Legendary Race Car Driver Mario Andretti Receives Commendatore Honor from the Republic of Italy Italy Celebrates Extraordinary Career of Native Son New York, NY, October 24, 2006 -- A beaming Mario Andretti received the Commendatore...
Legendary Race Car Driver Mario Andretti Receives Commendatore Honor from the Republic of Italy
Italy Celebrates Extraordinary Career of Native Son
New York, NY, October 24, 2006 -- A beaming Mario Andretti received the Commendatore dell'Ordine al Merito della Repubblica Italiana last night in honor of his public service and achievements as a race car driver and his enduring commitment to his Italian heritage.
The Commendatore, as it is less formally known, was presented by Italy's Consul General to New York, Antonio Bandini, on behalf of Giorgio Napolitano, President of the Republic of Italy. The ceremony was held in New York City at the Columbus Citizens Foundation. Andretti had been the Grand Marshal of the Foundation's 2004 Columbus Day Parade on Fifth Avenue.
Visibly moved by the ceremony, Andretti, 66 years old, said, "The first thing that came to my mind when I officially heard that I would receive this award was about my father, Gigi [Alvise], and the pride he would have felt, and my mother, Rina, and I know that tonight they invited St. Peter to join them for a cup of grappa." Grappa is an Italian brandy.
The ceremony was introduced by Lawrence Auriana, chairman of the Columbus Citizens Foundation, a sports car racing aficionado and good friend of Andretti. "I have been a fan of Mario Andretti's since 1966, when he won his first pole position at the Indianapolis 500. Over time, I came to realize that he was not only a great driver but a great gentleman, one who was equally gracious in victory and defeat. It is a pleasure to see this great Italian American receive an honor from the Italian government in recognition of Mario's remarkable career and good character, which have reinforced a positive image of Italians and Italian Americans throughout the world."
In an interview with RAI television before the ceremony, Auriana said, "Mario's great skill and courage were exemplified by the 1976 Japanese Grand Prix, the final race of the season, in which Niki Lauda, the Ferrari Team driver and World Champion, pulled into the pits and forfeited his chance to retain the championship because of the difficult conditions caused by a monumental downpour and fog. Mario Andretti continued the race and won. Two years later, Andretti himself won the World Formula One Driving Championship."
Auriana also said, "For United States race fans, Mario's domination of the skill of automobile racing is best exemplified by the fact that he is the only driver in history to have won the NASCAR Daytona 500, the Indianapolis 500, and the World Formula One Driving Championship."
In a career that spanned an unprecedented five decades, Andretti achieved prominence in almost every category of motor racing. He was Formula One World Champion, Indy 500 winner, Daytona 500 winner, four-time Champ Car National Champion, USAC National Dirt Track Champion and three-time winner of 12 Hours of Sebring, among others. He was named Driver of the Year in three different decades, Driver of the Quarter Century, and Driver of the Century by the Associated Press and RACER Magazine.
Before presenting the Commendatore honor, Ambassador Bandini said that Andretti's "fantastic achievements in sport are not the only reason we are about to honor him with the most important distinction of the Italian Republic. Indeed, Mario Andretti has always been a prominent member of the Italian American community [and] extremely proud of his Italian heritage."
"It is a great honor for me that the Italian government has bestowed this honor on me," said Andretti, "and not just for me but for my family and for my profession."
Members of the Andretti racing dynasty were present at the event. His family members included: his twin brother, Aldo, who was part of Andretti's racing team throughout his career; son Michael, a retired Indy Car Champion and an owner of the Andretti Green Racing Team; son Jeff, who also raced until an accident during the Indy 500 ended his career; and grandson Marco who in 2006 was named Rookie of the Year by the Indy Racing League.
Also present were Mario Andretti's wife, Dee Ann, his sister Anna Maria Burley, and his daughter Barbie.
Among those celebrating the event was Lidia Mattichhio Bastianich, star of the public television series, "Lidia's Italian-American Kitchen," and author of three cookbooks. Both Mario and Bastianich are natives of Istria, formerly part of Italy and now divided between Slovenia and Croatia. A private dinner based on her recipes was served following the ceremony.
Andretti retired from racing in 1994. He is now a businessman whose interests include the Andretti Winery, in Napa Valley, a petroleum business in California, several car dealerships, the Mario Andretti Racing School in Las Vegas, and the Andretti Indoor Karting and Games facility near Atlanta.