Lunch With... Mario Andretti

America’s greatest racer relives the long road from penniless immigrant to super-stardom, with Simon Taylor
Photography: James Bareham

Even before you meet Mario Andretti, the bare statistics tell you this man is unique. In a full-time career lasting an astonishing 35 seasons, he was a winner in F1, Champ Car, World Sports Cars,
NASCAR, F5000, IROC and even Pike’s Peak. These days F1 drivers just do their 18 races a year, but, relying on a punishing schedule of transatlantic commuting, Mario liked to race every weekend — grand prix one Sunday, USAC dirt race the next, endurance sports car race the next.

He’s been World Champion, Champ Car champion (four times) and USAC dirt champion, and has been voted Greatest American Driver Ever. He’s surely the only man to have won significant races in five decades, from the 1950s to the 1990s. And he still doesn’t think of himself as retired. He did Le Mans in 2000, and in 2003, at the age of 63, he lapped Indy at 225 mph — until an accident not of his making cartwheeled the car to destruction. This is an extraordinary man who’s had an extraordinary life.

He isn’t tall, but when he enters a room you know he’s arrived. There’s a quiet dignity about him which has nothing to do with arrogance or ego, and everything to do with what you know he has achieved. Fangio, on the brief occasions I met him, had just this quality. And Mario’s self-deprecating humour amplifies a remarkable recall which can dial up almost any race from that long career, right back to the dirt tracks of his teens nearly 50 years ago.

He can now afford to live anywhere from Connecticut to California, but he has never left Nazareth, the small Pennsylvania town where he fetched up as a 15-year-old immigrant in 1955. Home is a palatial residence built to his specification and standing in spacious grounds on a hill above the town: he also has a vast lakeside estate, Open Woods, deep in the Pennsylvania wilds, and a successful vineyard in California’s Napa Valley. In his house the galleried hall is lined floor to ceiling with cabinets housing hundreds of trophies, and the walls in other rooms are covered with photographs, plaques and mementoes, each recalling a moment or a friend from his crowded racing life. The lower ground level is made up of rows of spotless tiled garages, with work benches and quality tools. From the gleaming line-up we choose an orange Lamborghini Murcielago, and he drives me briskly to lunch.

It’s a long way from his beginnings. In 1940, when he and his twin brother Aldo were born in Montona in north-eastern Italy, Nazis and local partisans were fighting in the streets. As war ended Montona became part of Yugoslavia, and for three years the Andrettis lived under Communist rule before escaping, with nothing, into Italy. They were billeted in an old monastery in Lucca. “In one big room there were 10 families living, separated only by blankets which we strung up. We lived there for seven years. My dad did odd jobs, always provided for us. We were never hungry, never cold. But as kids we knew it wasn’t normal.” In 1952 his father applied to emigrate to America. But he heard nothing more.

In 1954 a friend took Mario and Aldo to Monza for the Italian GP. The two 14-year-olds cheered themselves hoarse as the Ferrari of reigning champion Alberto Ascari led the Mercedes team until its engine expired. It made a deep impression. So did the sight of the 1955 Mille Miglia passing by, with Moss and his bearded passenger racing to victory.

Then, suddenly, emigration approval came through. In June 1955 the Andrettis arrived in Nazareth. Gigi Andretti found work at the local cement works, while the boys set about learning English. After school they pumped gas at the local Sunoco station. Within days they discovered that Nazareth had its own half-mile dirt oval on the edge of town.

Unknown to their parents, Mario and Aldo found an old Hudson in a local scrapyard and began to convert it into a stock car. “We scraped together every cent, got some help from local businessmen for parts we needed, and did all the work ourselves.” By early 1959 they were ready for their maiden outing. “We painted the Hudson bright red, got ourselves smart overalls — everybody else ran in scruffy T-shirts — and we bought one helmet between us.”

The twins were now 19, but local rules stipulated a minimum age of 21. “So we fudged our birth date on our licences. Then the promoter says he can’t allow kids with no experience. So we tell him we’ve been racing in Formula Junior back in Italy since we were 13, and he buys it. We toss for who should race first, and Aldo gets it. Because he’s an unknown, they start him at the back for his heat. And he comes through and wins. That’s $25 — doled out straight away from the pay window. For the final they start him on the back again and he passes them all, pa pa pa pa, and he wins the
race. $150. We couldn’t believe it. Next weekend, my turn. I knew I had to do the same, so I did, from the back to the front, heat and final. We went on to run five different local tracks, and we were on top everywhere.

“Our parents knew nothing of this, because we knew they’d try to stop us. Then right at the end of the season, at Hatfield, Aldo was trying to pass the track champion, Freddy Adams, on the outside, and he got into the barrier, hooked his right front on a loose wooden plank. Cartwheeled end over end. They took him away in a coma, and read him the last rites at the hospital. I rang my mom and said he was watching the racing and he fell off the back of a truck, just had the wind knocked outta him. Next morning they brought the crashed car back to Nazareth and the word went round like wildfire that Aldo was dead. My dad didn’t know what to do, he was so upset, so furious. He didn’t talk to us for months. When Aldo regained consciousness, the first thing he said was, ‘I’m sorry you had to be the one to face the old man’.”

Our route in the Lamborghini takes us past the garage where, half a century ago, two teenagers pumped gas, and then the site of the old dirt oval, next to the now defunct Nazareth Speedway. We arrive at the Newbury Inn — like much of the town, clapboard-clad and dating back to the 18th century — and Mario orders staple American fare: cheeseburger and chips. From the wine list he selects two Andretti wines for me to try: a Chardonnay and a San Giovese. Both are excellent.

As Mario’s early reputation grew, he was offered drives: Stock Cars, then Midgets, then Sprint Cars. “Each dirt track was so different, and each would vary totally during the course of a race. You had to learn to read the surface. It was good training for F1 in the wet later on.” In 1964 he got a strong Champ Car ride with Clint Brawner, who ran the Dean Van Lines team. But Brawner wouldn’t let him make his debut at the notorious Langhorne dirt oval. “In its time Langhorne killed 52 drivers. They used to call it the widow-maker. It was shaped like a big D and you were sideways for three-quarters of the lap, going from lock to lock on the dirt, bunched close at 140mph and steering on the throttle. There used to be a fatality almost every race. One of Brawner’s drivers, Jimmy Bryan, had been killed there. So he wouldn’t run me, gave my car to an older guy called Bob Mathouser.

“But I was young, all piss and vinegar, and I wanted to race. So I picked up a ride in an old car belonging to Lee Glessner. Unlike the decent cars it had no power steering. But I wanted to beat Mathouser and prove a point to Clint Brawner. My mechanic that day was old Tommy Hinnershitz, who’d been a top dirt racer for 30 years. In practice I was so charged with adrenaline I was coming real close to the wall, not really knowing what the hell I was doing.

“So before qualifying Tommy says, ‘Mario, see that post by the entry to Turn 3? No matter how good the car feels, you gotta back off there, set the car up.’ Well, come qualifying I was really on it, and as I came to the post it felt real good. Then I remembered what he said, and I did back off a little bit… and I just barely, barely made it. If I’d gone 10 yards deeper, I woulda gone way out the ball park. They woulda found me in New Jersey. Tommy saved my life that day.

“In the race the surface broke into deep ruts. With no power steering, my hands were hamburger meat by the end. But I passed the Brawner car, finished ninth. It felt good.

“Eventually they paved Langhorne. But it was still tough. It was so quick, and you were turning all the time. You had to feather just before the start-finish line to get through Turn 1. One day I decided to stay flat, thought I’d get it all figured out when I got to the turn. I never did get it figured out, so I crashed after the finish line. But the lap before was a record. It held till they broke up the track for a shopping mall.”

In 1965 Mario ran his first Indianapolis. He qualified fourth and finished third, winning Rookie of the Year, and in the pit lane he met Colin Chapman and Jim Clark. Andretti told Chapman his sights were set on Formula 1. “When you’re ready”, said Chapman, “call me.”

That season Andretti beat AJ Foyt to become youngest-ever National Champion. He was Champion again the next year. Hungry to race anything and everything, he found sports car drives for the NART Ferrari team and then Ford at Le Mans, going on to win the Sebring 12 Hours three times in six years. He ran in NASCAR and Can-Am, too, yet still pursued a full Champ Car schedule, and raced midgets on dirt if he had a free weekend. In 1966 he drove 14 different cars in 51 races, taking 14 victories in four of them. In 1967 he won the biggest NASCAR race of all, the Daytona 500. “Those guys didn’t like an open-wheeler coming down and beating them. Next day a newspaper headline said: South Mourns Andretti Victory.” In 1969 his 4WD Lotus 64 broke a rear hub during Indy qualifying. Mario escaped with slight burns from the huge fiery accident that ensued, switched to his Brawner Hawk, put it on the front row, and won the race. That year brought his third Champ Car championship title.

“I never had any difficulty moving between disciplines. You get in a car, you switch off everything else and you focus on what you’re at. Like I’m doing the Sebring 12 Hours on a Saturday, I fly out Saturday night, Sunday I’m racing a sprint car on a dirt oval. World of difference in the skills required, but the passion’s the same.”

In 1968, three years after their meeting at Indy, Mario made that call to Chapman. He tested the Lotus 49 at Monza, where 14 years before he’d pressed his nose to the fence to cheer on Ascari. At once he was very quick — “I felt like I was born in that car” — and Chapman decided to run him alongside Graham Hill and Jackie Oliver in the Italian Grand Prix. But there was a problem: on the Saturday Mario was contracted to the Hoosier 100 dirt race. So he qualified the Lotus at Monza on Friday, flew to America, did the Hoosier on Saturday, and flew back to Italy, arriving in the Monza paddock on Sunday morning. Then the FIA invoked a rule preventing a driver from racing twice within 24 hours, and Mario was refused permission to start.

Four weeks later at Watkins Glen it was a different story. Mario made F1 history by taking pole for his first grand prix. He was lying second to Jackie Stewart when his nose aerofoils came adrift, and he finally retired with clutch failure, but it was an auspicious beginning. During the next two seasons there were more F1 races for Lotus, and March with Andy Granatelli’s 701, as well as sports car successes for Ferrari. In 1971 Ferrari offered Mario F1 drives when his other commitments allowed. In a fairy-tale debut for the team he won the South African GP, and set fastest lap. Then the Vel Miletich/Parnelli Jones team, for whom Mario ran in Champ Car and F5000, moved into F1 as well, doing a full season in 1975. But the Maurice Philippe-designed car was not a success.

“So 1976 comes along and I’m on the grid at Long Beach, third race of the season, and Chris Economaki puts a mike to me just before the off and says, ‘Mario, how does it feel starting your last F1 race? Vel Miletich just told me he’s pulling the plug on F1 to concentrate on Champ Cars.’

“No-one had said anything to me. I felt real stupid. I was so upset I almost didn’t put the thing in gear. After the race I didn’t even want to talk to them, I just went back to my hotel. Next morning I’m having breakfast all by myself, and Colin’s having breakfast two tables away, all by himself. He’s just had the worst weekend: one of his cars qualified last, and crashed out on the first lap, the other didn’t qualify at all. We look at each other, my chin’s in my socks, he’s even more miserable, and he comes over to join me. So the wheels start rollin’, and he says, ‘Drive for me, Mario.’ I said, ‘But you got a car that
may just be slightly quicker than a London bus. We got some work to do here.’ We shook on that. I felt a horizon opening out. I knew Colin could make me World Champion.

“I called Miletich and said, ‘I’ll never work for you again. And I’m gonna compete against you in Champ Cars.’ He said, ‘We have a contract.’ I said, ‘No we don’t, you’re in breach. Do what you wanna do, sue me.’ Then I called Penske, told him I was doing F1, but I wanted to keep in Champ Car. He said, ‘Whenever you’re available, I’ll have a car for you.’

“I told Colin I wanted to do all the F1 testing, but also I was going to stay in Champ Cars. He said, ‘It’s impossible. You’re crazy.’ I said, ‘You’re probably right, but I have to. There aren’t enough races in F1. I can’t have weekends when I’m sitting idle.’ He didn’t argue, he knew I was adamant.

“I’ll tell you how the ground effects thing got started. We were sitting round the table at Hethel, Colin, Martin Ogilvie, Tony Rudd, Nigel Bennett. I said what I wanted was downforce without penalty. I remembered testing the March 701 with those aerofoil-shaped sidepods that Robin Herd put on it. We tried taking them off and we lost direction entirely, like suddenly I needed 2.5 degrees extra front wing. So I knew they were working. But it was very inefficient because the air was spilling off them. I said, ‘What happens if you have bigger pods, and fences?’ The talk went on from there.

“Then we were testing at Hockenheim and in the middle of the Bosch Curve, when the car was on full roll, suddenly I was picking up a tremendous amount of extra grip. I said to Colin, ‘something is happening aerodynamically here, when the car gets closer to the ground under roll.’ So he sent [chief mechanic] Bob Dance into town to buy some plastic strips and they pop-rivetted them down the side of the car to close the gap entirely. I went out and got under the lap record at once, but as soon as the plastic wore out the grip went away again.

“Colin and I really bonded because he respected my way of working on the setup. He never wanted drivers to be too technical — all he wanted was feedback about what the car was doing. But I had tricks from American racing that were new to F1. I liked to set my cars up with stagger — the left rear tyre slightly bigger than the right rear, compensated with cross weight. I always had the left front and the left rear slightly bigger, even for a circuit that has more left-handers than right-handers. But for a circuit that’s counter-clockwise, like Imola, you had to go the other way. And if you look at a circuit with, say, 11 corners, there may be seven or eight that are key for passing, or for speed on the next straight, and two or three that you have to throw away. I always tried to maximise the car for the key corners. I had my own notes and circuit map, and I tried to find the extra angle the others didn’t have.

“Aerodynamically the 78 was a brick: on the straights it was dead slow. The 79 was much better, but it had serious brake problems. It had magnesium calipers to save weight, and the inboard rears got hot when the gearbox heated up. The pedal would go to the floor, you had to pump it like hell. In 1978 we won some of those races with no brakes. I complained, but Colin wouldn’t have it. There were some things you couldn’t convince him about, he’d just hit the roof.

“Colin could be very emotional. I remember him giving Gunnar Nilsson a bollocking about something, thrashing out at him. Then he saw me watching in disbelief, and he said, ‘I’m sorry you had to see that side of me.’ He would never have dared to talk to me like that. I said to Gunnar, ‘How can you take that shit, just sitting there like a little child being scolded by a teacher? You can’t get any respect like that.’

“But there was mutual respect between Colin and me. Mind you, I was concerned about the fragility of his cars. He loved titanium, but I insisted on no titanium suspension arms or pedals. That’s what paralysed Regazzoni — a titanium brake pedal broke. I used to needle Colin about suspension failures. He didn’t take it too well. I didn’t want to labour it, he’d lost Jochen [Rindt] because of a brake shaft failure, but I didn’t want to die because a suspension part broke. I had a good understanding with the boys on the team. I’d say to Bob Dance: ‘If you reckon something doesn’t seem strong enough, just tell me. I’ll fight the battles with the Old Man.’

“Colin was always paranoid about weight, and wanted you to finish the race with no more than half a litre of fuel left. I used to say to Bob, ‘Just put another half-gallon in there.’ At Kyalami Colin found out and ordered him to pump the extra fuel out again, right there on the grid! I said to Colin, ‘If I run out of fuel I’m gonna take it outta your hide.'” Two laps from the end the Lotus spluttered and started to run dry, and after an unscheduled fuel stop Mario was classified seventh…

“In all my racing, I’ve always loved my mechanics. That’s who you rely on, 100 per cent. Once you understand that, you become a family. I’m still in touch with a lot of the guys I worked with down the years. I always felt they won the races. You earn their respect by going balls out, and they work their butts off to give you what you need to get it done. The wins don’t come all the time. But when they do, you all celebrate.”

But when Mario won the World Championship for Colin, at Monza in 1978, there were no celebrations. His team-mate and close friend Ronnie Peterson died the following morning from injuries sustained in a Lap 1 pileup. “I’ve had a lot of team-mates, and not all of them were real friends. Ronnie was a special breed. We worked hard and played hard. We got together with our families, I’d stay at his house, he stayed at mine. We had fun. He had tremendous car control. He could carry a car, overcome its deficiencies. A real raw talent.”

For 1978, Mario nearly left Lotus for Ferrari. “I expected to stay for ’78, but we hadn’t agreed the money. Colin stuck at $350,000 and $10,000 a point, but I wanted $500,000 and the points money. So in September ’77 I win Monza for Colin, and then I say I have to go see Ferrari. He says, ‘Don’t go, we have a deal.’ I say, ‘Well, we do and we don’t.’

So I’m in Ferrari’s office, and we get to the uncomfortable stuff, money. That’s why people have a manager, I guess, but I’ve always done my own deals. He says, ‘How much do you want?’ I say, ‘Make me an offer.’ And he says, ‘Andretti, I can’t put a price on your talent.’ Very flattering, but also very clever, because it puts the ball right back in my court. So I’m thinking, $500,000 is what I want, so I say to him, $750,000? And he says, ‘OK’. I think, Man, why didn’t I ask for a million? So then I level with him. I tell him I have a handshake with Colin. He says, ‘That’s what we have lawyers for. If you want to drive for me, I can make it happen.’

So I say to Colin, ‘You have to give me $750,000, and $10,000 a point.’ He says, ‘I can’t.’ I say, ‘Then I go to Ferrari.’ So he went back to Player’s, they found the money, I stayed, and we won the Championship.

“I was still doing Champ Car, of course, and I won the IROC Championship too. I used to do the red-eye going over and Concorde coming back. I was Concorde’s most frequent traveller, 26 crossings in a year. The ground staff were always ready for me, had my Financial Times and my brioche waiting. Those days, first class really was first class.”

Mario’s F1 career lasted 128 races, including a year with Alfa Romeo, a Long Beach ride for Williams, and two swansong races for Ferrari in the turbo era: he sent the Monza crowd delirious by taking pole in 1982, and finished third. At home the wins went on piling up: his fourth Champ Car title came in 1984. In 1993, at the age of 53, he won his final Champ Car victory at Phoenix, and took pole for the Michigan 500 at 234mph, a closed-course world record at the time. He bowed out of single-seaters in 1994 after starting 407 Champ Car races, 67 of them from pole. He won 52 of them, and led 7587 laps.

“I never went racing for the money. I did it because of my passion for it. If you race for money, you’re racing for the wrong reason. But I always went for the best deals, because I was trying to justify the risks, for my family’s sake. Dee Ann, my wife, used to say, ‘Why not take a weekend off, take the kids to the movies?’. But I just had to do it. You have no idea how much I loved driving. My son Michael is happy being a team owner, but I never had any of those ambitions. The only part that excited me was the driving.”

The Andretti’s family record in racing is unique. Aldo raced on after his accident that first year, although his career never rivalled Mario’s. Son Michael had a brief, unhappy F1 sojourn with McLaren, but his American career was hugely successful. An Indycar champion, he now heads up the Andretti-Green IRL team. Younger son Jeff and cousin John, Aldo’s son, have all raced at top level: sometimes four Andrettis have been on the same grid.

Now there is Marco, Mario’s grandson. In 2006, aged 19, he did his first Indy 500. Mario, Michael and Jeff had all won Rookie of the Year at Indy, so there was huge pressure on the boy. Marco not only followed the script and won Rookie of the Year: he very nearly won the race as well, missing victory by precisely sixty-three thousandths of a second. “He was truly thrown into the lion’s den, and what I saw was a complete learning curve happening. He was putting something in the bank every day. He started that month as a boy, and finished it as a man.” In December Marco had his first F1 test, for Honda. “I tell ya, he’s smart. I say to Michael, he’s smarter than both of us. He’s gonna go far.”

But no-one has come as far as Mario himself. During our lunch, a fan from another table comes shyly over to ask Mario to autograph a paper napkin for her six-year-old son. Mario asks the son’s name, and then signs: “To Christopher. Always follow your dream. Mario Andretti”.

That’s just what Mario did. With self-belief, courage and inexhaustible will, the young boy at the Monza fence followed his dream. It made him the super-hero of American motor sport, and one of the most versatile racers of all time.