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Formula 1 Legends: Interview With Mario Andretti
Born in Italy and raised in the United States, Mario Andretti’s racing dreams began with the 1954 Italian Formula One Grand Prix at Monza. 14-year-old Andretti and his twin brother watched in wonder as the Ferrari of his first racing icon and hometown hero, Alberto Ascari, raced around the track as he Little did he know that this cherished childhood moment would also become his career-defining one.
Monza holds a special place in Andretti’s heart, declaring that he could not have written a better script: in 1978, 24 years after his first race, he won the Formula 1 World Championship there. That fateful weekend in 1954 set in motion a chain of events that culminated in an illustrious career spanning five years, 879 races and 111 victories at all levels of motorsport.
I sat down with the motorsport icon to discuss his extraordinary career, his vision for today’s Formula 1, and travel down memory lane back to where it all began.
EH: Let’s start with Monza, what it meant to you as a 14-year-old to see your first big game there.
Well: Well Monza.I can say that was probably the real start of my dream of being a racing driver, I couldn’t have written a better script because that was in 1954 and 1978, that’s where I got my championships [Formula 1] world champion. For me, winning the race was of course amazing, I had won it the year before.i won that year  Yeah, but I was penalized with Gilles Villeneuve because allegedly I thought it was a questionable start, I just reacted to Gilles’ start; I reacted, I stopped and I went. But that’s another story anyway. And the reason why I didn’t protest is because my teammate Ronnie Peterson was killed that day, so I didn’t have the energy to continue protesting. But just repeating what I said about how important that day or that 14-year-old weekend in 1954 is, that’s how it all started.Not only for myself, I have a twin brother [Aldo] We all have the same dream, and that’s what we’re all after.
EH: A year later, your family moved to Nazareth, and you and Aldo discovered a track nearby.
Well: When we moved to the US we didn’t know what to expect, but we quickly found out that there was a track nearby three days after arriving here. We don’t know oval racing, you know American racing, but it sounds good, it looks like a lot of action, and at the same time to me it looks very doable at that level.As you’d imagine when we saw Monza, Grand Prix cars [of] Mercedes, Ferrari, Maserati, it all seemed so far away, so out of reach, that when we saw these cars at local races, they looked truly savage. But again it looks doable, looks like something we could build. In fact, that’s how we started, and two years later, at the age of 17, we started building race cars and two years later we started driving.
EH: How did you drive that car?
Well: We actually won. It’s been a really good launch pad for us because it’s one car, two drivers. Obviously, Aldo and I have to share, but he started the grid, he won the race, it was a record issue, he won the first race. I did it the following weekend. But we won the game. We crashed that year and did all the good things that are normal for young racers. As you can imagine, it was a very auspicious start for us and encouraged us along the way. We had a really good season, except at the end of that season, my brother was badly injured in that car in the last race of the season, which pretty much defined his career at the time. He raced for another 10 years, but then he had another really big accident that effectively retired him. But for me, it was an early stepping stone that took me to the next level, and I kept going and got luckier. I started my career in 1959 and my last race was Le Mans in 2000, so basically I have a career of 41 years.
EH: When you won the Indianapolis 500 in 1969, what did that win mean to you?
Well: Well, that’s one of the ambitious goals you set for yourself, to win a classic. If you’re racing in the US, the world famous classic is the Indianapolis 500. I felt comfortable from the beginning, it was in 1965, I was rookie of the year, I finished third, and then I continued, I won the national championship as well, I was the youngest driver at the time. Winning it four years later meant so much to my career and opened so many doors. But two years ago, I won the Daytona 500, the big, shiny event for factory cars that is so popular here. Two weeks after winning Daytona, I won my first 12 Hours of Sebring with teammate Bruce McLaren, so my career was going well. But as you can imagine, winning the most prestigious event in the world is the most important part, and that’s what can really change your life, for me in many ways.
EH: In Milwaukee in 1991, we saw Andretti Podium, and it must have been a very proud moment for you to share with your family.
Well: Yes, it does. It’s actually a pride of capital “P,” because you can imagine me having my own son Michael on the same podium as my nephew John, Aldo’s son, and myself. Then Michael actually became my teammate. He and I have tied the front row many times in qualifying and I think we’ve had 12 poles together. We’ve won eight first and second places in IndyCar. You can imagine how sweet it is for a family to be able to share these moments, you can’t even technically plan it, it will happen or it won’t happen. Over the years, it has been immensely satisfying to see the family live on from that perspective. Both of my sons race, like my brother, my second son Jeffrey is not as lucky as his brother or myself. He suffered a devastating injury in Indianapolis in 1992 that nearly cost him both legs and defined his career. But things like this put a new perspective on things like how lucky Michael and I are in this sport, how lucky we are. It didn’t have to be, you know, because my brother and my other son both paid dearly for what they were trying to do, and we know how lucky we are in our careers.
EH: How do you deal with the rivalry and tension that arises between teammates when the teammate is your son?
Well: Then the competitive juices are out there. I’m not going to give him an inch or take an inch. But as you can imagine, it was my wife who was really on pins and needles, because she was watching us fight to the death from the sidelines, and a lot of the time we were actually hitting the wheels and things like that. It wasn’t too hard, she wanted to make sure we would take care of each other and we wouldn’t do anything stupid to put my son in danger, or he put me in danger, but we didn’t pay anything. Actually, the first pass, the first pass my son made on me to get ahead, we hit the wheels all the way around the corner, very powerful. But at the end of the day, there’s a lot of satisfaction. As he passed by, I was thinking “Michael, how dare you!” and then as he went into the sunset, I was thinking “That’s my kid”. This is a double-edged sword. You know we got the closest IndyCar ever came at the 1986 Portland Grand Prix.
EH: Yes, Father’s Day. I bet your wife’s heart raced when she saw that at the finish line.
Well: Yes, it does. Here’s the thing. He actually definitely deserved to win that race because he had a bit of a lead over me towards the end of the game. About three laps in, my engineer was yelling in my ear that Michael was having some problems with the gas. By then I had finished second and I knew I couldn’t catch him. I was literally standing in my seat and he was getting closer and closer to me. We basically had a drag race on the finish line on the last lap and I just got him an inch closer. He is very depressed.When we were at the podium, he realized it was Father’s Day and he said, Happy Father’s Day, Dad [laughs]. He probably thinks I can give him a break and let him win, but no way!
EH: You’ve raced almost all of the four rounds, so of all the motorsports you’ve been in, which one is your favorite?
Well: It had to be Formula 1, mainly because that’s where my love for the sport really started. Of course, the opportunity to get into the sport came from the US, so I’ve had a very satisfying full career in US IndyCar and stock cars and such. But if someone said you can only choose one discipline, I would choose Formula 1. It’s that simple.
EH: After 30 years racing in Formula One, how do you see the evolution of the sport now as a bystander?
Well: Well, changes are to be expected, subtle ones if you will. If you’re as familiar with the sport as I am, changes are almost automatic and they’re not a big deal. What makes me understand things well is that I’ve been through decades and I’ve seen massive changes, but it was gradual and it’s the same now. All I know, and I’m glad I drove into what is now the computer age.We activated the computer instrument in the car [in IndyCar] Back in the mid-80s, so I drove into the so-called modern era of computing in the mid-90s. I’ll stick with it, I still drive a two-seater, it’s the same as a real race car, only it’s extended for another passenger, but all the tech and everything is the same. So the fact that I’m moving with the times makes it easier for people to accept and understand. I love progress, I love technology, and I love the state of the sport. Obviously it’s more regulated because there’s so much knowledge out there that you can make a car impossible to drive, but there’s a human element so it has to be regulated, which is fair. In fact in IndyCar we hit the speed and the record I set in the mid 90’s when I was still driving still stands and they had to slow the car down for safety reasons so you can see I was going faster More than they do today. In any case, I am not out of date.
EH: Which track is your favorite?
Well: any track i won [laughs]. This is the only way I can answer. Another question is, what is your favorite race car? Every car I’ve won races in. So it’s that simple. I don’t know what else to say because it’s true.
EH: Of your 111 career victories, which one is the most memorable?
Well: Probably the most memorable win at Indianapolis, because it really meant a career. But for personal satisfaction, it has to win the Monza Grand Prix in 1977. In 1974 I won the Monza 1000km with Arturo Merzario for Alfa Romeo, which was indeed my first victory at Monza. But winning the race, the Grand Prix in ’77, it meant a lot to me because of what Monza represented in my life. I don’t think I can get more satisfaction than that. I count my blessings every day. I think I win more games than I deserve, and I’m grateful for that every day, so I don’t take anything for granted. My racing career is absolutely complete.
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