffed, "Yeah, right, like that would happen," and went back to her book. Pat jumped up, moved our big fold-up table to the back of the canopy and began placing Andretti wine bottles on it. We had about four different varieties with us. Then she got out the Michael Andretti t-shirt she had purchased, and hung it over the side of the table. There would be no doubt Mario would know he was at the right motor home when and if he came.
We watched the Champ car practice and were waiting for Trans Am practice when Mario rode up on his little scooter. Pat spotted him first and called to Liz who was inside the motor home, "Liz! We have company!" When Liz saw who it was, she came flying out of the motor home, now a believer. We welcomed him, and I introduced Liz and Pat to him. Liz asked, "Would you like some of your wine?" Mario smiled and said, "Sure, that was what I was invited for." Realizing we were short a wine glass, Pat and I nearly knocked each other over rushing into the motor home to get another glass.
Liz asked him what kind he would like and Mario pointed to the bottle of Chardonnay on the table, "Iíll have some of the Chardonnay if you could put an ice cube in it." "No need for an ice cube" I said and pulled a chilled bottle out of the cooler. Pat grabbed the bottle from me, efficiently removed the cork and poured him a glass.
Pat, Mario and Liz
What followed was a magical half hour as we visited with this icon of American racing like we were old friends. Liz asked him how it was that a man whose whole life had been devoted to going fast was into the slow process of making wine. Mario smiled and said he had loved wine all his life and when the opportunity came along he could not resist it. Liz and Pat told him how much we had enjoyed our visit to his vineyard and that we obviously liked his wine. He said he could see that as he glanced at the array of bottles Pat had set out. He mentioned his 1998 merlot had won awards and we should try it. We agreed we would pick some up. (We did, and he was right, it was excellent.)
I mentioned that we had not seen him the weekend before at Mid-Ohio, and he said he had been there on Friday, but had to go home as they were putting his mother into a nursing home. He talked about how hard a thing that was to do. I was amazed that this famous man, whom we had just met, was telling us such personal things.
We talked about the CART-IRL split, and Michael buying Barry Greenís team and moving to the IRL. He said Honda was behind Michaelís move since they had made him an offer he could not refuse. I told him I had always expected to see an Andretti racing team, but thought it would be him and Michael. "So did his mother and I," he said and I could tell he was sad that was not going to be, at least not in the near future.
As we visited, I noticed people who were camped near us walking by. They stopped and stared and pointed at Mario. Soon, I noticed them walking past behind us, and checking Mario out again. Others in the area noticed him standing there as well, but they all left us alone with our conversation. The talk was centered mainly on racing, and I think Mario was impressed with the knowledge of the sport that Liz and Pat displayed. He could tell they were true fans, I am sure.
Mario had been with us for a half an hour, and had had two glasses of wine, when he said he had to leave. He let us take some pictures of us with him. Then he gave Liz and Pat each a kiss on the cheek, shook my hand, thanked us for the wine, said good-bye and rode away on his scooter. From the look in the girlsí eyes, I was not sure that either of them would ever wash that cheek again!
Pat scooped up the glass Mario had used, and gave it to Liz saying, "This should never be washed!" Liz agreed and grabbed the empty bottle of Chardonnay and put them both away in the motor home. After that, we sat quietly in our lawn chairs, and I said, "That was really neat." A little bit later, Pat would say, "That was awesome." Then, after a few seconds of silence, Liz said, "That really was neat." And so it was, as we reveled in the experience we had just had.
The neighbors camped near us came over and asked, "Are you guys personal friends of Mario?" I grinned and said, "We are now!" I explained how it had come to pass and they were amazed. "You mean you just invited him to come have some wine and he did?" they exclaimed in disbelief. I said, "Yes, but it was not just any wine. It was Andretti wine."
Liz and Pat with our new buddy Mario.
The next morning, Liz and Pat took the golf cart and went up in the paddock to visit the Andretti merchandise trailer. There, they both purchased a copy of Marioís book "A Driving Passion." The salesclerk told them that Mario would be there later in the day, and if they came back, he would autograph their books for them. At the appointed time, they were back at the trailer, standing in line for Marioís autograph. When their turn came, Mario looked up and said, "Oh, itís my drinking buddies." As he signed their books, Pat said, "If you would like to stop buy again, we have another bottle of Chardonnay on ice with your name on it, literally." Mario laughed and said, "Thanks, maybe I will."
On Saturday morning, when Jimmy showed up at the track, we regaled him with our story of Marioís visit. I think he was duly impressed. That afternoon, Jimmy and I drove the golf cart to another corner to watch the Trans Am race. After the race, as we were approaching our motor home, we saw two people riding away on scooters. Jimmy said, "Look, there goes Mario". I could see that one of the two was indeed Mario, and said, "Well, you can bet the girls are happy!" And they were.
Mario, in response to Patís invitation had stopped by again, and this time brought a friend along. Liz was ready this time and had sausage, cheese and crackers and some raw vegetables and dip ready, just in case. This time, the girls were polite enough to invite Mario and his friend, Peter, to sit down. We had not thought of doing that the day before, but then we did not expect him to stay as long as he had, either. Pat asked Peter what he did, and Peter said, "Basically, just what youíre doing. I am the Director of Hospitality for Newman Haas Racing."
Mario and Peter spent another half hour with them, and emptied another bottle of Andretti Chardonnay. This time, our neighbors came over and asked if they could have their picture taken with Mario and, being the true gentleman that he is, of course he obliged. Then they went in search of Jimmy and me, but were unable to find us. This time, Pat confiscated the glass Mario had used, along with the empty bottle, for her own souvenirs.
Sunday morning, Bunky and then, Tom, showed up and heard all about our visitor. I think Bunky was a little skeptical at first, no doubt because it would be far from the first time we had pulled his leg. But Jimmy confirmed that he had seen Mario ride away.
Mario had told us when his grandson Marco would be racing his Go Kart, so when the time came that Sunday afternoon, we got in the golf cart and headed across the Snap-On Tool Bridge and over to the Briggs and Stratton Motorplex to watch Marco race. Liz and Pat each brought their copy of Marioís book. We saw that both Mario and Michael were there, but we could not go past the fence, so we waited at the gate. After Marcoís race, we saw Mario coming out the gate and I called out to him. He came right over and shook my hand as I told him I was sorry I had missed him yesterday.
Pat told him they were hoping they could get Michael and Marco to sign their books. Mario said they would, we should just go on over there. I told him security would not let us through the gate, so he took us over and told the guard we were friends of his. Naturally, we were ushered right in. The quest was successful, and Michael and Marco autographed both books. I am sure Liz and Pat are the only ones with three generations of Andrettiís autographs in their book. I bet they are even more valuable now since Marco will be driving for his fatherís Andretti Green IRL team.
Liz sent copies of the pictures we took out to Eric, who was still in the mechanics school in California. He took them with him to a race at the California Speedway, and managed to get Mario to autograph the one with Liz and me with Mario, as well as the one with Liz and Pat with him. Now, in our family room, in the middle of a bookcase, is a sort of Mario Andretti shrine. The autographed book is the backdrop with the autographed picture of us in front of that, flanked by the unwashed wine glass with Marioís fingerprints still on it and the empty Andretti Chardonnay bottle. Pat has a similar shrine in her condo.
Liz Mario and the Author
Copyright © 2006 by Terry Aasen