The Firestone Complete Auto Care Center on South Hill had a lot of buzz Friday during its grand opening celebration.
The star of the show was Mario Andretti, known for his 111 major racing wins, including the Daytona 500 in 1967 and the Indy 500 in 1969. Andretti is a four-time IndyCar national champion in 1965, ‘66, ‘69 and ‘84, and he was named Driver of the Year in three consecutive decades.
Andretti’s 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 visits all the IndyCar series races, for which Firestone provides tires.
“I do quite a bit of street testing Firestone tires today, and I go to most of the races,” Andretti said as he signed autographs for fans at the grand opening.
Firestone, at 10016 171st St. Court E., opened about a month ago. It’s the second location in Puyallup and 41st in the state.
Andretti said he enjoys visiting the Firestone grand openings across the country. His last visit to Washington was last December, when he attended an opening in Covington.
“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.”
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 donated $500 to the local Meals on Wheels program. Firestone also supports the program nationally, Caldwell said.
Throughout the year, Firestone stores give back to various nonprofits by way of a “round-up donation” program. Customers can round up their store purchase to the nearest dollar amount, and the difference goes to the charity Firestone supports in that given month, Caldwell said.
“The community is really supportive of us,” Caldwell said.
About 200 people visited Andretti and got his autograph Friday, Caldwell said.
Jacob Sandoval, 8, in line with his father, Diego, was decked out in a red racing outfit. The younger Sandoval has been part of Graham’s Little Wheels Club, which gives youth opportunities to compete in quarter-midget races. The cars are one-fourth the size of a standard race car.
Sandoval has two first-place awards and a third-place finish in club tournaments in the past year.
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,” the elder 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.