For weeks since we received the invitation, we'd been looking forward to riding along on a few hot laps with Mario Andretti at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway. It was part of a promotion for the Mario Andretti racing school, coinciding with this year's SEMA show. Unfortunately, like a comped buffet, it wasn't all it was cracked up to be. Here's what happened.
About a dozen of us were bused over to the track, where another group of journalists was already waiting for the event to begin. Mario was giving a couple of people ride-alongs in one of several BMW Z3s that had been parked in the pit lane. We watched enviously, eagerly awaiting our turns while munching on a spread on chips, salsa, and pork wraps. Mario returned to give us an obligatory spiel about how he loves Techron and Havoline, after which various PR people talked about the merits of said products. Okay, paying the bills. Gotcha. During the remarks, a few drivers from the Andretti racing school assembled near the collection of Z3s. Hey, wait a minute.
We whispered amongst ourselves. Would we be pawned off on other drivers for the hot laps? After the marketing points were delivered, we received the mixed news. The other drivers would take us out for a few laps on the road course, but we also had the option of waiting for a lap with Mario if we wanted to do that instead. A bunch of journos went ahead with the other drivers, but a few of us lingered behind, gathering around Mario to wait our turns with the headliner. After more than 20 minutes of listening to others' idle chit-chat (and no driving), we got up the gumption to ask Mr. Andretti if he was going to drive us around the race track, to which he shrugged his shoulders and replied, "I do what they tell me to do." With that, we asked what appeared to be the head PR woman when the ride-alongs would take place. "Well, these people are journalists," she said patronizingly (apparently she didn't see the three separate media badges hanging around our necks). "It's better for him to talk to a group of people rather than only being able to spend time with them one by one." Better for whom? All the while, the grumblings amongst the Mario fans were getting louder.
At that point we resigned ourselves to riding along with one of the other drivers. It didn't suck. Our driver was super nice and did a plenty good job making us white-knuckle it around the turns. But admittedly, were left with a tinge of disappointment and the feeling we'd been hoodwinked.
Eventually, it got late and we had to ask for a lift back to town. We weren't the only ones who felt deceived; others who shared our car expressed similar disappointment in the way the event was handled. We found out later that three people who stuck it out to the bitter end finally did get a ride along with Mario, but, for the rest of us, the damage had been done.
We still admire and venerate Mario Andretti. But his PR people, at least this time, ended up doing more harm than good.
But, oh - they made sure each one of us got a press kit before we left.