LAKEWOOD RANCH -- It was a race for autographs and a smile in a once-in-a-lifetime photo with racing great Mario Andretti when Tire Choice opened its doors Tuesday in Lakewood Ranch, although it was the 35th store for owners Dan and Diane Hennelly.
Men and women the same age as the antique cars on display and youngsters just old enough to have seen the movie Cars met the racing star, enjoyed hot dogs and hamburgers, and toured shiny antique automobiles at the celebratory event.
"We're very proud that racing legend Mario Andretti is here with us today," said Dan Hennelly of Fort Lauderdale. "Many people may not know that no one has won more races in history than Mario Andretti. He's won the Indianapolis 500, Daytona 500, three Champ Car National Championships and the Formula One World Championship."
It was Andretti's relationship with Firestone tires that helped the Hennellys secure his presence at the grand opening.
"Those tires helped him win the most distinguished races of his career," Diane Hennelly said.
"He's a sincere, very nice person," her husband added. "He has an affiliation with the Indianapolis car series that runs exclusively on Firestone tires. We called the president of Firestone, who's a friend of ours, and asked him if we could get Mr. Andretti and he happened to have the dates open."
Named the Driver of the Century by the Associated Press, his other achievements include the Pikes Peak Hillclimb and a three-time
winner at Sebring. He raced sports cars, sprint cars and stock cars on all surfaces, winning on all levels of motorsports since he arrived in America from his native Italy (now Croatia) at the age of 15.
Having survived the challenges of immigration through a refugee camp, learning to speak a new language and excelling in a sport of speed where drivers put their lives on the line in order to become winners, Andretti said he learned that the meaning of life comes from "just enjoying everything that you do."
Enjoy the day. Enjoy everything that you do. Look forward to work, advised the veteran of 37 years of professional racing.
"That's the way it's been with me and that's why I call myself very, very fortunate to have lived that type of life, and I still do." Andretti said. "I live that type of a life and I draw satisfaction from it."
For the Hennellys, becoming part of the Lakewood Ranch community makes them happy as well.
"It's a very neighborhood type of community. We're a family owned business and I think the relationships will be great," Dan Hennelly said. "Our customers and our employees feel right at home."
Their goal is to take care of their customers so they are with them for a long time.
"We really cater to a very high-end quality product. We have state-of-the-art equipment," he said. "As you can see by our location, this doesn't look like your average tire store. Diane is a big part of the design that we have in all the locations. Females are 60 percent of our customers so we cater to all the females. We have wi-fi, we have the security of our locations. We build our business for long term customers."
In honor of the grand opening, Tire Choice also made a donation to the Breast Cancer Research Foundation, a national organization.