So there I was sitting in my local airport, waiting to board a flight to visit family for Thanksgiving. Waiting around in airports has often produced some interesting encounters (see Delayed Departures and Connections), and Thanksgiving has inspired some thoughts (see On Giving Thanks), but none quite like this one. The flight was full, and the gate area had the usual assortment of families and people waiting around for boarding to begin. Children running around, senior citizens waiting patiently, throngs of individuals checking their smartphones, carry-on luggage strewn about, frequent flyers pre-positioning themselves. The usual holiday travel melee. And in the midst of it all was a very recognizable traveler calmly checking his smartphone. Mario Andretti. I looked around at first, somewhat stunned that nobody else seemed to recognize him. You would think that he would be surrounded by a mob. And what was one of the most famous american racing drivers in history doing standing and waiting to get on a plane just like me? It seemed....well.....wrong.
I quickly realized of course, that outside of gearhead and racing circles, he might not be instantly recognizable to John Q. Public. Just a few days prior to this, I had been watching him on television as he commented on the inaugural Formula One Grand Prix race in Austin Texas. You would imagine that the worst nightmare for someone like Mario Andretti, is to be stuck in an airport having to have a conversation with perhaps dozens of individuals who would ask the same questions you have had to answer half a million times before.
"So what tires do you think I should put on my Camry?"
"... and then the trooper said who do you think you are, Mario Andretti?"
"Can you coach my slightly overweight nephew? He's pretty good on that Xbox thing"
"...I bet I can beat you to the men's room..."
I decided to go over and say hello.
What happened next was completely unexpected. Far from being dismissive or even forcibly tolerant, Mario Andretti was engaging and continued in a conversation about a variety of things. We talked about the return of Formula One to America with the Austin race and the upcoming potential New Jersey race. We talked about promising young drivers making it into Formula One. We talked about the difference between racing during his heyday and now; about jumping between racing series like Indy, F1 and Sports Cars. He said that he still enjoyed the sport and his involvement through his children and grandchildren. We chatted about going south and escaping the cold for a bit. I could have continued to talk with him for sometime, but I thought it best to leave while still welcome. I thanked him for his contribution to the sport and for his time. Minutes later, as if on cue, the gate announced the beginning of boarding. If he was bored, or bothered, he certainly did not give an indication of that during our conversation. In fact to the contrary, he seemed at ease and comfortable. I thought that was remarkable.
I saw him once again as I walked through first class on the way back to my seat. We smiled and nodded to each other as two old gearhead friends typically do. A few days later, despite a full Thanksgiving feast and leftovers, and despite renting a Toyota Yaris, I still feel faster ;-)