When you think of Formula 1, Michael Schumacher probably comes to mind. NASCAR, possibly Richard Petty. And IndyCar, maybe even Dario Franchitti. But when you think of all three, in addition to practically every other race series, only one name should come to mind: Mario Andretti.
Starting his life in Motona, Italy, Andretti always had an interest in motor racing. Exposed to his first race at the 1954 Italian GP before coming to the United States, he was given the spark he needed to pursue what would become a monumental career. He is a four-time IndyCar National Champion (1965, 1966, 1969, 1984), Formula 1 World Champion (1978), Daytona 500 winner (1967), Pikes Peak Hill Climb winner (1969), Three-time 12 Hours of Sebring winner (1967, 1970, 1972) and more.
If not impressive enough he is also the only driver to be named 'Driver of the Year' in three different decades (1967, 1978, 1984). From 1961 to 2000, Andretti competed in 879 races winning 111 times with 109 poles (in all forms of motorsports). But this just scratches the surface of the incredible victories and accomplishments achieved by possibly the most versatile and accomplished driver of our time.
We had the opportunity to speak with the great Mario Andretti in a format where no questions were off limits. Given a generous amount of time we came up with the lengthy Q&A below.
What key factors helped you rise through the ranks?
MA: "Many factors are at play to help you get to the point where you are reaching your goals. It's a burning desire and a passion to pursue something. There are always road blocks, it's never easy and there is always something you will have to overcome. And you just do it. There is never a clear path, it's never black and white to where you 'do this and that' and you will accomplish 'this.' You are driven in that direction, and you put your best foot forward and go from one stepping stone to the next. A little bit of luck plays into it and making the right decisions, equipment, and preparation. All of these play into an ultimate result. Leave no stone unturned as you progress through whatever your endeavor is."
There is always someone that you feel is doing it better than you. That's what keeps you motivated.
How do you compare Formula 1 past to present?
MA: "You can expect the sport to evolve because it is so technical. As far as the human efforts from a driver's standpoint it's basically the same. Your task is to take the equipment to its very limit, wherever that limit is. If you have more tools to work with, if the car is more sophisticated, has more downforce allowing you to go quicker through the corners, so be it. You have a tool that will take you to the next level. But at the same time, the human effort from the driver is exactly the same now as it was then."
With the film RUSH coming out this month, was the Lauda/Hunt rivalry portrayed accurately?
MA: "Well, don't let the movie take you away. Obviously there was some rivalry between them, but everything will be exaggerated in film as you know. Nevertheless it was fascinating; both were champions and both very different characters. That is clearly illustrated. I had the opportunity to be friends with Hunt and I am still friends with Lauda. It was a great time in my career of course, to be racing against such talents. That is something I hold very dear to myself as I look from decade to decade, who the real inspirational top guys were, and I had the opportunity to race against them. It makes my career that much richer."
You raced for both Lotus and Ferrari during that time, what was it like to work with both Enzo Ferrari
and Colin Chapman?
MA: "You just mentioned the two absolute icons of the sport in its entire history. How great is that to have had that opportunity? I have come away with satisfactory victories on both ends. With Ferrari, I won my very first Formula 1 race and pretty much ended my career in a Ferrari (substituting for an injured driver) at Monza, and a World Championship with Lotus....I couldn't think of anything better that could have happened to me quite honestly. I have been very fortunate to have been touched by two of the greatest in the sport."
One of the most exciting races and potentially the most dangerous was the one portrayed in RUSH...
What is the most exciting F1 race you can remember?
MA: "One of the most exciting races and potentially the most dangerous was the one portrayed in RUSH, which is the Japanese GP that I won. The reason for that was the rain; it was just unbelievable and oppressive. We were hoping they would delay the start of the race, but they didn't. This is what caused Niki Lauda to abandon the race because he just had zero visibility and he lost the championship by one point to James Hunt."
When you were a boy, your idol in Formula 1 was Alberto Ascari, did that change once you made your way into F1?
MA: "Alberto Ascari was one I wanted to emulate. There were others, there was Fangio, Moss, and others that were inspirational. As your career develops you are inspired by others, one that you feel like 'if I can reach that level of skill I will make a quantum leap.' That's what you work for; you aspire to be the best. I derive inspiration from many of my peers. It goes on and on to even the last days of my driving at age 54. You're always striving to do better, but there is always someone that you feel is doing it better than you. That's what keeps you motivated."
Why has F1 still not caught on with the majority of mainstream American race fans?
MA: "I think that's more of a perception. I'm not sure that's a total reality, but in history you usually only had one race a year in this country of Formula 1. From that standpoint, the fans here are exposed to NASCAR and IndyCar and some sports cars. However, now that we have a world class facility in Austin, TX, Circuit of the Americas, it looks like Formula 1 will be very stable for the future here. I think that will provide volumes to build onto the fan base that is already here. Formula 1 is very international and it takes a certain kind of fan to enjoy and pursue that. For the longest time Formula 1 was very sporadic and unstable in venues, and I think in order to build a solid footing for not just a race but an event you have to be looking forward to it year after year and that's just beginning in Austin. I'm happy to be just a small part of that."
Formula 1 is very international and it takes a certain kind of fan to enjoy and pursue that.
How does Circuit of the Americas compare to some of your other favorites?
MA: "It compares very well. It was designed with some of the characteristics of other circuits in mind. It has a lot of character because of elevation and so forth. It's a complex circuit, very technical, the drivers seem to like it. The events run there so far have been very successful. It has a lot going for it and the most important part is that the drivers enjoy it. I have taken race cars around there and I like it. It's challenging because it is not very easy to learn, but to me that's a plus."
Stock Cars are a derivative of what you drive to lunch or work, a racing car is something that is built for only one purpose.
What attracts you to IndyCar racing more than others?
MA: "Personally I enjoyed racing the absolute thoroughbred of the sport. Stock Cars are a derivative of what you drive to lunch or work, a racing car is something that is built for only one purpose and that's what I like. I like the technical side and the flavor of driving something that cannot be equaled by any other discipline of our sport."
What did you take away from each of the series you raced?
MA: "I took away satisfaction. Especially if I was successful in bringing home a result like winning, there is nothing that can compare to that. I was curious to have a taste of all the majors in our sport. My specialty was always open-wheel single-seaters, such as Indianapolis style or Formula 1. I loved to do sports prototypes and long-distance racing and I enjoyed some NASCAR racing. For the sake of curiosity, because you can specialize in just one discipline and stay there, but I wanted to have a taste of others. I think it fulfilled my career in a very special way."
I loved to do sports prototypes and long-distance racing and I enjoyed some NASCAR racing.
Was there ever a moment after you gained success when you wanted to quit racing?
MA: "Safety has improved over the years and there were times back in the '60s and '70s where I lost a lot of friends and it gives you a moment to pause. It's a natural reaction to something that is so negative. However, there was never a thought in my mind to quit. This is what I chose, this is what I want and I'm willing to take the risk. It's a calculated risk as I see it and I'm willing to take it."
There were times back in the '60s and '70s where I lost a lot of friends and it gives you a moment to pause.
What mantra can you give an aspiring racer?
MA: "First of all, just enjoy what you are doing. If you do not enjoy it you will not relax and do your best work. Then, just apply yourself. You are only going to be able to be successful if you really have the true passion for it. Don't be afraid to sacrifice, because I can tell you nothing worthwhile will come your way easily. Be prepared to work very hard for whatever goals you want to achieve and accomplish."
What is the biggest mistake an aspiring racer can make?
MA: "To go beyond what you think your capabilities are, recognize your limits. That can really hurt you. A mistake is something that can also hurt somebody else. You have a responsibility not only to yourself but also to the driver around you. You have to take everything to the maximum but also be in control. Any mistake at any given time can be very tragic."
Don't be afraid to sacrifice, because I can tell you nothing worthwhile will come your way easily.
What is it like to have your son's race with you?
MA: "There is a lot of pride in that. It's also a double-edged sword as you can imagine from the standpoint of knowing that in some ways they could be in harm's way. It's not the safest sport in the world. Knowing that it was ultimately their choice to do it, it would have been highly hypocritical for me to say 'you shouldn't do it, it's too dangerous' where I have done it all my life. Watching them race and do it well, that brings a lot of pride. What's better than that? It's your offspring pursuing your footsteps, something that you love so much. In some ways to me, it doesn't get any better than that."
As a retiree, what daily driver keeps life interesting and how many speeding tickets have you amassed?
MA: "Well, I love my sports cars and I always treat myself because I like high-performance cars even though you can't really use them in the street. As far as speeding tickets, I have been very fortunate quite honestly. I'm very careful on the road and I want to make sure I keep it all safe. My record is pretty clean and I'm proud of that."
My big motivation to buy a car is technology, to get the latest and greatest.
Do you favor American or European cars?
MA: "I like cars in general. I love technology, and I have a very open mind about cars. In my garage I have foreign cars and domestic cars. My big motivation to buy a car is technology, to get the latest and greatest."
Was there a path you almost took instead of racing?
MA: "I always say that I never had a plan B in my life. But thinking about it, at times I say that if driving a racing car could never have happened I think I would have pursued the career of a fighter pilot. I have gotten to ride in some of the most powerful jets on the planet, so I know why these dudes love what they are doing."
If driving a racing car could never have happened I think I would have pursued the career of a fighter pilot.
What are your thoughts on more fringe forms of competitive motorsports such as drifting, time attack or rallycross?
MA: "I'm in love with MotoGP in terms of another kind of motorsport. It's extremely exciting and entertaining. MotoGP is offering the most exciting one hour in motorsports you will ever see anywhere. The drifting and that sort of thing is great showmanship and I think there are definitely specific skills required, but at the end of the day it would not fulfill any of my ambitions."
MotoGP is offering the most exciting one hour in motorsports you will ever see anywhere.
What cities would you like to see add in a closed-circuit street race?
MA: "There are many great host cities that have held these events. Long Beach has been fabulous. Baltimore has only had three events and they're spectacular, you name it. Almost every city we have gone to for a temporary circuit has been just a great host. I'm not sure I want to choose one. I think I'd love to see something in New York, which might even happen sometime. The sport has really grown by being showcased in some of these cities. It has become some of the favorites of drivers. It was certainly one of my favorites when I was driving."
Is there something you wish you could have done or still would like to do?
MA: "I have no regrets whatsoever. At the same time was everything perfect? No. if I had the luxury of doing things over again with the experience I have today, yeah I would do some things better or make some betters choices. Overall, no regrets. I pinch myself as to how fortunate I've been. "
I have no regrets whatsoever. At the same time was everything perfect? No.