News From Terre Haute, Indiana

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May 29, 2011

It’s a dream come true for long-time Indy 500 fan (See VIDEO)

INDIANAPOLIS — Roaring at high speeds around the track at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in May is a race fan’s dream.

For Joe Claretto, thanks to a surprise Christmas gift from his son, Greg, that dream came true last week — less than a week before the May 29 scheduled running of the Indianapolis 500, which is the 100th anniversary of the race.

“Everyone in my family knew what was happening except me,” Claretto, 78, said as he stood next to the pit exit at the IMS on Monday morning. Dressed in a black racing suit and holding his black racing helmet, Claretto was waiting for his first of three rides around the track in a two-seat Indy car as part of the Indy Racing Experience.

Greg Claretto wanted to give his father, a retired pharmacist from Terre Haute, something very special for Christmas last year. The Indy Racing Experience seemed like the perfect gift for a man who is attending his 55th-consecutive Indianapolis 500 today.

“This is a ‘thank you’ for bringing us to all these races,” Greg Claretto said when asked why he chose this gift for his dad. Joe started taking his three sons to the race in the early 1970s.

Last Monday was a “Legends Day” for the Indy Racing Experience, meaning the drivers piloting the two-seater Indy cars were some of the biggest names in the history of motor racing. In this case, the drivers all were former Indy 500 champions: Mario Andretti, Johnny Rutherford and Arie Luyendyk. This came as a big surprise for Joe, who assumed the drivers would be much less prominent.

“I had no idea,” Joe said while waiting in the warm May sunshine for his first ride. “It blew my mind.”

Mario Andretti — because of a shared Italian heritage — is a special favorite of Joe Claretto’s. At the Indy Racing Experience, Joe got several opportunities to talk to his long-time racing hero. During one of those conversations, Joe mentioned all the times Andretti, the 1969 Indy 500 winner, had run well at the Brickyard without capturing the checkered flag. If the May classic were 400 miles in length instead of 500, Andretti would have won the event six times, the long-time driver told Claretto.

In addition to his Indy 500 victory, Andretti, 71, also won the Formula One championship in 1978 and the Daytona 500 in 1967. He is the only person ever to have won the Indy 500, the Daytona 500, the Formula One title and the Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART) title in his career.

Greg, 49, was the first of the Clarettos to take a ride in one of the two-seaters last Monday. His driver was Andretti.

“Mario got on it,” said Greg, who grew up in Terre Haute but now lives in Bloomington, after emerging from his speedy two-lap trip. “I couldn’t imagine doing that for 200 laps.”

Those getting rides in the Indy Racing Experience awaited their turns at the exit to pit row. Andretti, Rutherford and Luyendyk would bring their racing machines to a stop at the end of pit lane, open their visors for fresh air and wait while their passenger climbed out and a new rider was helped into the back seat. Once the helmeted passengers were secured in their seats by Indy Racing Experience officials, the drivers would hit their accelerators and the two-lap rides would begin.

Joe Claretto’s first ride was with Luyendyk, 57, the winner of the 1990 and 1997 Indy 500s. Unfortunately, Luyendyk’s car experienced gear box problems on Claretto’s ride and was unable to get up to speed. It was the only mechanical problem all day and Claretto was given an extra ride later in the day with Luyendyk at full speed to make up for it.

Claretto’s next ride was with Rutherford, 73, who was sporting his “Lone Star J.R.” helmet. Rutherford, who won the Indy 500 three times, took the elder Claretto around the two-and-a-half mile track in about 1 minute, including accelerating, making an average speed of about 150 miles per hour. Then, Claretto rode with his favorite driver, Andretti. Mario’s quick lap — including accelerating from a standing start — lasted just 50 seconds, making an average speed of 180 mph.

“Mario drove just like he always raced,” Joe said after the ride. “He doesn’t have an intermediate speed. It’s gung-ho and go.”

After all of the approximately 60 Indy Racing Experience riders were finished with their trips around the track, the long day, which had included meals and photograph sessions, was drawing to an end. Each participant received a plaque, a cap and a shirt, and they also got to keep the helmets they wore on their rides.

“They all signed my helmet,” Joe said of racing legends who escorted him around the famed oval. During the autograph period at the end of the day, Claretto found himself with a few additional seconds to speak to Andretti. By that time, the two men were calling each other “Compaesano” — the Italian word for fellow countryman.

“I’ve been blessed in my life,” Joe told Andretti, who was seated at the autograph table. “I’ve always said there are five days in my life I will never forget.” Those days were the day Claretto married his late wife, Martha Jean; the day he found Jesus; and each of the three days his sons were born, he told Andretti.

“Now, I’ve added a sixth day,” Claretto told a visibly pleased Andretti. “I will never, ever, ever forget this day. It was just fantastic.”

Arthur Foulkes can be reached at (812) 231-4232 or arthur.foulkes@tribstar.com.

 

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