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Formula 1 Legends: Interview With Mario Andretti

American-born Mario Andretti’s motorsport dream began in 1954 at the Italian Formula 1 Grand Prix at Monza. A 14-year-old Andretti, along with his twin brother, watched in awe as the first Ferrari of racing idol and hometown hero Alberto Ascari rolled around the track, little did he know that this precious childhood moment would become a defining moment for him as well. career .

Monza holds a special place in Andretti’s heart and he makes it clear that he could not have written a better script: in 1978 he secured the Formula 1 World Championship there, twenty-four years after taking part in his first race. That fateful weekend in 1954 began a series of events that would eventually lead to an impressive career spanning five decades, 879 races and 111 wins across various classes of motorsport.

I sat down with the racing icon to discuss his remarkable career, his thoughts on Formula 1 today, a trip down memory lane back to where it all began.

EH: Let’s start with Monza, and what it means to you as a 14-year-old seeing your first big race there.

MA: Well Monza. I can say that this was probably the beginning of my real dream of becoming a racing driver, and I couldn’t have written a better script because this was in 1954 and it was there in 1978 that I won . [Formula 1] World Championship. It was amazing for me of course to win the race, I won the race last year. I won that year [1978] also but I was punished along with Gilles Villeneuve because I allegedly started, which I think was the argument, I just reacted to Gilles who picked him up; I reacted and I stopped and I left. But that’s another story anyway. The reason I didn’t protest was because my friend Ronnie Petersen was killed that day, so I didn’t have the energy to go and continue a protest. But just to reiterate what I said about the significance of that particular day or that weekend in 1954 when I was 14, this is what started it. Not only for myself, but I also have a twin brother [Aldo] and we both had the same dream and followed it.

EH: And then a year later your family moved to Nazareth and you and Aldo discovered a racing track nearby.

MA: When we moved to the United States, we didn’t know what to expect, but we soon found out, three days after arriving here, that there was a race track nearby. We didn’t know about oval racing, you know American type racing, but it sounded good and looked like a lot of action and also seemed very doable to me at that level. As you can imagine when we saw Monza, Grand Prix cars [of] Mercedes, Ferrari, Maserati everything seemed so far away, so impossible, that when we saw these cars competing at the local level, they looked like monsters. But again it seemed possible, it seemed like something we could build. We actually started, two years later at 17, that’s when we started building a race car and two years later we started driving.

EH: How did you go with that car?

MA: We were really successful. It was really a big help for us because it was one car, two drivers. It was obvious that Aldo and I would share it but he started first, he won the toss and this is a matter of record, he won the first match. I did it next weekend. But we won the competition. That year we crashed and did all the good things that are normal for young racing drivers. It was a great start for us as you can imagine, and encouraged us along the way. We had a really 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 the time. He ran for another ten years but then he had another huge accident that effectively retired him. But for me it was a quick step to take it to the next level and I continued and became much happier. I started my career in 1959 and my last race was Le Mans in 2000, so basically I had a 41 year career.

EH: In 1969 you won the Indianapolis 500, what was that victory like for you?

MA: Well, that’s one of the ambitious goals you set for yourself, winning the classics. And if you’re racing in America, the classic event known around the world is the Indianapolis 500. I felt very comfortable there from the start, which was in 1965 and I was Rookie of the Year, I finished third and I continued. on and I also won the National Championship, and I was the youngest driver to do so at the time. And then winning it four years later was something that was huge for my career and opened a lot of doors. But two years ago I won the Daytona 500 which is the big flash event for stock cars that is very popular here. And two weeks after the Daytona win I won my first 12 Hours of Sebring with Bruce McLaren as my teammate, so my career was going great. But as you can imagine winning the most recognized events around the world is the most important part, which can really change the life that 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: But it really was. And he’s really proud of the big “P” because as you can imagine my son Michael and my nephew John, Aldo’s son, and I are on the same podium. Then later Michael really became my friend. He and I shared the front row many times and we were on the nose together 12 times. And we were first and second in IndyCar like eight times. You can imagine how sweet it is for a family to be able to share those moments, you can never even technically plan, whether it will just happen or not. And I’ve been very happy with that attitude over the years to see the family continue. Both of my sons are competitive and like my brother, my second son Jeffrey was not as lucky as his brother or me. He suffered a devastating injury in Indianapolis in 1992 that almost cost him both legs and that defined his career. But then something like this puts things in perspective, like how lucky Michael and I are, how lucky Michael and I have been in sports. And it’s not a gift, you know, because my brother and my other son were very appreciative of what they tried to do and we know how much we can appreciate the luck that we’ve had by our side throughout our careers. do it

EH: How do you handle competition and tensions between friends when that friend is your son?

MA: Well the competition was there. I didn’t want to give him an inch and take it. But the one who was really on pins and needles, as you can imagine, was my wife because she was watching us from the sidelines, and many times we actually touched the wheels and things. It wasn’t too hard, she wanted to believe that we would see each other and that we wouldn’t do anything stupid to put my son in danger, or he put me in danger, but we couldn’t see anything. In fact the first pass, the first pass my son gave me for the race, we touched the wheels completely in the corner and it was very strong. But at the end of the day it was a lot of fun. When he passed I thought “how dare you Michael!” and then when he goes into the sun I think “that’s my boy”. It is a double-edged sword. You know we had the closest finish in an IndyCar at the 1986 Grand Prix in Portland.

EH: Yes, Father’s Day. I bet your wife was heartbroken watching that last line.

MA: Yes, indeed. But this is the thing. He really definitely deserved to win it because he had a bit of a lead on me as we headed towards the end of the race. There were about three laps to go and my engineer yelled in my ear that Michael was having some fuel handling problems. At that point I settled for second and knew I couldn’t catch him. And I literally stood up in my seat, and here it was getting closer and closer. The last lap we basically had a drag race across the finish line and I just, just barely edged it by an inch. And it was very sad. When we were on the podium then he realized it was father’s day and he said, well happy father’s day dad [laughs]. Maybe he thought I could give him a break and let him win, but no way!

EH: You’ve raced practically everything there is to race on four wheels, so of all the motorsport classes you’ve raced in which is your favorite?

MA: It would have to be Formula 1, mainly because that’s where my love for the sport really started. And of course the opportunity came up to get into the sport in America, so I had a very fulfilling career here in the States with IndyCar and then stock cars and so on. But if someone says you can only choose one discipline, then I would choose Formula 1. It’s that simple.

EH: After three decades of racing in Formula 1 and now as a spectator today, how do you see the sport evolving?

MA: Well, changes are expected, and subtle changes if you will. If you’re as close to the gym as I am, the changes are almost natural, they’re no big deal. What makes me understand things well is that I spent decades and I saw that big changes happened, but it was slow and it’s the same now. What I do understand, which I am very happy about, is that I am driving the computer era that is now. We started with computer equipment 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. And I’m sticking to it, I’m still driving a two-seater car, which is the same as a proper racing car, only it’s expanded for another passenger, but all the technology and everything is the same. So the fact that I’m new to things makes it easier to accept and understand. I love development and I love technology, and I love the way sports are today. Obviously it’s a lot more regulated because there’s so much knowledge out there that you can’t drive cars, but there’s a human element so that has to be sorted which is fair enough. In IndyCar we were getting really fast, the records set in the mid-90s when I was still driving still stand, they had to slow the cars down for safety reasons like you see I drive faster. than they do today. I am by no means ancient.

EH: What’s your favorite track you’ve ever raced on?

MA: Every track I got [laughs]. That’s the only way I can answer it. The next question is, what is your favorite race car? Every race car I’ve driven has won a race. That’s why it’s so easy. I don’t know how else to write because it’s a fact.

EH: And which of your 111 careers is the most memorable?

MA: The most overlooked must be that Indianapolis can win because it really means efficiency. But for personal satisfaction he 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 actually my first win at Monza. But winning the race, the Grand Prix in ’77, that was huge for me because of what Monza has stood for my whole life. I don’t think I could have been happier. I count my blessings every day. I think I won more races than I deserved and I’m grateful for that every day so I don’t take anything for granted. My life in motor racing is complete.

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