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Formula 1 Legends: Interview With Mario Andretti
Italian-born, American-raised Mario Andretti’s motorsport dream began at the 1954 Italian Formula 1 Grand Prix in Monza. A 14-year-old Andretti watched in amazement with his twin brother as his first racing idol and hometown hero, Alberto Ascari, raced around the Ferrari track, not knowing then that this cherished childhood moment would become a career-defining one for him as well. .
Monza holds a special place in Andretti’s heart and he says he couldn’t have written a better script: in 1978 he secured the Formula 1 World Championship there, twenty-four years after taking part in his first race. That fateful weekend in 1954 set in motion a chain of events that would eventually lead to an illustrious career spanning five decades, 879 races and 111 victories in various classes of motorsport.
I sat down with the racing icon to discuss his remarkable career, his thoughts on F1 today, taking a trip down memory lane to where it all began.
EH: Let’s start with Monza and what it meant to you as a 14-year-old when you saw your first big race there.
I: Well Monza. I can say that was probably the real start of my dream of being a racer and I couldn’t have written a better script because it was in 1954 and 1978 that I got there. [Formula 1] World Championships. For me winning the race was of course amazing, last year I won the race. I won this year  also, but I was penalized with Gilles Villeneuve for allegedly jumping the start, which I thought was debatable, I was just reacting to Gilles taking the start; I reacted and stopped and went. But anyway, that’s another story. And the reason I didn’t protest was because my teammate Ronnie Petersen was killed that day, so I didn’t have the energy to continue protesting. But to repeat what I said about the significance of that particular day or weekend in 1954 when I was 14, that’s where it all started. Not only for myself, but I also have a twin brother [Aldo] and we both had the same dream and that’s what we were striving for.
EH: And then a year later your family moved to Nazareth and you and Aldo discovered a race track nearby.
I: When we moved to the states we had no idea what to expect, but soon, three days after we got here, we discovered that there was a race track nearby. We had no idea about oval racing, you know the American type of racing, but the sound was good and there seemed to be a lot of action and at the same time it seemed very doable to me at this level. As you can imagine when we saw Monza, the Grand Prix cars [of] Mercedes, Ferrari, Maserati all seemed so far away, so unattainable, that when we saw these cars driven locally, they looked truly brutal. But again, it seemed doable, looked like something we could build. We actually started that, two years later at 17, then we started building a race car, and two years later we started driving.
EH: How did you do with that car?
I: Actually we won. It was a really great launch pad for us because it was one car, two drivers. Obviously we had to share with Aldo, but he started first, he won the toss, and it’s a matter of record, he won the first race right away. The following weekend I did. But we won the competitions. This year we crashed and did all the good things that are normal for young racers. It was a very favorable start for us, as you can imagine, and encouraged us along the way. We had a very good season, except that at the end of that season my brother got seriously injured in that car in the last race of the season, which pretty much defined his career at that point. He drove for another ten years, but then he had another very big accident that effectively stopped him. But for me, it was an early stepping stone to take me to the next level and I kept going and had a lot more luck. I started my career in 1959 and my last race was at Le Mans in 2000, so basically I had a career of 41 years.
EH: In 1969 you won the Indianapolis 500, what did that win mean to you?
I: Well, that’s one of the ambitious goals you set for yourself, to win the classic. And if you drive in America, the classic event that’s known all over the world is the Indianapolis 500. I felt very comfortable there from the start, it was 1965 and I was rookie of the year, I finished third and kept going. , and I also won the national championship and was the youngest driver ever to do so at that point. And then four years later to win it was huge for my career and opened so many doors. But two years earlier, I won the Daytona 500, which is a very popular stock car event here. And two weeks after the Daytona win, I won my first 12 Hours of Sebring as a teammate with Bruce McLaren, so my career was shaping up quite nicely. But as you can imagine, the most important part of winning the most famous events in the world is the one that can be truly life-changing, which it was for me in so many ways.
EH: In 1991, we saw Andretti’s podium in Milwaukee, which must have been a really proud moment for you to share with your family.
I: Yes, it really was. And it’s pride with a capital P, because as you can imagine my son Michael and my nephew John, Aldo’s son, and I are on the same podium. Later, Michael became my teammate. He and I shared the front row several times in qualifying and we’ve also been on pole together I think 12 times. And we were first and second eight times in IndyCar. You can imagine how sweet it is when a family can share these moments, you can never even technically plan it, it just happens or it doesn’t. And I felt so much satisfaction from that perspective over the years, to see the family continue. Both of my sons are racing and like my brother, my other son Jeffrey was not as lucky as his brother or me. He suffered a devastating injury at Indianapolis in 1992 that nearly cost him both legs and defined his career. But something like this puts things into perspective, like how fortunate and fortunate Michael and I have been in this sport. And it’s not a given, because both my brother and my other son paid dearly for what they were trying to do, and we know how much we appreciate the luck we’ve supported throughout our careers.
EH: How do you deal with the competitiveness and tensions between teammates when that teammate is your son?
I: The competition juices were there. I wasn’t going to give him an inch or take an inch. But the one that was really on pins and needles, as you can imagine, was my wife, because she was on the sidelines watching us take it out, and we actually touched the wheels and stuff several times. Not too hard, he wanted to make sure we were taking care of each other and we didn’t do anything stupid to put my son or him in danger, but we didn’t give a damn. Actually the first pass, the first pass my son made on me competitively for the lead, we were touching the wheels all the way through the corner and it was very forceful. But at the end of the day, the satisfaction was great. As he passed I thought “how dare you Michael!” and as he rides off into the sunset, I’m thinking “that’s my boy”. It’s a double-edged sword. You know we had the closest finish in IndyCar in 1986 at the Portland Grand Prix.
EH: Yes, Father’s Day. I bet your wife’s heart skipped a beat watching that at the finish line.
I: Yes, indeed. Here’s the thing though. In fact, he definitely deserved to win it because he had a slight lead over me when we got to the end of the race. There were about three laps to go and my engineer was yelling in my ear that Michael was having trouble gathering fuel. At that point I had settled for second and knew I couldn’t catch him. And I was really standing in my seat, and here he was coming closer and closer. On the last lap we basically had a drag race to the finish line and I just, just edged him by an inch. And he was so upset. When we were on the podium, he realized it was Father’s Day and said, Happy Father’s Day, Dad [laughs]. He probably thought I could give him a break and let him win, but no way!
EH: You’ve raced pretty much everything there is on four wheels, so of all the motorsport classes you’ve competed in, which is your favorite?
I: It has to be Formula 1, mainly because that’s where my love for the sport started. And of course the opportunity came to start the sport in America, so I had a very rewarding full career here in the United States with IndyCar, then stock cars and so on. But if someone said that you can only choose one discipline, I would choose Formula 1. It’s that simple.
EH: After three decades of F1 racing and now as a spectator, how do you see the sport evolving?
I: Change is to be expected, and it will be subtle change, if you will. When you’re as close to the sport as I am, the changes are almost natural, they’re not huge. The thing that allows me to understand things pretty well is that I’ve lived through decades and seen huge changes materialize, but it was gradual and it’s the same thing now. What I do realize and am quite happy about is that I rode into the computer age that is now. We started the computer tools in the car [in IndyCar] In the mid-80s, so I rode the so-called era of computers until the mid-90s. And I’ll stick with it, I still drive a two-seater, which is the same as a proper racing car, only extended for a second driver, but all the technology and everything is the same. So the fact that I’m aware of things makes it easier to accept and understand. I love progress and technology and I love the way sports are today. Obviously it’s a lot more regulated because there’s so much knowledge that you can make cars undriveable, but there’s a human element so it has to be regulated, which is fair enough. We actually hit speeds in IndyCar, the records that were set in the mid-90s when I was still driving still stand, they had to slow the cars down for safety, so as you can see I’ve been going faster. than what they do today. I am not aged by any means.
EH: What’s your favorite track you’ve raced on?
I: Any story I won [laughs]. That’s the only way I can answer that. Another question is, what is your favorite racing car? Every race car I ever won a race with. So it’s that simple. I don’t know how else to put it because it’s a fact.
EH: And which of your 111 career wins is the most memorable?
I: The most memorable would probably be winning Indianapolis because it really meant a career. But for personal satisfaction it had to be winning the Grand Prix at Monza in 1977. In 1974 I won the Alfa Romeo Monza 1000 kilometers with Arturo Merzario, which was really my first win at Monza. But winning the race, Grand Prix ’77, was huge for me, because Monza stood for my life. I don’t think I could have gotten more satisfaction than that. I count my blessings every day. I think I won more races than I deserved and I’m grateful for that every day, so I don’t take anything for granted. My life in auto racing has been absolutely complete.
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