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Formula 1 Legends: Interview With Mario Andretti
Italian-born, American-raised Mario Andretti’s dream began at the 1954 Italian Formula 1 Grand Prix at Monza. 14-year-old Andretti, along with his twin brother, watched in awe as the Ferrari of his early racing idol and hometown hero Alberto Ascari raced around the track, not knowing then that this precious childhood moment would become his defining career. .
Monza holds a special place in Andretti’s heart and he declares that he could not have written a better script: in 1978 he won the Formula 1 World Championship there, twenty-four years after attending his first race. That fantastic weekend in 1954 began a series of events that would eventually lead to an illustrious career spanning five decades, 879 races and 111 wins in various car classes.
I sat down with the racing icon to discuss his incredible career, his thoughts on Formula 1 today, and take a trip back down to where it all started.
EH: Let’s start with Monza, and what it meant to you as a 14-year-old kid when you saw your first big race there.
MA: Yes Monza. I would say it was the real beginning of my dream to become a racing driver, and I couldn’t have written a better script because this was 1954 and 1978 is when I found competition. [Formula 1] World Championship. For me it was really amazing to win the race, I won the race the year before. I passed that year  very much but I was punished with Gilles Villeneuve for the accusation of skipping the start which I think could have been discussed, I just responded to Gilles that he took; I responded by standing up and walking away. But that’s another story. And the reason I didn’t protest was because my partner Ronnie Petersen was killed that day, so I didn’t have the energy to continue the protest. But just to repeat what I said about how important that day or that weekend in 1954 was when I was 14 years old, that’s what started it. Not only me, but I have a twin brother [Aldo] and we both had the same dream and that’s what we pursued.
EH: And a year later your family moved to Nazareth and you and Aldo found a race nearby.
MA: We didn’t know what to expect when we moved to the United States but we soon found out, three days after we got here, that there was a race track nearby. We had no idea about oval racing, you know the American kind of racing, but the sound was good and it looked like a big action and at the same time to me it seemed very possible at that stage. As you can imagine when we saw the Monza, the Grand Prix cars [of] Mercedes, Ferrari, Maserati all seemed so far away, so unattainable, that when we saw these cars in the local race they looked really bad. But it also looked possible, it looked like something we could build. Actually when we started, two years later at the age of 17, that’s when we started building a race car and started driving two years later.
EH: How did you go with this car?
MA: We were really successful. That was a very good start because it was one car, two drivers. Obviously Aldo and I had to share but he started first, he won the toss and for the record, he won the first race. The following weekend I did. But we won races. That year we crashed and did all the good things typical of young racing drivers. That was a great start for us as you can imagine, and it encouraged us along the way. We had a great time except at the end of that season, my brother got seriously injured in that car in the last race of the season, which pretty much set his career at that time. He ran for ten more years but then had another very serious accident that effectively retired him. But for me it was the first step to set me up for the next level and I continued and got more lucky. I started my career in 1959 and my last race was Le Mans in 2000, so I was 41 years old.
EH: In 1969 you won the Indianapolis 500, what did that mean to you?
MA: Well one of the ambitious goals you have set for yourself is to win the classics. And if you’re racing in America, the classic event that’s known all over the world is the Indianapolis 500. I felt very comfortable from the start there, which was 1965 and I was Rookie of the Year, I finished third and kept going. and I won the National Championship as well, and I was the youngest driver to do so at the time. And then winning it four years later was a huge milestone in my career and opened a lot of doors. But two years earlier I won the Daytona 500 which is a big flashy stock car event that is very popular here. And two weeks after I won Daytona I won my first 12 hours of Sebring with Bruce McLaren as my team-mate, so my career was in good shape. But as you can imagine winning the most prestigious events in the world is the most important part, it’s really been life changing in many ways for me.
EH: In 1991 in Milwaukee we saw the Andretti Podium, which must have been a really proud moment for you to share with your family.
MA: Yes, it really was. And it’s a capital “P” pride actually, because as you can imagine having my son Michael and my nephew John, Aldo’s son, with me on the same stage. After that, Michael really became my partner. He and I have shared the front row many times we’ve won and we’ve sat in the venue I think 12 times together. And we were first and second like eight times in IndyCar. You can imagine how wonderful it is for a family to be able to share those moments, you can never technically plan, whether it will happen or not. And I had great satisfaction in all these years from that vision of seeing the family continue. Both my sons run and just like my brother, my second son Jeffrey was not as lucky as his brother or me. He suffered a devastating injury in 1992 at Indianapolis that nearly cost him both his legs and set his career on fire. But something like this puts into perspective things, like luck, how lucky Michael and I are in this game. And it’s not given, you know, because both my brother and my other son have paid dearly for what they’re trying to do and we know how much we appreciate the luck we’ve had on our side in all our careers.
EH: How do you handle competition and disagreements between teammates when your partner is your son?
MA: Of course competing juices were available. I wasn’t about to give him an inch or get an inch. But the one that was on pins and needles as you can imagine was my wife because she was on the side watching us take it out, and a lot of times we actually handled the tires and stuff. It’s nothing serious, he wanted to make sure we were going to face each other and not do anything stupid to put my son in danger or me in danger, but we weren’t giving anything away. In fact the first pass, the first pass my son made to me in competition for the lead, we held the wheels all the way into the corner and it was very strong. But at the end of the day there was a lot of satisfaction. When he walks by I think “how are you Michael!” and when the sun went down I thought “that’s my boyfriend”. It is a double-edged sword. You know we had a close finish in IndyCar at the 1986 Grand Prix in Portland.
EH: Yes, Father’s Day. I thought your wife’s heart was pounding as she watched him cross the finish line.
MA: Yes, indeed. Here’s the thing though. He definitely deserved to win that because he was leading me towards the end of the race. It was about three laps to go and my engineer was shouting in my ears that Michael was having problems with his fuel intake. By that time I had settled down for the second time and I knew I couldn’t catch him. I really stood up in my chair, and he was getting closer and closer. The last lap we basically had a drag race to the line and I just, I jumped him by an inch. And he was very upset. When we were on stage, he realized it was Father’s Day and said, well, Happy Father’s Day Dad. [laughs]. Maybe he thought I would give him a break and let him win, but no way!
EH: You’ve raced everything there is in four-wheel racing, so of all the types of motorsport you’ve competed in, which one is your favorite?
MA: It has to be Formula 1, mainly because that’s where my love for the sport started. And of course the opportunity to enter the sport came to America, so I had a very satisfying career here in the United States with IndyCar and then stock cars and so on. But if someone said you can only choose one discipline, I would choose Formula 1. It’s as simple as that.
EH: After three decades of racing in Formula 1 and now today as a spectator, how do you see the evolution of the sport?
MA: Change is expected, and subtle change if you will. If you’re into the game as closely as I am the transition is almost natural, not a big deal. What allows me to understand things better is that I have gone through decades and seen great changes happen, but they were slow and the same now. What I understand, which I am very happy about, is that I have moved forward into the current computer age. We started the computer equipment in the car [in IndyCar] back in the mid-’80s, I drove into the so-called modern computer era right in the mid-’90s. And I’m sitting in it, I’m still driving a two-seater like a proper racing car only with another passenger, but all the technology and everything is the same. So being up to date with things makes it easier to accept and understand. I love progress and I love technology, and I love how the game is today. Obviously it’s very regulated because there’s a lot of information where you can make the cars not drive, but there’s a human factor so it has to be regulated properly. In fact, in IndyCar we were reaching speed, records that were set back in the 90s and now I’m still driving, they had to slow down the cars to be safe so I could see if I was driving fast. than what they do today. I am not creative in any way.
EH: What’s your favorite song you’ve ever slept on?
MA: Any clue I’ve won [laughs]. That’s the only way I can answer that. Another question is, what is your favorite race car? Every race car I’ve ever won a race with. So it’s that simple. I don’t know how else to put it because it’s true.
EH: And which of your 111 career wins is the most memorable?
MA: The most memorable would have to be the Indianapolis win because of what it said career-wise. But for my satisfaction I had to win the Grand Prix at Monza in 1977. In 1974 I won the Monza 1000 Kilometers for Alfa Romeo with Arturo Merzario which was my first real victory at Monza. But to win the race, the Grand Prix in ’77, that was huge for me because he represented Monza for the rest of my life. I don’t think I could have been more satisfied. I count my blessings every day. I think I’ve won more races than I should have and I’m grateful for that every day so I’m not taking anything for granted. My life in motor racing is absolutely perfect.
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