By Steven Capwell
It all started when David Bauer moved into the neighborhood in the summer of 1966. Skinny and tough, he had two sports heroes – Cookie Rojas of the Philadelphia Philies and Mario Andretti of Nazareth. Cookie had a great career as a player and a coach. Mario went on to be named Driver of The Century. Davey knew talent.
Davey liked Mario because Mario used to race stock cars against his dad up in Nazareth. In Davey’s eyes, this imbued Andretti with near mystical powers and he may have been right. Mario could win in everything he drove: Indy cars, dirt cars, stock and sports cars. The fact that my hero, Scotland’s Jim Clark, was having a horrible year made Andretti’s exploits as trumpeted by this 12-year-old acolyte very difficult to stomach. It didn’t matter that he was local. It didn’t matter than he was USAC Champion and won the Daytona 500 in 1967. Mario Andretti was the bad guy in my eyes.
Indy 1969 changed all that. The win, the Granatelli kiss – it has all been documented. It’s a commercial that appeared on TV later that year that cemented my connection with Mario. It showed Mario crashing hard into the wall during practice for the 500 and his Lotus catching fire. Flames engulf the car and we see the driver crawl from the wreck. We then hear Mario exclaim, “Dat’a a-me hittin’ da wall and dat’s a-me climbing otta da wreck.” The mix of Italian, Pennsylvania Dutch and Lehigh Valley in his voice was so familiar, so local, such a part of my life, that I made a connection with Mario that has lasted a lifetime.
I have followed Mario’s career as it has taken him all over the world. I’ve seen him race Indy cars and Formula One. I’ve taken his picture and gotten his autograph. When I’ve met race fans from around the world, I tell them that I live near Nazareth and the recognition is instantaneous. On my wall hangs a picture of my son interviewing Mario at Nazareth Speedway for a student internship at WDIY FM. That same year I interviewed Mario’s son, Michael. My younger son was a classmate of his grandson, Marco. One day while driving on Rte, 191, I looked in my mirror and saw Mario driving his Lamborghini behind me. I was leading the Formula One World Champion!
Mario of Nazareth. It sounds biblical, and in a way it is. A hero of incredible talent and courage, he has conquered the world and returns to the humble town of his youth, the adopted home of his family. He’s one of us.
Steven Capwell firmly believes in braking before turns and accelerating through them. (You have been warned.) He was raised in Catasauqua, went to school in Allentown, lives in Bethlehem, and has recently come to discover and enjoy Easton.
In honor of the 100th Anniversary of the Indianapolis 500, and the tradition this race and the Lehigh Valley’s Andretti family share, this is the second in a series of posts celebrating them both. Read the first post here.
Photo of Mario Andretti after winning the 1969 Indy 500 courtesy of Mario Andretti and by the AP.