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Q&A: Mario’s Life And Career Have Been A RUSH

John Sturbin | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Tuesday, September 10 2013

Mario Andretti's life and career have made him a true racing legend. (Photos courtesy of the Mario Andretti Collection)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

He never has parallel-parked a train, but for a generation of motorsports fans Mario Andretti truly is The Most Interesting Man in the World.

Consider these accomplishments:

– Only driver to win NASCAR’s Daytona 500 (1967), Indianapolis 500 (1969) and Formula One World Driving Championship (1978).

– Along with Phil Hill, only the second American to win the F1 World Driving Championship. On cue, Tuesday, Sept. 10, is the 35th anniversary of Mario becoming America’s most recent F1 World Champion with Team Lotus.

– Along with Dan Gurney, one of only two Americans to win races in F1, Indy car, NASCAR and the World Sportscar Championship.

– Winner of four Indy car titles, three under United States Auto Club sanction and one under sanction of the Championship Auto Racing Teams.

– Winner of 109 career races on major circuits.

– Only person to be voted North American Driver of the Year in three decades (1967, 1978, and 1984).

All that doesn’t include the personal life journey of Mario Gabriele Andretti, who emigrated with his family from Italy to Nazareth, Pa., in 1955 with $125 to their name…and went on to personify The American Dream.

Andretti, 73, currently is serving as official ambassador for Circuit of The Americas in Austin, Texas. The purpose-built, $400-million, 3.4-mile, 20-turn motorsports facility is preparing to host its second edition of the F1 United States Grand Prix on Nov. 15-17. It was in that capacity that Andretti visited with RacinToday.com during a recent telephone interview. The transcript follows:

RacinToday.com: Let’s begin with Sebastian Vettel of Red Bull Racing/Renault. After his sixth win of the season in Sunday’s Italian Grand Prix at Monza, it appears he’s headed to his fourth consecutive

Formula 1 champions Fernando Alonso, Mario Andretti, Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel.

World Championship with a 53-point lead over Fernando Alonso of Scuderia Ferrari. With 32 wins in 113 starts, Vettel clearly is the best driver of his generation. Should he be considered among the best of all time, in a class with multiple champions Michael Schumacher, Ayrton Senna, Alain Prost, Jim Clark, Juan Manuel Fangio…or whomever you want to name?

Mario Andretti: “He’s going to fall into that category, for sure. When you look at his numbers, especially now at his age (26), what he has accomplished, it’s enviable by anyone that’s pursuing the same thing. He’s contributing talent to a team that’s absolutely super. Their technical sort of advantage_ the knowledge they possess with Adrian Newey, the designer _ is well-documented. His (Newey’s) abilities along with when he was with Williams, McLaren _they were always winning _ that advantage is contagious. And with the contribution of Vettel’s talent, they’re pretty formidable.”

RT: On any given weekend you’ve got five F1 World Champions competing – Vettel, Alonso, Lewis Hamilton, Kimi Raikkonen and Jenson Button – and yet Vettel typically is outperforming them all. Red Bull has been built around him, but still, how impressive is that?

MA: “It’s extremely interesting to see him week-in and week-out be so strong. You’ve got to appreciate that. If you’re a race fan, you know the value and how hard it is to stay up-front. At the same time, the competition is unbelievable there. Can’t take anything away from him. He’s going to be hard to stop but you never know.”

RT: Quite frankly, are Vettel and Red Bull stinking up the show?

MA: “As a fan, you like to see it unpredictable. We all remember the days when Michael Schumacher, you could bet your house he was going to win that day and most of the time you were going to keep your house. Was it that interesting? Probably not. You like to see a little bit of a mix. In the latter part of the

Mario Andretti drove Lotus to a World Driving Championship 35 years ago today.

season now he’s (Vettel) got a pretty solid foothold, but the other guys are not throwing in the towel. I like what I’m seeing at Mercedes with Lewis, where they’ve really stepped-up on the technical side. Somehow, he has made a difference there. And to me, that’s a great story there.”

RT: Because he took a gamble, moving from McLaren, where he won the World Championship, to Mercedes, right?

MA: “To me, he came away winning at the end of last season with McLaren and he’s moving onto a team that hadn’t won (with regularity)…and you figure what’s wrong with this picture? He knew something we didn’t, and it proved to be the brilliant move of the year and his career as well. He’s spiced-up things.

“And then Ferrari, you never count them out. They’ve been struggling more than you would expect, and Fernando is losing his patience a little bit and complaining publicly. The culture (at the Scuderia), you’ve got to respect it, so he didn’t do himself any favors doing that. They’re missing something, but not through lack of effort.”

RT: Another contender with character is Kimi Raikkonen with Lotus. What’s your spin on Kimi, a former World Champion with Ferrari?

MA: “He’s interesting from every standpoint. The guy doesn’t have to say anything  and he speaks volumes. And everyone seems to like that. He’s a no-nonsense type of guy and it’s been great to see his comeback so strong and successful. Now he’s a valuable asset and maybe someone who will move. I’d like to see him stay at Lotus because he’ll keep that team competitive for sure. The seat that looks like is opening up is at Ferrari (Felipe Massa) and that creates another buzz. I’m sure he’s been mentioned as one of the potential replacements in that respect. Once you leave Ferrari, historically you don’t come back. This would definitely be a first, indeed.”

RT: Although you are an ambassador for Circuit of The Americas, I would guess most American fans associate you as the Indy 500 winner in 1969. Do you feel that your F1 championship in 1978 in Colin Chapman’s Lotus 79 largely is overlooked…and where do you rank that among your many accomplishments?

MA: “I rank that at the very top, quite honestly. On the American side, I won four national championships but I’m more known for winning one race at Indy – which to some degree, is

Mario Andretti in 1968.

disturbing. But that’s how popular the event is. For me to compare the exclamation point of my career – ne race against a World Championship – it’s absurd. Not even close. From a personal standpoint, that championship tops them all. To some degree it does go unnoticed, but not by me.”

RT: In reviewing your biography, I was shocked to learn that you are still the last American to win an F1 race – the 1978 Dutch Grand Prix. That’s incredible, but it certainly speaks to the difficulty any American faces in dedicating himself to an F1 career and lifestyle.

MA: “That’s a shame, actually, that we don’t have more representation. We had some drivers after (his tenure) that’s for sure. But for some reason…I just wish Michael (Andretti) had decided to stay there with McLaren (in 1993). If he would have made the right decision there he would have been World Champion more than once. I think F1 would do very well by having an American driver there and hopefully with the home that Austin is providing for F1 the future will create that potential and put more spark into getting an American into F1.”

RT: Formula One’s debut at Circuit of The Americas was voted “Sports Event of the Year” in 2012, a huge success in all respects, maybe with the exception of race day traffic. How would you rate the layout, amenities, etc.?

MA: “World-class. World-class. And I tell you, all you had to do was listen to the critiques from people that travel to races all over the world and everyone was pleasantly impressed. Honestly, even the traffic situation was nowhere near as negative, but they’ve learned a great deal and have widened the road…and some of the glitches with the shuttles, they were able to cure a lot of that. Second time around will be a much better experience for the fans. They’re working very diligently in those areas to just make it as smooth and pleasant as possible.”

RT: There were plenty of celebrities on-hand last November, and curious first-timers. Any concern that there will be a significant drop off in interest and the race-day attendance of 117,429 fans for the second event?

MA: “I don’t think that at all. I feel solid that if anything we might have a year with better attendance. I think the way the first race went off and as successful as that was…just being around the fans, the reaction from them was so positive that people want to go back. I’m very bold about that. I feel the

As seen in this photo taken in Sacramento in 1968, Mario Andretti could play dirty.

interest will continue and be great. The City of Austin is a great host city. They’ve created the ambiance with a lot of events downtown and the atmosphere was vibrant. This year there will be a lot more going on with fan festivals and things like that to make it that much better. I’ve seen the way Montreal does all that and I think Austin is doing the same and doing it Texas-style. They do it big.”

RT: It seems the fate of the F1 Grand Prix of America at New Jersey’s Port Imperial again is in question because of funding. The street race reportedly is not on the latest draft calendar that F1 commercial boss Bernie Ecclestone is to submit to the Federation Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA) for consideration by its World Motor Sport Council. They are due to meet on Sept. 27, when the provisional calendar will be agreed upon and published. Does the United States really need a second F1 race, and is that the right market given that New York/New Jersey is so vested in stick-and-ball sports?

MA: “Here again, I know from the standpoint of F1 and Bernie Ecclestone are really looking to have an event close to New York City. That’s something that’s been talked about for decades and all of a sudden looks like it was coming to fruition. Now I don’t know exactly what the situation is. I’ve read some of the comments from Bernie and so forth and don’t know what to read into that. There’s some doubt up there. But does the United States need two grand prixs? I would say that would be welcome and if it happens, all the better.”

RT: There’s a lot of buzz around previews of the movie “RUSH” by Ron Howard. Have you been privy to any screening yet? Also, you competed against Ferrari’s Niki Lauda and McLaren’s James Hunt in 1976 – were you aware of the depth of that rivalry? I don’t want to call it hatred, but it was obviously intense.

MA: “They had a preview of the movie at Indianapolis, and I couldn’t attend. And absolutely, I was

Michael and Mario Andretti. (Photo courtesy of the IZOD IndyCar Series)

aware of that rivalry. Can’t miss that. When you’re competing…that was my second consecutive season in F1 because I did ‘75 with the Parnelli group. I did a full season so you get to talk, you get to meetings, you get a connection with these guys and know what’s going on in the inside. It was quite clear…I didn’t think the rivalry in any way was hatred. It was two different characters going about things – one very serious and one more carefree. James was a free spirit and us on the inside kind of understood that. It was what it was. That was James.”

RT: The other hook to the story is Lauda’s comeback from life-threatening and disfiguring injuries. I would bet that many fans new to F1 have no idea of that compelling part of the story.

MA: “Incredible from every standpoint. The courage he demonstrated was unbelievable. He not only gained a degree of respect from all of us but also admiration. Niki coming back from those devastating injuries…those are monumental events in one lifetime.

“You look back at the cars and the tracks at the time…you could hit a bridge abutment, trees and things like that. When I competed in my first 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1966, along the Mulsanne Straight we were doing in the 240 mph range and there were trees there, no guardrail. You have a blowout and you kiss it goodbye. There were times when you had to dodge a few bullets.”

RT: Back in June, your son Michael was on an IZOD IndyCar Series teleconference and mentioned that he would be interested in getting involved in F1 “in some way.” He said he would be interested if they were to open it up to customer cars and make it more economical. Maybe he would like to be involved as a promoter down the road. As noted, you raced for the American Vel’s Parnelli Jones F1 team in 1975 and know how difficult it is to operate in that environment. Do you think Michael could transition into F1 as an owner and be successful? Or would you advise against it?

MA: “I think…what’s important is that he said he would not be interested in being his own manufacturer. In F1 there’s always a concern about the sustainability _ about the cost factor to field your own car. There’s got to be some concern about the amount of teams dwindling. They’re down to 22 cars and you don’t want to have less than 20 cars (10 teams). If they open it up to customer cars…any team could sell to one or two customers. That would encourage someone like Michael to get into that. You buy a Ferrari, a McLaren and campaign it. It would make sense because it probably would take less than half the capital investment to become a team-owner, and I think it would be a great thing for F1. And it would be cost amortization for the teams. At one point they might have to look into it and I hope that it’s sooner rather than later.”

RT: So, you would not discourage Michael from tackling Formula One with that type of program?

MA: “Hell no. Michael can make that happen, I guarantee you. I think it would be good.”

RT: I saw and covered my first F1 race at Watkins Glen International during the mid-1970s, and as a native New Yorker I love The Glen. You qualified on-pole there for your first F1 race in 1968 in a Lotus 49. Clearly, F1 has outgrown The Glen as far as accommodations for the jet-setters, but do you think this generation of F1 driver would find the 3.45-mile layout challenging in today’s sophisticated race cars?

MA: “Absolutely. The Glen was to me one of the courses, with the elevation changes, a desirable course. But they hadn’t kept up with the safety side. For some reason there was no plan for reinvestment and that’s why it disappeared from the scene. That was a solid home for many years and those events were successful. It was elbow-to-elbow fans – and in the mud, The Bog. It was a different time but it takes you back to the fact that there’s a lot more support for F1 in the United States than people think. That’s why it brings you right back to Austin. I’m so happy to see that we can accommodate F1 with a facility that’s purpose-built with all the amenities and quality that needs to be in-place nowadays around the world.”

Single-day ticket options for the 2013 Formula One United States Grand Prix Nov. 15-17 at Circuit of The Americas are on-sale. Individual tickets for Friday’s practice sessions, Saturday’s knockout qualifying rounds and Sunday’s race start at $49 per person.

Single-day tickets can be purchased in both general admission and reserved seating areas in Turns 3, 4, 5 and 11 for the following prices: General admission: $49 (Friday only), $79 (Saturday only), $129 (Race Day only). Reserved seating: $79 (Friday only), $129 (Saturday only), $229 (Race Day only).

Single-day tickets can be purchased online at http://www.circuitoftheamericas.com/f1. Single-day parking passes also are available for purchase online. Group discounts are available for parties with 20 or more guests. For information on single-day group tickets, contact a member of COTA’s Sales Team at 512.301.6600, Ext. 1.

John Sturbin | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Tuesday, September 10 2013
2 Comments

2 Comments »

  • Tom Petersen says:

    Great interview! Mario’s as classy, thoughtful, and modest as they come. It should be recalled that Mario’s own story during the “RUSH” season of 1976 is probably worth its own movie: His F1 team closed up shop after the Long Beach GP without even telling him. The story goes that while eating breakfast alone in the motel coffee shop the next day, he saw Colin Chapman, sad and lonely, across the room. Once-mighty Lotus had fallen so far they could barely qualify anymore. Mario went over to Chapman and said, Let’s make Lotus great again. In just five months of fanatical work, testing, redesigning, and furious driving, they got back on top — Mario won that Japanese Grand Prix at the end of the season.

    • Santino says:

      Actually am hoping that people can watch the movie “RUSH” without hearing about all of the other racing legends in Formula-one. The animation “Turbo” was a complete fail and we had all of the advertising from the Indycar legend last month. let it rest awhile and enjoy the actual movie. The Andretti family is another story for another time IMO.