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Formula 1 Legends: Interview With Mario Andretti
Italian-born, American-raised Mario Andretti’s motorsport dream began at the 1954 Monza Formula 1 Italian Grand Prix. Fourteen-year-old Andretti, along with his twin brother, watched in amazement as the Ferrari of his first racing idol and hometown hero, Alberto Ascari, raced down the track, not knowing at the time that this cherished childhood moment would also be career-defining.
Monza holds a special place in Andretti’s heart and he declares that he could not have written a better script: in 1978 he secured the Formula 1 World Championship there, twenty-four years after attending his first race. That fateful weekend in 1954 set in motion a series of events that would eventually lead to a remarkable 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 Formula 1 today, going back 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 to see your first big race there.
MA: Well Monza. I could say that was probably the real start of my dream to be a racer, and I couldn’t have written a better script because it was in 1954 and 1978 that I won the title [Formula 1] World Championship. It was amazing for me of course to win the race, I won the race the year before. I won that year  also, but I was penalized along with Gilles Villeneuve for an alleged jump at the start which I think was debatable, I was just reacting to Gilles taking off; I reacted and stopped and left. 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 go and continue the protest. But just to repeat what I said about how important that particular day or that weekend in 1954 at age 14 was, that’s what started it all. 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 racetrack nearby.
MA: We had no idea what to expect when we moved to the United States, but we soon found out, three days after arriving here, that there was a race track nearby. We had no idea about oval racing, you know American type racing, but the sound was good and it looked like a lot of action, and at the same time it looked very doable to me at that 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 locally racing, they looked really raw. But again it seemed doable, it seemed like something we could build. Actually that’s what we started, two years later at 17, that’s when we started building a race car and we started driving two years later.
EH: How did you do with that car?
MA: We were actually winning. It was really a great launch pad for us because it was one car, two drivers. Obviously Aldo and I had to split, but he started first, he won the throw and that’s a matter of record, he won the first race. The next weekend I did. But we were winning races. That year we crashed and did all the good things that are normal for young drivers. It was a very auspicious start for us, as you can imagine, and encouraged us along the way. We had a very good season 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 defined his career at that point. He raced for another ten years, but then had another major accident that effectively retired him. But for me it was an early stepping stone that launched me to the next level and I’ve moved on and had a lot more luck. I started my career in 1959 and my last race was 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?
MA: Well, that’s one of the ambitious goals you’ve set for yourself, to win the classics. And if you’re racing in America, the classic event that’s known around the world is the Indianapolis 500. I felt very comfortable from the start, and it was 1965 and I was rookie of the year, I finished third and went on to, and I won the National championship, and I was the youngest driver to do so at that time. And then to win it four years later was something that was huge for my career and opened a lot of doors. But two years earlier I had won the Daytona 500, which is a big great stock car event that’s very popular here. And two weeks after the Daytona win I won my first 12 Hours of Sebring with Bruce McLaren as a team mate, so my career was developing quite nicely. But as you can imagine winning the most famous events around the world is the most important part, it’s what can really change your life, which it was for me in many ways.
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 actually pride with a capital “P” because as you can imagine I have my son Michael and my nephew John, Aldo’s son, and myself on the same podium. Later, Michael became my teammate. He and I have shared the front row many times in qualifying, and we’ve also been on pole, I think 12 times together. And we were first and second like eight times in IndyCar. You can imagine how nice it is for a family to be able to share those moments, you can never even technically plan it, it’s just going to happen or not. And I’ve had so much pleasure over the years from that standpoint of seeing the family continue. Both of my sons are in racing and just like my brother, my other son Jeffrey was not as lucky as his brother or me. He suffered a devastating injury in 1992 in Indianapolis that almost cost him both legs and it defined his career. But then something like this puts things into perspective, like how lucky we are, how lucky Michael and I have been in sports. And that’s not a given, you know, because both my brother and my other son paid dearly for what they tried to do and we know how much we can appreciate the luck we’ve had on our side throughout our careers.
EH: How do you deal with the competitiveness and tensions that arise between teammates when that teammate is your son?
MA: Well, competing juices were there. I had no intention of giving him an inch or taking it. But the one who was really on pins and needles as you can imagine was my wife because she was on the sidelines watching us pull away and a lot of times we were actually touching the wheels and stuff. Not too much, she wanted to make sure we were looking out for each other and we weren’t doing anything stupid to put my son in danger or him putting me in danger, but we weren’t giving anything away. Actually, the first pass, the first pass my son made competitively for the lead, we were touching the wheels all the way through the corner and it was really strong. But at the end of the day there was a lot of satisfaction. When he passed I thought “how dare you Michael!” and then as he walks off into the sunset I’m thinking “that’s my boyfriend”. 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 was racing watching that at the finish line.
MA: Yes, indeed. But here’s the thing. He actually definitely deserved to win it as he had somewhat of an advantage over me as we went down towards the end of the race. There were about three laps to go and my engineer was yelling in my ears that Michael was having some fuel lift problems. At that point I settled for another and knew I couldn’t catch him. And indeed I stood my ground, and he came nearer and nearer. On the last lap we basically had a race to the finish and I just crushed 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 almost everything that can be raced on four wheels, so of all the motorsport classes you’ve competed in, which is your favorite?
MA: It has to be Formula 1, mainly because that’s where my love for the sport really started. And of course the opportunity to get into the sport came in America, so I had a very satisfying full career here in the States with IndyCar, then cars and so on. But if someone said you could only choose one discipline, then I would choose Formula 1. It’s that simple.
EH: After three decades of racing in Formula 1 and today as a spectator, how do you see the evolution of the sport?
MA: Well, changes are expected, and subtle changes if you will. If you’re as close to the sport as I am, the changes are almost natural, not a big deal. What allows me to understand things pretty well is that I’ve been through the decades and I’ve seen huge changes materialize, but it was gradual and it’s the same thing now. What I do understand, which I am quite happy about, is that I have entered the computer era that is now. We started the computer instruments in the car [in IndyCar] In the mid-80s, so I entered the so-called computer modern era until the mid-90s. And I’m sticking with it, I’m still driving a two-seater that’s the same as a real race car just widened for another passenger, but all the technology and everything is the same. So the fact that I’m on top of things makes it easier to accept and understand. I love progress and I love technology, and I love the way the sport is 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. In fact in IndyCar we were hitting speeds, the records that were set in the mid 90’s when I was still driving still stand, they had to slow down the cars from a safety stop as you can see I was driving faster than they do today. I am not outdated by any means.
EH: What’s your favorite track you’ve raced at?
MA: Any track 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. It’s that simple. I don’t know how else to say it because it’s a fact.
EH: And which of your 111 career wins is the most memorable?
MA: The most memorable would have to be the win at Indianapolis, because it really meant a lot in his career. But for personal satisfaction it had to be winning the Monza Grand Prix in 1977. In 1974 I won the Monza 1000 kilometers for Alfa Romeo with Arturo Merzario, which was really my first Monza win. But winning the race, the ’77 Grand Prix, that was huge for me because of what Monza stood for in my life. I don’t think I could have gotten more satisfaction than that. I count my blessings every day. I think I’ve won more races than I deserve and I’m grateful for that every day, so I don’t take anything for granted. My motor racing life was completely over.
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