Interview with Racing Legend, Mario Andretti

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Legendary race car driver Mario Andretti is synonymous with the sport itself. The Italian-born speed master who moved to the U.S. as a teenager with his family has claimed every major category of 4-wheel racing. To date, he remains the only driver to ever win the Daytona 500 (1967), Indianapolis 500 (1969), and the Formula One World Championship (1978). No other American has won an F1 chase since Andretti’s victory at the 1978 Dutch Grand Prix. His accomplishments on the racetrack and popularity with generations of racing fans make him one of the most respected and well-known names in all of sports. Today, he keeps busy managing his diverse business holdings and dispensing advice to the next generation of Andrettis who followed in his racing career. Sports History Magazine caught up with the celebrated auto pilot and asked him to share his passion with our readers.

You were born in Italy where you grew up before moving to the U.S. as a teen-ager. Tell us a little about your family life in the old country.

I was born in Montona, Italy (now Croatia). World War II broke out around the time I was born, at the beginning of 1940. I had a normal childhood despite the war. When the war ended in 1945, Montona became part of Yugoslavia. So, my family was inside a Communist country. We stayed for three years, hoping things would change. But when things hadn’t changed by 1948, we decided to leave Montona. For seven years, from 1948 to 1955, we lived in a refugee camp in Lucca. For me, that was age 7 to age 15. When I was 15, we moved to America.

When did you first develop a passion for motorsports?

Growing up in Italy, motor racing was more popular than any other sport. The world champion at the time was Alberto Ascari – my idol. Back then, Alfa Romeo, Ferrari and Maserati were involved, and it was the golden years of drivers such as Alberto Ascari, Juan Manuel Fangio, and Stirling Moss. These drivers were incredible. My brother and I were at an impressionable young age, and we both became enamored with the sport.

You raced and won in almost every form of automotive sport competition- stock, midget, sprint, endurance, open wheel, etc. What was your favorite?

My favorite was always open wheel single seaters such as IndyCars and Formula One.

You remain the only driver in racing history to win the Indianapolis 500, Daytona 500, and Formula One races. What are the different skills needed behind the wheel of a NASCAR vehicle compared to that of an F1 car?

The skillset of the driver is basically the same, but the car is different. Each racing car has its own characteristics. So, it’s all about adapting. Most F1 drivers would have a tendency to overdrive a NASCAR because stock cars are slower. It’s the job of the driver to understand the characteristics and adapt. A driver has to be skilled enough to be able to get the most out of each car. While it takes the same skill, it’s the handling that’s different. It’s like flying a fighter aircraft (F1 car) versus a bomber (NASCAR). The IndyCar is driven like a laser. The stock car is heavier and a totally different beast.

At its fundamental core, what makes a talented race car driver? fearlessness, reaction, judgement, strategy?

All of the above, plus burning desire and confidence. I say burning desire because of the risk involved. If you want something so badly, you have a burning desire to do it, then you aren’t distracted by fear or risk or anything else. I’m often asked what it takes to become successful in motor racing. I never know quite what to say, mostly because there is no short answer. It’s just too complex

You certainly had your share of mishaps and crashes over the decades. Did you have any close calls that stand out in particular?

Several. The most spectacular one happened when I flipped my son’s race car in 2003 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway during a test. It can be found on YouTube “Mario Andretti’s crash at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 2003”.

You raced for five decades on six continents. In that time, you raced against legendary drivers such as Richard Petty, A.J. Foyt, Ronnie Peterson, and many others. Who did you admire most among your rivals?

Because of my long career, there were many incredible opponents and so many top talents that I couldn’t possibly name them all. There are just too many. I would not even begin to name drivers because I wouldn’t want to leave anyone out unintentionally.

You are the last American driver to win the Formula One World Championship (1978). Why do you think Americans have been unsuccessful, or uninterested, in the world's premier open wheel race?

Good question. It’s simply because America is the only country on the planet that can offer any driver of enormous talent a full career in top disciplines without a passport. We have IndyCar, NASCAR and sports prototypes all happening in America. No other country has that at the top level. A great driver can have a satisfying career just by staying in the United States.

In 1983, you joined the Newman/Haas racing team. What was it like working with Hollywood star Paul Newman?

I loved that man. Paul and I became very good friends. He was in love with life. He could do anything. He could act. He could race cars. He could raise millions of dollars for charity. He was funny. He was so famous, but he just liked being ordinary. He liked to be just one of the guys in pit lane.

Besides the advancement in technology, how has the sport of auto racing changed in the past 50 years?

Besides technology, it has evolved tremendously especially in the safety area. If safety hadn’t been taken on vigorously, the sport would not have survived.

The Andretti name has become synonymous with racing itself. Your son, nephew, grandson and others in your family picked up the speed bug as well. What advice do you give them when they're out on the track?

Drive within your means. Don’t go beyond your skill level. Don’t try to be overly impressive.

Today, you keep busy with many activities ranging from media interviews to involvement in a number of businesses. What are you loving most?

I am very busy and I love being busy. I still work with a number of companies and I have numerous engagements. I have a winery in California and a few other business interests. I go to IndyCar races because my son Michael has a race team and my grandson Marco is driving. I go to a few Formula One races. I stay healthy and fit. I still follow every race series. I’m on Twitter and Facebook and Instagram.

Other Interviews Enjoyed: Hale Irwin (3x US Open champ), Jim Kelly (QB Buffalo Bills), Pat Cash (Wimbledon champ)

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