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The happy guys who inspire at the 500 (Go Helio!)

May 25, 2013 - Paul Giannamore
Sunday is the 97th running of the Indianapolis 500. Since I was four and Parnelli Jones almost won in Andy Granatelli’s turbine car in 1967 through the debut of the latest-generation Indy cars last year, with the win by Dario Franchitti, I have been a month of May speed junkie.

I’ve read a book called “30 Days in May,” the story of the 1970 Indy 500 (the first of two consecutive won by Al Unser Sr. in the Johnny Lightning Specials) about 15 times, the first when I was all of maybe 9. I read Granatelli’s ridiculously thick autobiography “They Call Me Mr. 500” at least four times. I have the full career set of Mario Andretti cards in a collector tin in a box in my closet. About this time of year, I pull them out and read them and enjoy them. I took a photo of what was once a rare thing: A.J. Foyt smiling. I cried when Mark Donohue died.

I know esoteric stuff only nutty race fans know, such as: Mario Andretti wasn’t in his own official race photo in 1969, the year he won his only 500. He was healing from facial burns in a practice crash and his twin brother, Aldo, stood in for the photo. Aldo later that year had his face injured in a racing crash and his career ended, and the reconstruction means he hasn’t been Mario’s identical twin since.

I had the most memorable day of my entire professional life at Mid-Ohio, a test-day luncheon one-on-one with Brazilian Emerson Fittipaldi and Mario Andretti, at a picnic table right above the pits right after their test sessions. No PR hacks or anything. No other reporters showed up from anywhere. So it was just me and them and fruit cups! I keep the cassette of the interview in storage.

Fittipaldi is absolutely fantastic. He said he liked Indy racing very much more than Formula 1, because of the easygoing access afforded between drivers and fans. At least in the late 1980s and early 1990s. “I get to have lunch with guys like you, Paulie,” he said in that rich Brazilian accent. “In Formula 1, I would be getting into a limousine and you’d be running after, yelling ‘Emmie, Emmie.’”

I’ll never forget that.

Retired Steubenville police DARE officer Tony Piergallini e-mails me the absolute best photos annually from the Brickyard, He thrilled me this year with photos of a hero, Alex Zanardi, an Italian whom I saw win at Cleveland in a car owned by Pittsburgh’s Chip Ganassi. Zanardi didn’t give up on life after losing two legs in a racin accident in 2001. He won three gold medals as a hand cyclist at the London Paralympics last year.

With all that, it’s a little embarassing to admit I’m 50 and I’ve never been to the 500. I’ve been to the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis a bunch of times, and I’ve been to the Formula 1 Grand Prix at Indianapolis. I get goosebumps every time I think about the first time I walked out of the tunnel into the infield. It is the racing fan’s equivalent of a Vatican visit for a Catholic (that one is still on my bucket list).

Embarassing until I remembered something. Zanardi, a true Indy racing legend, never actually raced at the speedway. Much of his American career was spent racing when the Indy Racing League ran the 500 and Championship Auto Racing Teams -- and Ganassi -- ran elsewhere on Memorial Day.

Zanardi was at Indy Friday to receive a gift from Ganassi of a car in which Zanardi established his racing legend with an impossible pass at California’s Laguna Seca track. (See the link to YouTube with today’s PabloG).

Zanardi still flashes that Italian smile.

As for today, I’m pulling for Helio Castroneves, who drives for Penske and has three wins. He was acquitted of a complex corporate income tax charge in 2009 and never lost the charm he had as the “Dancing With the Stars” winner in 2007. He came back and won the 500 in 2009, just weeks after the trial ended, crying in Victory Lane for joy and redemption and answered prayers. He is absolutely fantastic, as those happy Brazilians say. He’s shooting for that rare thing, a fourth win at the Indy 500. He said a couple days ago he’d give up sex for a year if he could just win one more. How anyone would prove that is beyond me and TMI.

He just has that smiling, happy attitude personified in guys like Fittipaldi and Zanardi, a happiness all too rare in sports nowadays.

And if you can’t have fun racing, why do it at all?


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