On Friday, July 26, the new Firestone Complete Auto Care Center on South Hill boasted a lot of buzz during its grand opening celebration — the second location in Puyallup and 41st in Washington.
The star of the show was Mario Andretti, known the world over for his 111 major racing wins that included the Daytona 500 in 1967 and the Indy 500 in 1969.
Andretti was a four-time IndyCar National Champion in 1965, 1966, 1969 and 1984 and received the Driver of the Year title in three consecutive decades.
His ties to Firestone encompass four decades. Starting in the 1960s, he began as a test driver for Firestone and helped to develop the racing tire.
To this day, Andretti attests to still visiting all the IndyCar series races, which Firestone provides tires to.
"I do quite a bit of street testing Firestone tires today and I go to most of the races," Andretti said, while signing autographs for fans at the grand opening.
Andretti enjoys most visiting the Firestone grand openings across the country. His last visit to Washington was to the Covington grand opening last December.
"I really enjoy the opportunity," Andretti said. "I get to meet a lot of the fans. We find loyal race fans young and old. It's always a festive event. (Firestone stores) are beautiful stores. They're efficient and very modern. Very competitive pricing and (the stores) are embraced by the local community."
The Firestone location at 10016 171st St. Ct. E. opened about a month ago. Brian Caldwell, the senior marketing manager for Firestone's western zone, said having Andretti be a part of the grand opening was a joy.
"Mario is a great ambassador for the Firestone brand," Caldwell said. "And besides that, he is a great and humble guy to be around."
As a community partner, Caldwell said the Firestone location on Friday donated $500 to the local Meals on Wheel program. Nationally, the Firestone brand is a huge supporter of Meals on Wheels and helps keep the program's fleets running well.
In addition, throughout the year Firestone stores give back daily to various nonprofits by way of a "round-up donation" program. How this works is customers can round up their store purchase to the nearest dollar and the difference goes to the charity Firestone is supporting in that given month.
Caldwell said the Firestone brand is excited to open a second store in the Puyallup/South Hill area.
"The community is really supportive of us," Caldwell said.
On Friday, Caldwell estimated about 200 people visited Andretti and got his autograph.
Jacob Sandoval, 8, in line with his father, Diego, was decked out in a red racing outfit. Jacob has been part of the Little Wheels Club, based in Graham, which gives youth opportunities to compete in quarter midgets races. These race cars are a quarter the size of a standard-size race car.
During the past year, Jacob has won 3rd place and two 1st place awards in club tournaments.
Diego Sandoval considered meeting Andretti a great learning opportunity for his son.
"I think it's a good experience for him to meet professional racers," Sandoval said. "And to also know how they give back to the community."
Reporter Andrew Fickes can be reached at 253-552-7001 or by email at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter, @herald_andrew.