They can be celebrities, sports heroes or even industry executives, but for one reason or another, these four guys have managed to make cars, motorcycles, old stuff and racing accessible to all. They make car culture enticing for the average American, who typically thinks about cars less than they think about their dishwasher.
Racing – Mario Andretti
For the most part, if Americans know race car drivers at all, it’s NASCAR drivers they recognize. The Dale Earnhardt, Jrs. and Jeff Gordons of the world pretty much dominate the face of racing here. The lone exception is Mario Andretti. Since 1954, when he began racing Formula Junior in Ancona, Italy at the age of 13, Mario Andretti has made racing his life’s work, and was one of the first drivers to cross over from Indy cars to stock cars to sprint cars to NASCAR to Formula 1 to IROC, competing at the highest level of each discipline as he went.
Part of the reason for Andretti’s ambassadorship of the sport of auto racing is the way we watched sports on television in the 1960s. There were three networks, CBS, NBC and ABC and the dominant sports program in the late 1960s was ABC’s Wide World of Sports. The 90-minute show aired late afternoons every Saturday and was a sports anthology that aired everything but football, baseball, hockey and basketball, because the budget for producing it didn’t include rights for the four major sports. As a result, auto racing became a staple of Wide World of Sports viewership, bringing American audiences racing from all over the world: Formula 1, NASCAR, drag racing and USAC championship racing, and Mario seemed to be in all of it.
In 1967, he hammered a Ford Fairlane prepared by Holman-Moody to victory in the Daytona 500. In 1969, after his win at the Indianapolis 500, Wide World of Sports nominated Mario Andretti as its “Athlete of the Year,” bypassing athletes like Rod Laver (who won his second tennis Grand Slam), and Tom Seaver (who threw 10 innings to put the ‘69 Mets in a position to win the World Series). Then, in 1975, Mario left the world of Indy racing and moved onto the world stage, with Wide World of Sports at his heels. He earned a full-time ride in Formula 1 with Parnelli Racing, then Lotus, eventually going on to win the championship in 1978.
He was a ubiquitous feature, and remains so to this day. He parodied himself in the Pixar film, Cars, featured as the very car he piloted to victory at Daytona in 1967, and he’s a regular draw in Honda advertisements where he pilots a two-man Indy car with the winner of a contest Honda runs every year. Lately, he voiced a character in the animated film Turbo.
Hot Rods – Ken Gross
The man’s automotive resume is a mile long. For decades, he’s been involved with Playboy magazine, and he’s on the jury of the North American Car and Truck of the Year.
But more importantly for regular folks, Ken Gross has worked diligently to put cars in front of people outside of their normal context. For example, he was instrumental in curating special automobiles as part of exhibits at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, and at the Phoenix Art Museum.
His true passion is for hot rods, though. In 1997– for the first time in its half-century history– the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance featured a display of hot rods, and it was a lot of Ken’s work that got them there. It elevated home-built cars of the 1930s to the 1950s to a place they’ve never been, and put them in front of people that ordinarily would have dismissed them out of hand.
If you’ve ever seen him in action, at an event or just chatting with people while a flight was delayed at an airport, you know that he’s gracious, enthusiastic and friendly. He will strike up a conversation with anyone, and that conversation usually turns to cars before the other person even knows what hit them.
The Auto Industry – Lee Iacocca
Aside from Henry Ford, Lido Anthony Iacocca is probably the only automotive executive your average American has ever heard of. There have been better company presidents, who have built better products, or developed better teams, or brought more money to the bottom line. But there’s never been an American automotive executive who has been in more homes than Lee Iacocca.
He first hit national consciousness when he worked for Ford Motor Company. It was assistant general manager and head engineer Donald Frey that did the heavy lifting, but when it came time to champion the Mustang as a viable car, Iacocca took the risk and ran with it, promising 417,000 Mustangs sold by April 17, 1965. Ford would more than double it. He was also the guy that wrote Carroll Shelby a check to start building race cars.
When he moved over to Chrysler in 1978, Mopar had just posted a third quarter loss of $155 million. The company was on the brink of failure. Iacocca fired almost all of Chrysler’s vice presidents, and set about righting the ship. Controversially, his plan included a bailout by the federal government. He asked for– and received– a $1.5 billion loan guarantee, which was repaid in 1983.
While he was at Chrysler, he stepped out in front of the company and became a personality, literally selling cars to Americans one by one. The successes started building. The K-Car was an uninspired wheezebox, but it worked. The Chrysler minivan– developed largely by Ford– showed up in Chrysler showrooms and got a five-year headstart on the entire automotive industry. He even kept Shelby working on cars like the Daytona and the Omni GLH. He bought AMC for the iconic Jeep brand, which kept Chrysler afloat during the 1990s.
In 1984, he published Iacocca: An Autobiography, which went on to become the best-selling non-fiction title in 1984 and 1985. In 2000, he founded Olivio Premium Products, which produces a margarine-like spread made of olive oil. The profits from both ventures were completely donated to fund Denise Faustman’s diabetes research at Massachusetts General Hospital. The Iacocca Foundation has raised $11.5 million in support of the cause. Iacocca’s wife, Mary, died of complications from diabetes.
Vintage Cars – Jay Leno
The rather obvious choice is the guy who still shows up in 5.7 million American bedrooms every night. If there are two things most people know about him, it’s that he hosts a late night show, and that he likes those old cars.
Leno grew up in Andover, Massachusetts, and eventually went on to achieve a degree in speech therapy from Boston’s Emerson College. While he was studying, he got his start in standup comedy. He simultaneously worked at Foreign Motors, a Boston dealership, where he did “new car prep and light maintenance,” as he wrote in a column in Popular Mechanics. As the name implies, “Foreign Motors” dealt in imported cars, and it exposed Leno to vehicles from Mercedes-Benz, Bentley, Rolls-Royce and Citroen.
It infused in Leno a lifelong passion for automobiles. Early in his career, he started collecting cars and motorcycles, and he currently has a collection of over 190 vehicles, including 90 motorcycles.
But while some celebrities are notoriously private with their collections, Leno is wherever cars are in his free time, enjoying concours events and down-home parking lot shows with equal passion. If you live in the Los Angeles area, you’ve probably seen him once or twice, piloting some old Mercer or one of his Doble steam cars. But he’s just as passionate about cars that regular people drove, like his 1937 Fiat Topolino, or his Saab 93b, both of which he’s featured in the segments he posts on YouTube for his website, Jay Leno’s Garage.