Racing legend Andretti visits Myrtle Beach Speedway

Andretti pays visit to Grand Strand

ryoung@thesunnews.comJuly 28, 2012 

— When Bob Lutz purchased Myrtle Beach Speedway, he did so with the belief that the old track’s future could live up to its past as a proving ground for some of racing’s marquee names. And to help build attention and support for that cause, well, he called upon one of the biggest names the sport has ever had.

Legendary driver Mario Andretti arrived via helicopter Saturday night to make an appearance at the speedway before the evening’s scheduled event, mingle with the fans who weren’t kept away by the rain showers and, of course, talk a little racing.

“We need these venues,” Andretti said after getting his first look at the place. “And the unfortunate thing [is] they’re disappearing because of whether it’s the value of land or whatever. But the sport needs venues like this where some of the aspiring young kids can just start, because you can’t start at the top. This is great for your formative years. These are the tracks that have created the champions we have seen over the years – the champions of today and champions of yesterday.”

Andretti, of course, is one of racing’s all-time great champions. A four-time IndyCar national champion, he ranks second all-time with 52 IndyCar victories and won more than 100 races overall between various series – including the 1967 Daytona 500 and the 1969 Indianapolis 500.

He and Lutz have been involved in business ventures since 2004 and have known each other since the mid 1990s, Lutz said.

“Typically Mario will go to much bigger events than what we have here, but Mario has been very supportive in anything that I’ve done,” Lutz said. “And when I told Mario I purchased the speedway here and that I would like for him to come in for tonight [Saturday] ... he wanted to see the facility and help in any way he could.”

Andretti, who drove the pace car before the evening’s rain-delayed race, said he got a brief history lesson on the track as he arrived, learning about some of the names – like the Earnhardts and Pettys – that have competed at Myrtle Beach Speedway since it was originally built in 1958.

“From what I hear, just all the big names have been here at one time or another,” he said. “The fact that it’s been here since the late ’50s I wouldn’t have believed because it looks brand new.”

Now 72, Andretti keeps a busy schedule with commitments to the companies he’s associated with as well as his own business interests and watching his son and grandson carry on the family name. Michael Andretti is an IndyCar team owner now and his son Marco drives for that Andretti Autosport team. The elder Andretti says he still goes to about half of the IndyCar races on the schedule to keep tabs on the family business.

“I follow all of motor racing as closely as I can,” he said. “Obviously, it’s been my life and it continues to be.”

Lightning flashed through the sky and an untimely downpour drenched the area in the hour leading up to Andretti’s scheduled appearance Saturday night, but Lutz decided to stick with the plan and bring him in anyway for however many fans made it out to the track.

“It’s great for the speedway,” Lutz said. “It’s great for the fans and the community to have someone like Mario come in because getting him to come to a short track isn’t typical for someone like Mario, so it’s an honor for me to have him here and one more big name that’s been out here to Myrtle Beach Speedway.”

As for Lutz, he said the track’s regular events – the Wednesday night thrill shows and Saturday races – are doing well, and he has visions to bring more events to town. He said he has had conversations with the UARA, PASS, NASCAR Camping World Truck and K&N series.

“We’re in discussions right now with several series about bringing some of their marquee events here to the speedway,” he said. “My short-term goal is to continue bringing in big events to the speedway and long-term goal is to continue making improvements to the facility, building what we have here, getting this track back on the map again and back to the days of 10, 15 years ago. As successful as it was, I think we can get it back to that level again in the next three to five years.”

Said Andretti: “Without venues like this, where would you start? It’s just like going to school. You can’t start at the university.”

Contact RYAN YOUNG at 626-0318.

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