Monday, December 16, 2013

Meeting Mario: My Autograph from an Andretti

Photo Credit: Chris Nagy

Have you ever wondered what is the allure of the autograph? Ultimately, why is it that someone writing their name is considered a valuable commodity? If I would have to make a guess, some point in time (prior to camera phones or even the small point and shoot digital cameras) the celebrity signature was created so fans could have a constant acknowledgement for once being in the presence of a figure. That thought ran through my mind as I waited in line to meet Mario Andretti on a Thursday this past June.

I can't believe so much time had past since that encounter very close to my home in Canada. My Thursday trip to a Firestone Tire center started when my mother showed me the ad from a local newspaper. I do have a terrific mother. It was only a matter of dealing with the anticipation of that possible moment in the future. While I've had the privilege of interacting with several motorsport personalities in my capacity as an ever-learning auto racing journalist, my chance for meeting some closely face-to-face is rare. A moment that would stun many fans, my interaction involved that of an Autistic gentleman. Admittedly, I have been for better or worse living with a social condition that had for many years kept me quiet. I have grown thanks to inspiring figures. Inspiration that provided positive and negative impacts on me, I am happy to say Mario Andretti is among the most positive.

Photo Credit: Chris Nagy

The first in a motorsport dynasty, Mario Andretti's racing career started in secret from his parents as him and his twin brother Aldo sneaked around to race an old Hudson. Working hard to earn his way into midget racing, Andretti's eventual rise to the top level of open wheel racing was early chapters in a book of a legend. While most of Mario Andretti's greatest triumphs came before my time, the 1967 Daytona 500, the 1969 Indianapolis 500 and the 1978 Formula 1 World Championship predate my eventual presence on this planet. He was absorbed by motorsport magic and became a wizard who actively placed others under the spell behind racing fast cars.

A rather dark June morning with risk of rain showers, the scenery for meeting with a former Formula 1 and IndyCar superstar was my no means dampened by a little weather. A good crowd managed to rush out for the autograph signing. Being Thursday and a school day, the crowd was understandably older skewing than would be found at a Justin Bieber concert. The dedicated fans provided a visually stunning presentation to both Mario Andretti's legacy and the ones who appreciate an individual who chased a dream. The arrival of Andretti in a small Canadian city was something very special.

Each person inserting themselves orderly into the autograph line brought with them their own personal memories and mementos relating to Mario Andretti. Photographs of Andretti's Formula 1 car, remote controlled car, and T-Shirts provided by the Firestone were all items signed by the retired car race driver. One person ahead of me brought a vintage cardboard IndyCar display that was clearly from the mid 1980s. In my case, I brought a computer CD-ROM version of EA Sports' Andretti Racing that was my first CD computer game. Unlike his sadly departed former team owner Paul Newman who scarcely signed autographs, Mario Andretti possesses a very free writing hand.

Arriving early, I only had to wait about 15 minutes to meet Mario Andretti in person. Chatter along fellow fans reflected an enthusiastic and knowledgeable group. Time quick passed as I succeeded in holding myself together to approach the table where the racing great sat. With me, it's always a strange sensation where I know what I want say but going completely blank when I need to release my words. I wish I could properly express the pleasure that fills me by meeting someone truly outstanding. To feel I can produce so much more eloquent words, my speech uses only the simple words I can readily expel. All I could truly say was, "It is a great honour meeting you.". The worse feeling is that I'm sometimes just saying words rather than engaging an individual. I was fortunate enough to say how his involvement in auto racing resulted in my current pursuits in writing about motorsports. He graciously signed a hero card and the CD ROM as well as allowed me to take a picture of him. Limited once again by my verbal and socialization skills, the roughly 20-second meeting was the most joyous experience of my year.

Photo credit: Chris Nagy

Since that day, as I look at the Mario Andretti autographed hero card I had received from that day. The thought of what an autograph truly means has come to mind. Is an autograph just a valuable piece of sports memorabilia that is sold to collectors? Due to Mr. Andretti's generosity with his signature, the collector market is actually rather soft on his autograph compared to other athletes. Of course, the notion of the all mighty dollar being important for an autograph is obvious hogwash when lineups of delighted fans feel nothing but pride for the signature from the famous driver.

With time passing, the allure of the autograph became clear to me. Since the signature predated taking selfies with a famous person, it was the only memento a person could possess regarding a major experience. Even if meeting was ever-so brief, the autograph's purpose is classically the preservation of a personal memory as much as it is a connection to the hand who wrote their name. The experience I was treated to at that Firestone tire service centre this past June is something not obtainable at a sport memorabilia shop or online auction.

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