Hometown hero

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In this The Age of the Celebrity, Mario Andretti is that rarest of public figures: a bona fide hero. For he is more than the 1978 world champion, a four time national champion and the only driver to win the Indianapolis 500, the Daytona 500 and an F1 race, not to mention the oldest to win an IndyCar race (nor that his exploits have been chronicled by MOTOR SPORT for nearly half its 70 years!): he’s also basically the same guy who built and raced a Hudson Hornet on the dirt tracks of Pennsylvania with his twin brother Aldo in the 1950s.

And as retirement finally looms, it is that every man quality, even more than his countless records, which has endeared Mario Andretti to the fans, the press and his fellow racers the world over. After all. Mario could own houses and vacation retreats from St Moritz to Malibu but instead chose to remain in humble Nazareth, Pennsylvania.

He’s the sort of man whose idea of a vacation is an hour’s drive north to the family compound in the Poconos, who eats lunch regularly at a local diner with his longtime friend Dr Ed Krupa; a quietly religious man who relaxes by playing video poker at the Holy Name parish social club; a compulsive tinkerer you might run into at the local hardware store on an off-weekend. (As they were introduced to the fans prior to the start of last year’s Laguna Seca IndyCar finale, each driver was presented with a set of power tools.

One observer noted that Mario was probably the only one who would ever use his. . . well, maybe Al Unser Jnr tool “It all comes down to maintaining your focus on what’s really important,” says Mario. “I like to keep it simple. When I’m in these surroundings with my family I’m comfortable. I don’t need a palace in Honolulu or Malibu.

I want my solid foundations, and if that makes me a stick in the mud, well, I’m a happy stick in the mud. “My focus has been on my family and I’ve prospered because of it. I truly enjoy my relationship with my kids. We really enjoy our time together and that says a lot in a world where so much can be disruptive to the family.” That homebody-ness is part and parcel of what may be the most amazing accomplishment of Mario’s career: keeping his marriage to Dee Ann together over 33 years while raising three children amidst the pressures, travel and temptations of being one the world’s top racing drivers for parts of four decades. “If I looked at things from a purely practical side I’d have spent another 30 per cent of my life on the road,” says Mario. ”But would I have been comfortable? No. I’ve found it best to come back to base when ever I can.

Even in the days when we raced in Argentina and Brazil back to back, I’d come home and go snowmobiling or what ever for a day or two; it helped me refocus, get comfortable and then go back and be ready for the next race. ‘A need those breaks. I’ve been criticised for doing it but how can you criticise me when I need that to function at my peak? My way’s helped me last in the business, because I’ve never lost sight of what’s important; it’s helped me resist lots of temptations but believe me, I’ve been paid back many times over.’

While he savours his private life these days, Mario admits he was utterly consumed by racing in his younger days including his 30s and 40s. But somewhere along the line he changed. Still competitive as hell, as ready to put a wheel under another driver as ever, Mario became a little more willing to stop and smell the methanol along the way.

Those close to the family say the deaths of Dee Ann’s mother and father in 1988 had a telling impact on Mario; others suggest the birth of his first grandchild (Michael and Sandy’s son Marco) in 1987 sent Mario an undeniable message.

Whatever the reason, the searingly intense Mario Andretti of years gone was replaced by a new Mario Andretti, one more relaxed at the track, prone to making jokes at his own expense and enjoying his emerging role as racing’s elder statesman.

“When I was younger, from 20 on, I was like a machine,” says Mario. “The guys who inspired me Foyt, Gurney were really versatile; they drove anything and everything, stock cars, Formula One, sports cars. midgets, you name it. So as far as I was concerned i had to be driving come hell or high water. If I had a race in Terre Haute on Sunday, I just had to find somewhere else to race Friday and Saturday. if there was a hole in my schedule, I filled it. “As time went on, though, I began to focus more on my priorities. I started to burn out over about a five year period when I was doing a full F1 schedule, IndyCar races on the ‘off-weekends’ and IROC as well. It got to the point where I’d think ‘Oh Christ, not another race.’ I mean my life went by like a hurricane.

I don’t remember my 30s or even much about my 40s for that matter. And I started thinking if I’m going to stay in this business any longer I’ve got to enjoy it more. “Because of that, I decided to quit trying to do everything and focus on IndyCars. And I’ve gotten a lot more relaxed at the track. It also enabled me to recapture a little more of what’s important in life besides driving a race car, yet at the same time it made me more motivated because I was able to recharge during the lulls.”

By that stage, Andretti had already accomplished more than most drivers achieve in a dozen lifetimes. He’d raced and won in virtually every form of racing, from midgets to champ dirt cars, stock cars, Formula One, F5000, sports cars and, of course, IndyCars. In an age of specialisation, Mario’s record for versatility will never be matched. At the same time, it’s also safe to say he might have given Al Foyt a run for his money as the most prolific IndyCar winner in history if he hadn’t devoted seven seasons to Formula One in the prime of his career.

“No regrets whatsoever,” says Mario. “When I wasn’t winning in IndyCars, l was winning elsewhere, be it Formula 5000 or Formula One. Who knows, if I’d concentrated on IndyCars I might not have won any more races than I have! The chances are I might have padded my record a little but I’d have had to give up a lot on the other side that I’m proud of. I mean, i wouldn’t trade my wins in Formula One, stock cars and sports cars for 50 indyCar wins.”

Even more amazing than the fact that he’s been competitive for nearly 40 years, is the fact that Mario has been injury-free but for a separated shoulder in 1985 and foot injuries at Indianapolis in 1992 (leaving him with what he calls “a chicane” in a couple of toes); this during an era when so many of his friends and rivals lost their lives and when Aldo suffered head injuries on two occasions and Jeff was badly hurt at that same 1992 Indianapolis 500.

“I think about it all the time,” says Mario. “I know just how much I have to be thankful for (because) I know how many brilliant careers have been cut short. I don’t know why I’ve had such good fortune, but I’m a believer and I pray with thanks for my good fortune. “I think of poor Leff and how he paid his dues so quickly and here I am. I believe there’s a reason for all things, but mostly you just can’t explain why things are the way they are.”

Unencumbered by the physical and emotional baggage of injuries, propelled by his unparalleled passion for driving a race car, Mario kept pushing the envelope into the 1980s and into the ’90s. But while he was competitive. Mario went winless after a superb victory at Cleveland in mid 1988. What’s more, his team-mate was IndyCar racing’s dominant driver: his son Michael. “People have been asking me about retirement for years,” he says. ‘It was a fair question, really. once I hit 40, but to tell you the truth, I never gave it any thought; I’d dismiss the thought as quickly as I was asked the question.

But when I reached 50 I started to ask myself ‘Do these people know something I don’t?’

“With Michael on the team it was different. I’d spent my whole life on top of the world and here was reality knocking .. . But I still felt like I could win every race and that kept me going the past four or five years. Lately though, it was a case of thinking I want to win but there have been times I’ve gone into races and felt I couldn’t.

“Some might be afraid to talk about that, but I’m not. My brain was saying ‘yes’, my body ‘no’. What used to be second nature became a case of second guessing myself, and now I envy those guys who it’s still natural for. I can accept that. I’ve had my time. “I started thinking about (retirement) a little in 1992, then last year I really gave it some thought.

The fact is that while I won Phoenix, I should have won more races, “I could just call it quits, but damn it wanted just one more go at it. I suppose you could say I’m a gambler, but it’s a fairly calculated gamble on my part. The important thing is I got more and more comfortable with my decision as the season began. I feel quite comfortable racing against the new crop, if you will, and I feel more and more justified than ever about my decision. I have no second thoughts. I feel good, stronger than I might have felt a few years ago and certainly the best I’ve felt in the past couple of years.”

And so this is to be Mario’s final year in IndyCars. “I want to leave my options open,” he says. “I’ve had some conversations with Porsche about driving at Le Mans next year and my response was ‘Talk to me next year.’ I’d definitely be interested in something like that if it were a factory effort and maybe I could team up with Michael or Jeff or John. I don’t see myself working for somebody, something where I’m punching a time clock everyday, but at the same time I could see myself joining a team as an owner or co-owner.

As for the past, where do you begin? “Because of my upbringing, what motivated me to begin my career had to do with Formula One,” says Mario. “That was my dream, when I didn’t know anything else than to drive a Ferrari, So to have my first Formula One win in a Ferrari . . what a blessing; what a wonderful thing that was. You just can’t imagine what that did for my psychological well-being. Then to win at Monza (the 1977 Italian GP) where 1 saw my first professional automobile race, again you just can’t put a value on what that meant to me.

“And to see your kids go from toddlers to the starting grid with you, then run one-two and share so many precious moments, from a personal side they have no equal in satisfaction. Sometimes I have to pinch myself when I realise that we did it over and over, not just one lucky shot. What a prize. When I look back on those memories, none of the negatives of the sport make any impact. ‘When I think back I tend to think of races where 1 was up against it. The Daytona 500, for example. Ford didn’t want me to win that race, they wanted Fred Lorenzen. I was not in any way an expert at stock cars; it was a case of sheer desire more than anything else. I’m not sure I could drive that hard today. Afterwards, one of the mechanics told me he’d seen a touch of Fireball Roberts in me. What a thing to say.

Then there was Sebring (19701. 1 took over from (Nino’ Vaccarella and I Ignazio) Giunti and drove like a man possessed to get what I wanted. Races like that are good to think about over a glass of wine.

“It’s not just the races won, but the team owners he drove for that boggles the mind. Al Dean and Andy Granatelli; Roger Penske and Enzo Ferrari; Carl Haas (“Carl and I have had our ups and downs, but I’ve found a home at Newman/Haas) and Colin Chapman (“I think he liked my style, because we were both sort of hell bent for leather.”)

And the drivers he raced against. Has anyone ever run wheel to wheel with such a staggering array of greats. near greats and wannabes as Mario Andretti? Who among them would does he most respect?

“I respect so many, I hesitate to talk about that for fear I’ll leave some out,” says Mario. “For sure on this side of the Atlantic, the Unsers, Mears and Foyt come to mind, but they’re not the only ones. Rodger Ward, Parnell’ Ilones). If Pamelli hadn’t retired early I think he’d have been one of the greatest drivers of all time. In Formula One there was Jackie Stewart, Niki Lauda, steady racers you could really trust. Then there’s Dan Gurney, I admired him so much. lack Brabham. There are so many.

“How could I forget I drove against Phil Hill? It was Sebring in 1967 and he was in the Chaparral. We were really going at it. He was pressing me and I was pressing him right back and I was debating whether I should keep going at that pace when I looked in the mirror and saw his engine blow up on the Warehouse Straight. I thought ‘Thank God.’

“Other guys Denny Hulme, Don Branson, lud Larson, Ronnie Peterson, Bruce McLaren, Peter Revson, lochen Rindt. I could go on and on and on . ” Yes, and we wish you could “go on and on and on.” But like Mario himself, the racing world must finally face the bittersweet reality that it’s time he called it quits. Like Mario, we too must accept the fact that the body can’t quite perform at the level all of us have so long taken for granted willing though the mind may still be. Like Mario, it’s time for us to count more than 30 years of blessings and move on. — D P

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