Andretti, Gross, Iacocca and Leno: 4 Great Auto Ambassadors
They can be celebrities, sports heroes or even industry executives, but for one reason or another, these four guys have managed to make cars, motorcycles, old stuff and racing accessible to all. They make car culture enticing for the average American, who typically thinks about cars less than they think about their dishwasher.
Racing – Mario Andretti
For the most part, if Americans know race car drivers at all, it’s NASCAR drivers they recognize. The Dale Earnhardt, Jrs. and Jeff Gordons of the world pretty much dominate the face of racing here. The lone exception is Mario Andretti. Since 1954, when he began racing Formula Junior in Ancona, Italy at the age of 13, Mario Andretti has made racing his life’s work, and was one of the first drivers to cross over from Indy cars to stock cars to sprint cars to NASCAR to Formula 1 to IROC, competing at the highest level of each discipline as he went.
Part of the reason for Andretti’s ambassadorship of the sport of auto racing is the way we watched sports on television in the 1960s. There were three networks, CBS, NBC and ABC and the dominant sports program in the late 1960s was ABC’s Wide World of Sports. The 90-minute show aired late afternoons every Saturday and was a sports anthology that aired everything but football, baseball, hockey and basketball, because the budget for producing it didn’t include rights for the four major sports. As a result, auto racing became a staple of Wide World of Sports viewership, bringing American audiences racing from all over the world: Formula 1, NASCAR, drag racing and USAC championship racing, and Mario seemed to be in all of it.
In 1967, he hammered a Ford Fairlane prepared by Holman-Moody to victory in the Daytona 500. In 1969, after his win at the Indianapolis 500, Wide World of Sports nominated Mario Andretti as its “Athlete of the Year,” bypassing athletes like Rod Laver (who won his second tennis Grand Slam), and Tom Seaver (who threw 10 innings to put the ‘69 Mets in a position to win the World Series). Then, in 1975, Mario left the world of Indy racing and moved onto the world stage, with Wide World of Sports at his heels. He earned a full-time ride in Formula 1 with Parnelli Racing, then Lotus, eventually going on to win the championship in 1978.
He was a ubiquitous feature, and remains so to this day. He parodied himself in the Pixar film, Cars, featured as the very car he piloted to victory at Daytona in 1967, and he’s a regular draw in Honda advertisements where he pilots a two-man Indy car with the winner of a contest Honda runs every year. Lately, he voiced a character in the animated film Turbo.
Hot Rods – Ken Gross