ELKHART LAKE, Wis. – An old, famous friend stopped by Road America’s Turn 3 for lunch Saturday. Some eyes couldn’t hide the surprise to see Mario Andretti pull up on a scooter.
Right on time, precisely at noon. Yes, it really was him.
He raised his arms as a throng of about 50 fans cheered the anticipated arrival. They quickly converged to meet a racing legend. Although it’s been nine years since his last visit, the guest of honor couldn’t miss the area with a large sign that read: “Corner 3 Bunch Welcomes Mario Andretti.”
“Last time I was here,” Andretti said, scanning the masses, “all of these people were teenagers.”
The welcoming committee erupted in laughter.
The man who helped make the moment possible approached. Claude Ingrassia, 80, Rockford, Ill., has been coming to Road America since 1962. He and his friends formed the Corner 3 Bunch in 2003 and the group invited Andretti to visit for breakfast 13 years ago after the Hall of Famer acted as a mediator to keep Indy cars racing at the historic track. (Andretti and Ingrassia are pictured at right.)
“The Bunch” wanted to thank Andretti personally for saving the race then. Andretti remembered seeing the group while driving a pace car around the circuit with actor and team co-owner Paul Newman, who was the first to point out the fans cheering and holding up Mario signs. A curious Andretti decided to “hunt them down.”
When they met back then, Ingrassia remembers everyone was amazed at how Andretti was so genuinely cool. All these years later, not much had really changed, except for a few more gray hairs.
The Verizon IndyCar Series’ KOHLER Grand Prix this weekend marks Indy cars’ return to Road America for the first time since 2007. It meant Ingrassia and friends couldn’t wait to get reacquainted with the five-time Road America champion (three times in Indy cars and twice in Can-Am), 1969 Indianapolis 500 winner and racing icon with 52 all-time Indy car triumphs.
“I have a hard time holding my emotions back,” said Pat Wnek, 71, Sherwood, Wis. “We’ve been planning and planning. It’s just so tremendous. I can’t believe that he took his precious time to come here and be with a bunch of regular, old car guys. It’s as spectacular as it can be for everybody.”
Ingrassia presented Andretti with a red cap to confirm the guest’s 2016 status as an “Honorary Corner 3 Bunch Member.” The back of the cap read: “Mario #1.”
“Phenomenal man. The great, great, greatest,” Wnek said. “I’m ready to cry.”
Time for lunch. Vinni Cinquegrani, 59, Chicago, knew a man with Andretti’s proud Italian heritage deserved a sandwich befitting that proud cultural background. Andretti, 76, opened a large bun and started piling in prosciutto, salami, pepper salami and pistachio mortadella. He topped that with quattro formaggi, provolone and fontina cheeses. After a splash of oregano and some tomato, onions and lettuce, Andretti was ready to try to eat.
“Forty-pound sandwich,” said Andretti, who lowered his plate below the knees as if the sub were too heavy for him to carry.
Everyone let the legend eat. They would get autographs and pictures afterward. For now, gawking took precedence.
“These fans are everything,” Andretti said between bites. “Fans are the real fuel for us.”
The sandwich proved to be too much fuel for him to finish. That Mario Andretti needed to share half of his colossal creation got the attention of a fan in the food line.
“He pointed at me!” shouted Bob O’ Keefe, 58, Sheboygan, Wis. “I’ll take it!”
Perhaps O’Keefe would save the sub as a souvenir?
“No, it’s going down,” he said.
An amused Andretti couldn’t resist teasing his sandwich helper.
“He stole it,” Andretti said. “I didn’t give it to him.”
“I’m going to eat it like I stole it,” O’Keefe joked.
That he did. The plate was empty in about 10 minutes.
Indy Lights cars zoomed by as Andretti grabbed a Sharpie and started signing autographs and smiling for photos. Wnek presented an empty wine bottle, a Villa Andretti chardonnay from 2012.
“That’s what I like to sign,” Andretti said with a smile.
Cinquegrani had one more surprise. He opened a box of cannolis, made special by Sicilia Bakery in Chicago.
“Mamma mia!” Andretti shouted.
His fans roared once again.
In between chomping on the tasty pastry and Andretti suggesting he was “gaining 8 pounds,” he kept signing and smiling for snapshots. Jeff High, 59, Kenosha, Wis., emerged with a signed visor.
The retired college professor recalled how his wife, Peggy, didn’t believe the Corner 3 Bunch was going to have lunch with Andretti. “That will never happen,” she had said.
Now he had the autograph to prove it.
“I’m not taking it off,” High said of the visor. “I’m going to sleep in it.”
After a few group photos with Turn 3 in the background, Andretti and his friends said their goodbyes. Ingrassia said his “friend” sounded receptive to making this an annual get-together.
Who enjoyed lunch the most? That was impossible to say.
“This is what it’s all about,” Andretti said, sitting on his scooter and about to zoom away. “We need the true, loyal fans. I’ve been talking to Claude, who has been here for 50-some-odd years. The sport would not exist unless you have people like that.
“It makes my day, quite honestly.”
The feeling mutual, this brush with greatness ended in 52 minutes. A waving Andretti scooted away to “Mario!” cheers. Gone from sight, some fans high-fived each other.
“As fans of racing and Mario, we’re so happy he was here and happy he enjoyed it so much, too,” Ingrassia said. “I can’t say enough good about the man, really.
“Man, we had a great lunch, one of the better lunches we’ve ever had up here.”