You might not know loads of detail about the life and career of Mario Gabriele Andretti, but you almost certainly know of him. Across generations, you’re not alone. He was an American household name long before cable TV proliferated. He retired from his open-wheel career following the 1994 season, when the Internet was but a non-mainstream novelty. And while the World Wide Web was an everyday commonality by the time of his final professional race, at Le Mans in 2000, the ’round-the-clock, globally interconnected tentacles of smart devices and social media remained several years over the horizon. Yet walk through, say, a grocery store today and ask 10 people if they’ve heard of Andretti, and you’ll probably receive as many nods in the affirmative as you will curious looks of nonrecognition.
Some things you might not know about him: He’s remarkably gracious but also mischievous, still the kid that loves go-fast toys like jet skis and motorcycles along with a good laugh. We’re aware when we arrive at his Pennsylvania home that media members don’t have the best reputation there lately; back around Thanksgiving, a film crew visited and left cases of equipment lying about. Andretti’s assistant of more than 30 years, Amy, tumbled over one of them, breaking her knee. “I [usually] bring my boys from Chicago for that,” Andretti says with a smile, acknowledging the cliché about broken kneecaps received at an Italian’s house. But the incident bothers him. “Poor thing. She suffered,” he says, shaking his head in disbelief.
What else? His home is filled with hundreds of trophies and framed photos and memorabilia from his career, yet it doesn’t feel at all like an egomaniac’s shrine to himself because it’s clear the most important items to him are the ones involving his family; he doesn’t collect cars, though he owns a new Lamborghini Aventador S and a Corvette ZR1; the only race car he owns, the Newman-Haas Lola-Ford/Cosworth he ran in his final IndyCar race in 1994, sits uncovered in his garage; he’ll only get in a race car or on a snowmobile or anything, really, from the left side because a long time ago, many cars he drove had exhausts on the right side; he won’t sign autographs in green ink because it always seemed to lead to a poor race result; he owns a pug named Gabe; in addition to giving rides in IndyCar’s two-seat race car, he still performs straight-line testing for son Michael’s IndyCar team.
Oh, and no surprise, he doesn’t much like the idea of autonomous cars. A few years ago, he attended an anniversary event for another car-enthusiast publication. A certain boisterous, longtime automotive executive was there, and “All he talked about in his spiel was the coming of autonomous cars,” Andretti says. “I’m looking around at everybody, and he’s halfway through. I get up. I said, ‘Who the hell invited this dude?’ I got a standing O. … He never spoke to me the rest of the evening. I said it as a joke, but I thought, ‘What a subject to bring in, the freaking autonomous cars.’”
Query the 79-year-old himself on what people don’t know about him, and he takes a long pause as he tries to separate Mario Andretti, one of the most successful and famous racers in history, from Mario Andretti, human being.
“That’s a good point,” he says, then adds, “Is it more like, what is it that you don’t want to know? Or I don’t want you to know? Ha, yeah. Probably the fact that all I wanted to do is just enjoy my life without pretense. Seeming like you’re always under scrutiny in some ways. Around here at home, I can go to the grocery store if I feel like it. I’d do that somewhere else, and they recognize you, and, like, people think I should be seen at Saks Fifth Avenue, not at Walmart, that type of thing. There’s a lot of those things that you would say, ‘Damn it, I just want to be a regular guy.’ Sometimes you almost think, ‘Do I have to uphold a certain image that I don’t really care about?’
“This is one of the reasons why I love this area,” he says of Nazareth, his hometown ever since the Andretti family emigrated here from an Italian refugee camp in 1955, when he was 15. “I don’t have to put up any front. I can be blowing off the driveway if I want to. Some might say, ‘Don’t you have people that come in for that sort of thing?’ But sometimes they didn’t do a good job and I just do the rest. I do my own shit.”
Almost 25 years removed from his final IndyCar race, at Laguna Seca, Andretti’s answer is a common one between sports megastars and other celebrities; it’s often a price inevitably paid for the spotlight that shines on them, a result of the drive, talent, and competitive determination that pushed them to the fore of a culture’s collective consciousness in the first place. Andretti has been the subject of countless references from music to movies to cops colloquially asking nabbed speed demons, “Who do you think you are, Mario Andretti?” He can’t pinpoint an exact moment when he realized he had reached that place, but he recalls instances that were in retrospect first-sign indicators.
“Back in the mid-’70s, on my way to Riverside [International Raceway] on the 405 from L.A., and it was pretty late at night,” he says of one such moment. “I had a Formula 5000 test. I hear that Charlie Daniels song on the radio, ‘Uneasy Rider.’ This [lyric] about, ‘Mario Andretti, he would have been proud.’ I’m thinking, ‘Holy shit.’ That one kind of took me aback quite a bit the very first time. And there were a few more, of course, that I thought were kind of nice. I look at it all as very humbling. Because that means somehow your work is being noticed, and there’s no bigger compliment than that.”
There was no bigger stage for Andretti’s ascension than Indianapolis Motor Speedway. But a palpable fixation to this day on his results at the Brickyard, especially as this year marks the 50th anniversary of his lone win there, does his career record a disservice.
His abbreviated resume: 12 Formula 1 wins, 18 poles, and the 1978 world championship; 52 IndyCar wins (second all-time), 67 poles (first all-time), four titles, three Indy 500 poles, and one Indy 500 win; USAC national dirt-track champion; IROC champion; Daytona 500 winner; three-time 12 Hours of Sebring winner; named Driver of the Century by the Associated Press in 1999; only driver to win the F1 title, the Indy 500, and the Daytona 500; Pikes Peak winner; 24 Hours of Le Mans class winner; winner of the Daytona 6-hour.
Raise this point, and Andretti raises his eyebrows.
“It’s definitely just the significance of [Indy], it’s what everyone else puts on it,” he allows, and for a second you sense he feels freed by the opportunity to address the topic from a different context than usual. “I have a lot of better driving, a lot tougher driving to win Milwaukee, for example, than winning Indy. Indy … the place is fickle in every way; conditions can change dramatically, and it can really get you down. But it’s not this end-all.
“I’m pretty proud of my career. … People wanna say, ‘Hey, Mario, I was there at Indy in ’69!’ [As if] I only won one race in my whole life! And sometimes I figured, Jesus Christ, nothing about the rest of it. Sometimes it frosts you a little bit, but that’s the reality.”
He chuckles as he says all of this, his tone bemused, never bitter. The tongue-in-cheek semi-exasperation is no doubt amplified by the fact that his 1969 season itself was remarkable, a Tasmanian Devil-like tornado of traveling, racing on three continents, testing, and personal milestones.
It began on February 1 driving a Holman-Moody Ford in a NASCAR race at Riverside and concluded on December 31 with an SCCA F5000 outing at Sebring. Including his Indy win in the No. 2 Brawner/Hawk-Ford, he competed in 37 races across seven different categories, driving 10 different cars, collecting five poles, nine wins, and his third USAC Champ Car title.
On a Saturday that July, Nazareth held a parade and reception honoring his Indy win, and later that evening, on the way to the local track for a dirt race, his late wife, Dee Ann’s water broke two weeks early in all the excitement. (He lost her last July after almost 57 years of marriage.) Andretti won the 100-miler then rocketed to the hospital in time for the birth of his third child and only daughter, Barbie. Just about the only negative he recalls from the time was a theft, one that would distress any race driver today, let alone in the era before personal electronic devices and digital storage.
“I kept notes from day one,” he says, “and can you believe it? In 1969, I had my notebook, which was 3 inches, 4 inches thick by then. I had it in my closet in Indianapolis. It was stolen. I’m not going to mention a name, but I think I know who stole it. It was like taking half a life away from me … it was like my arm was taken away.”
Quite how much that violation affected Andretti’s results during the ensuing years, he can’t say. People might forget now, but his Indy win came in only his fifth start there; surely more success would ensue on the famous 2.5-mile
superspeedway. Still, he felt a weight leave his shoulders that afternoon.
“Even though [mine] was a relatively short career before I won that, and I had won other races and good races including the Daytona 500, I thought, ‘Man I’ve gotta win this one,’ and then when I cross the line, I go, ‘Thank God, thank God for giving this,’ and it’s just such an incredible relief. You just gotta get at least that one ring, you know? And then you’re part of the elite club there. And here we are. Who knew that 50 years later we would be still talking about this race?”
Ironically, perhaps this anniversary feels so special because Andretti never again won The Greatest Spectacle in Racing in another 25 attempts. In his entire career, he completed all 500 miles five times total, suffering DNF after DNF in a litany of improbable circumstances. He won the 1981 race by finishing second on the track to Bobby Unser, who the next day had his victory stripped due to his passing of cars under caution. Four months later, sanctioning body USAC reinstated Unser’s win in what remains a divisively controversial example of racing politics. (Andretti never returned the winner’s ring and wears it to this day.)
The fact no other member of the Andretti family—including sons Michael and Jeff (who suffered career-altering injuries in the 1992 500), grandson Marco, and nephew John—has won the race, combined with Mario’s tribulations, added more fuel to the fire known for decades as the “Andretti Curse.”
However, there’s another, less entertaining way to look at the facts: Mario did win the race, as well as three poles. He, Michael, Jeff, and Marco all won Indy’s Rookie of the Year award. Mario is third in all-time laps led, Michael 11th. Marco finished second to Sam Hornish Jr. in 2006 in the third-closest Indy finish ever, 0.0635 second. Michael has won it five times as a team owner. There are a lot of race-car drivers who have faced the 500 in its 102 installments to date and come away with nothing, and plenty who lost their lives. Just maybe, the Andretti Curse is … nonsense?
“Absolutely,” he says. “I know it’s kind of a joke, with [longtime, late Indianapolis public-address announcer] Tom Carnegie, he’s the one who started this. I always said, ‘far from it.’ OK, I only have one win. But you know what? I’ve led more laps than all but one of the four-time winners.
“The bottom line is, ’91, ’92: four members of the same family in the race for the first time ever: Mike, Jeff, John, and myself. Michael, the way he dominated [laps led over the years]. … So, a curse? Far, far from it. And then in 2003, I get upside down [while testing there]. And I landed[unhurt] on four wheels. Is that a curse? No. That’s a blessing. So this is something I never agreed with. I never, ever thought of it even close to any of those terms. The [stuff on the PA], I’m driving, Carnegie is saying, ‘Mario’s slowing down,’ all that stuff, all that crap. But you know, they can have fun with it. [The reality] is just entirely the opposite of the way it’s depicted. All those years and the amount of miles there … and coming away from the ’60s and ’70s, when it wasn’t as safe as it is today? When I say I’m counting my blessings, I’m doing exactly that.”
Andretti never raises his voice as he speaks on the topic, never gets upset. He’s seen and lived through enough that, despite his notoriety, wealth, and competitive fire, “I’ve never felt entitled to any of it.” He stops to think about it one last time.
“Indy is giving us more than we even deserve, as far as the satisfaction, ultimately,” he concludes. “Drivers, fans that look at statistics and say, ‘Oh, well … ’ Let’s face it: We’ve had our days and, yeah, we would’ve liked to have four or five [wins] like the Unsers. But I’m proud of what we did. And we’re happy. We’re happy we were able to achieve it at Indianapolis—and the fact that we’re still there.”
Regardless of wins, losses, records, and those statistics, one other thing is certain: He’s still the most recognizable face in the joint.
Additional photography courtesy of IMS Photo Archive; ISC Archives and Research Center; Bruce Craig; Andretti Family Archive