|Date: 12/26/2013 11:01:02 PM|
Newly released video game puts players behind the wheel of racing legend's first ride.
By Paul Reinhard, Special to The Morning Call
Mario Andretti's eyes light up like those of a little kid who has just come down the stairs on Christmas morning and spotted a pile of gifts sitting under the tree.
"Oh, no," he says, smiling broadly and shielding his eyes from the bright sunshine while walking toward his "gift."
"Look at that! Unbelievable! Where have you been?"
The object of Andretti's display of wonderment and his question is a Ferrari-red race car, No. 7, with two white stripes running down the middle from the hood, over the roof and across the trunk.
But it's not just any race car. It's the 1948 Hudson Hornet that a couple of teenage Italian immigrants, with the help of some friends with nicknames like "Oscar" and "Weasel" and some ingenuity from a two-years-older racer named Charlie Mitch, built over the course of two years so they could do something they knew their father "would have killed us" if he had known about it.
Well, it's not the actual Hudson in which twins Mario and Aldo Andretti started their racing careers at the old Nazareth Speedway in 1959; but it's about as close to it as one can get when starting with little more than some old photographs.
Oh, and some "technical assistance" from Larry Slutter, a Nazareth native and now a California resident who, in the late 1950s, was, according to Andretti, "one of the original suspects" who worked on the car.
Andretti and the Hornet are the stars of a documentary entitled "First Love," which was produced as part of a project that resulted in the Hudson becoming an element in the latest version of the Gran Turismo 6 video simulation game for Sony PlayStation.
As of Thursday, people from around the world can get "behind the wheel" of the Hornet and test their driving skills.
And, they are already doing it.
Within the first hour of the official release of the newest version of the video simulation game, Zeeshan Haque wrote on Mario's Facebook page, "just drove it as hard as I could … like an Andretti … lots of fun to see and try out such a historic car …"
"They captured a lot of the emotion along the way and brought back a little bit of nostalgia," Andretti said about the entire project, which began in September and culminated in the Thursday release of the GT6 digital simulation.
Paul Williams of Davie Brown Entertainment got the ball rolling when he spoke with John Caponigro, Andretti's manager at Sports Management Network. Soon, according to Andretti, "it went off in many different directions," with Mario's publicist, Patty Reid, and personal assistant, Amy Hollowbush, working tirelessly to carry out the terms of the contract.
For example, people working on the movie needed signed releases allowing them to use lots of old photographs and racing footage. A young Mario is shown in on photo with a cousin, and before it could be used, a release had to be sent to him in Florence, Italy, so that he could give permission to have his image included in the project.
The documentary is divided into three parts:
•An introduction to Andretti, including his early days in Italy and Yugoslavia, coming to the United States in 1955, getting the racing bug and building the original version of the Hornet.
•The re-creation of that old Hudson by veteran car builder Billy Hammon and a crew that did all the work in five days in early December, with the build streamed live on the Internet so that fans could interact with the builders via social media.
•Finally, Mario's reunion with his racing roots, including driving the "new" version in the dark of night at the Grandview Speedway in Bechtelsville, a perfect setting because it runs weekly shows involving modified and sportsmen stock cars.
In the movie, Andretti says, "I've never been sentimental about loving one car over another, so it kind of surprised me the way I felt taking the old Hudson around the track."
When asked about that this week, the 1969 Indianapolis 500 winner, 1978 Formula One world champion and four-time IndyCar national champion said, "This is the first one, what started everything for me, put me on a path for my life-long ambition, my career."
The original car was two years in the building before Aldo, by winning a coin flip, won the right to race it for the first time, even though he and Mario were still two years too young to be legal racers.
Aldo came from the back in a heat race on the half-mile Nazareth Speedway and won, collecting $25. He started last in the feature race because the Andrettis had no previous history at the track. Again, Aldo charged through and won. Another $125.
"We made 150 bucks and it was like 150 grand to us," Mario said Thursday. "We took it right to the bank. We had a loan at [the Second National Bank of Nazareth] for $500, and we paid it off by the end of June."
Mario and Aldo had a big year in 1959, but in the final race of the season, Aldo crashed the car in a wild wreck at Hatfield Speedway and suffered a fractured skull and other injuries. He survived, but the Hornet was finished.
That's what made seeing the Hammon re-creation so special for Mario.
""They did a really good job for the time they had," he said. "A lot of details they couldn't know unless they spoke to me directly, but they captured the essence of it. I was pleasantly surprised in many ways."
The driving simulation work was done by Polyphony Digital, a division of Sony Computer Entertainment.
"They had large team from the company doing the scanning and photographing," of the car, Andretti said. "It was a very sophisticated approach.
"It was a big, big plan, bigger than I realized or thought when we accepted it. It almost seemed like the idea grew from the original and picked up a bigger and bigger life as we went on."
The future of the re-created Hudson is uncertain. Asked if he would be interested in purchasing it, Andretti said, "Oh, sure. I don't know what I'd do with it. I'd hang it somewhere. I would love to have it."
There must be something to that first love attraction. In race cars, anyway.
Retired sports columnist Paul Reinhard is a freelance writer.
For more with Mario about the old Hudson, see Reinhard's blog at http://www.themorningcall.com/sportstalk.
To watch the documentary on your computer, see http://playstation.gt6firstlove.com.
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The Morning Call