Mario Andretti: The Mega Interview, Part 1 [Exclusive]

On the eve of the 103rd Indianapolis 500, we talk with one of the greatest racers in history about his career, personal philosophy, and more.

Mac MorrisonwriterWilliam Walkerphotographer

The upcoming Indianapolis 500 scheduled for this Memorial Day Weekend marks the 50th anniversary of Mario Andretti's famous win at the Brickyard. You may have already read our feature story celebrating one of racing's all-time greats and his marvelous accomplishments, but there's plenty more to learn as he opens up about his life and career.

Automobile Magazine: Up front, this is the 50th anniversary of your Indianapolis 500 win, but that's really just an excuse to speak with you now. Your career was far, far more than that one race 50 years ago . . .

Mario Andretti: Yeah. I'm obviously happy to hear that—my book, A Driving Passion, actually has a pretty accurate record on the back pages of a season to season. And what's interesting about the '69 season, since obviously we have reason to celebrate the 50th anniversary [of my Indy win], if you look at it just from that season, my first race was on February 1, the last race was December 31. I did 37 races that year, and seven different categories, and 10 different race cars. I mean, how far can you go, like, from Formula 1 to Midgets? You know what I mean? So, these are the things that I'm so passionate about as far as my legacy, with the diversity in the sport and having the opportunity to race every major discipline.

And what's interesting about the 1969 season as well is the fact that I think it was one of my most interesting seasons because the series itself, the USAC series, Champ Car series, provided opportunities on superspeedways, short ovals, road courses, and even actually Pikes Peak counts for the national championship, which I actually won that year. I mean, you talk about covering the spectrum with just one series alone, and I won in all of that.

You also had some personal milestones that year as well, yes?

On a personal side, I just wish my wife [Dee Ann] would still be with me because she was carrying my daughter, Barbie, that year. [Editor's note: Dee Ann Andretti died in July 2018 after almost 57 years of marriage to Mario. ] The night that I won the third race in Nazareth here was a regular Champ Car race, and then Barbie was born, which was the third child. What's interesting about that is I wanted a daughter so bad, but that Saturday the town had a parade celebrating [my win at] Indianapolis. And we went through all of that, a parade and then a reception, and got to go to the racetrack. And then I run a 100-mile dirt-track race, and my wife, she was two weeks away from delivering but she broke her water, with so much activity, broke her water on her way to the track. A friend of mine and his wife had to take her to the hospital. And of course, during the race, they had a board on there, is it a boy or is it a girl?

Of course after the race, which I won, I rushed to the hospital and [Dee Ann] kind of hung on, and she was on her way to the OR. She delivered Barbie; we didn't want to know whether we would have a boy or a girl, but since we already had two boys, we really, really wanted a girl, and here it comes. So again, looking back at that season, since we have reason to celebrate Indy, there was so much more, so much more. Again, I raced on three continents that year. What a great season [and year] to remember.

Going back to the beginning, a simple question that might not be so simple: How in the world can you explain moving with your family to the U.S. in 1955, at the age of 15—and from an Italian refugee camp, no less—and you and your twin brother, Aldo, had success on the local dirt track from the first time you got behind the wheel? You had no experience, no formal training, yet you guys seemingly had this talent to race. There was no such thing as a racing school or any kind of formal training back then.

Yeah. That is a very good question in so many ways. I couldn't even answer that to myself. But I think Aldo and I were just driven by a burning passion to pursue something like this. And this seemed to be just when I fell in love with the sport. I was still in Italy, we were actually still in a refugee camp, and the dream was so far-fetched, so impossible. And because of that, I think you probably become more upset about it. And I said this so many times, all along, regardless of the fact that realistically it seemed impossible, I never had a Plan B, I never figured out if this doesn't work out, I think I'd pursue something else. No, I never.

It seemed like some things just fell in place. I guess it was meant to be mainly because when we arrived here, we arrived in June on a Thursday. Before my dad rented a home, we stayed for a couple of weeks with our uncle on my mother's side, who sponsored us over. We see lights on a Sunday night, and all these bright lights beyond, like, a mile away. And then all of a sudden a big, big roar of engines. And they were running these modified stock cars right here at the fairgrounds, and Aldo and I had no idea. We looked at each other—bang! I mean, we booked [to that track].

And then we peeked through and see these brute-looking cars—and knowing that the two major events that we saw firsthand to that point was the Italian Grand Prix in the year before and just a couple of months before that the Mille Miglia—when we see these good-looking cars [on the dirt track], all of a sudden, we looked at each other, we figure, 'You know what, this is actually doable.' We befriended the promoter because Aldo and I used to work at the Sunoco station after school—which was owned by, we call him Uncle Louie, but he was married to our second cousin—and this is where we befriended a lot of people. One of them was the promoter of the track. And then when we had the car ready to go, which was four years later, we asked if we could just get on the track on a Thursday and test one day, and he let us do that. And that's the only running that we did, and we had never been on an oval, never been on dirt, never been in any race. All we did is watch. So, we were purely driven by desire and passion—desire with a capital D.

But to go out there on your first attempt and—

Aldo goes out there and he wins the heat, then he wins the feature. Now, it wasn't because of a miracle. I guess we did a better job than we thought, not to give us credit, but the group, the buddies that we assembled when we started building this car, just guys that we got to know. One of them was the typical geek that knew everything, and he steered us in the right direction to do a Hudson. Because Hudsons were very successful in NASCAR, especially on the dirt tracks. And that's it. We just went and got a Hudson in a junkyard, we bought information from one of the NASCAR teams—it actually was going out of business—and got [car] setup [information].

So, we did all the right things actually, and when we showed up, the car seemed like it was ready to go. But we fibbed a little bit. We were underage, we had to change our license birthdates because you had to be 21 in those days to legally race professionally, and we were only 19. But also they said, "Well, what experience [do you have]?" "Oh yeah, we used to race in Italy, Formula Junior," which is bullshit.

The Formula Junior story is a pretty funny one.

That one, by the way, the Formula Junior thing went on. I mean, that was the one that they say, "Oh yeah, Mario Andretti used to race Formula Junior in Italy," because [famed racing journalist] Chris Economaki is the one that got that story first, and it took a while before we killed that one. But that's how they allowed us to be part of it then.

But the actual driving itself, how did you figure out in your mind and your body that this is the way you need to make a car turn, and this is the way you do that? Was it something that was just natural?

Well, here again, I mean, it's natural. I think the nature part comes from just desire, the deep desire to do it, and then you learn as you do it, you learn by experience. It took a while, obviously. We won and then we had no idea why, and then you start crashing, you start doing all the things that then you start really learning about where the limits are, where a lot of the things are that are important. It's just a matter of getting your feet wet in there and then dive into it and make sure that you can swim ashore before you drown, you know?

So there was a lot of trial and error, but again, I always say, I know I was just driven by just an absolute burning desire to get this done. Somehow you navigate through rough waters, and it's only experience: The more you do the more you learn, and putting all that you learned, you put it together. Throughout my career, I look back and every year, every season I look back at, am I better off? Do I know more this year than I did last year? Yes. Am I a better driver? Yes. And as long as I could answer that, I was in good shape and I felt that I was moving forward. But I felt that I was still learning to my very last race. You always kept an open mind that you never really feel that you've captured it all, because there's always something out there that you can do better and keep an open mind obviously to accomplish that.

What training tools did you incorporate, especially all those years ago when race-driver preparation was far less of a science than it is today? There were no computers or tablets, there wasn't any digital storage. Were you a meticulous notetaker?

One thing for sure, I was never too bashful to ask questions of the other drivers, befriend some of the other drivers and so on and so forth, and trying to pick their brain, and then tried to discard what were lies. Not so many people are willing to really give you the right tips and so forth. But at the same time, read between the lines, and again, also keep an eye peeled as to what you see and so forth, about tires they're running, and the siping that they use and all that.

And then the other thing—you just said something that's very important: I kept notes from day one, from day one. I mean, as I went along all the way, we didn't have a smartphone that I could enter any of that stuff in my notes, but I kept notes about . . . because as you see, even throughout my career, right through the '70s, even places like when I drove the stock cars, when I drove the sports cars in the different circuits, the gears that I was using. Where? Which corners?

I had very intense notes, and can you believe it? In 1969, I had my notebook, which was three inches, four inches thick, I had it in my closet in Indianapolis, and it was stolen. And I think—I'm not going to mention [names]—but I think I knew who stole it from me. It was like taking a half a life away from me, because in those times I still needed some of that. But the word was out that I had these notes and everything else, and I tell you, it was like my arm was taken away from me. But, yes, that was important for me to just keep tab of everything, every small aspect, every idiosyncrasy, everything that I experienced that was negative or positive when I ran Can-Am, whenever I ran something especially different, then I had to just debrief myself when I would go from a Formula 1 to a Midget, or Formula 1 to a dirt car. So yeah, you're right, that was all important. Again, I just tried to compile as much information and work off of that for sure.

It must have worked for you, given your success in all these various racing disciplines. How difficult was it to switch from one type of car to another, sometimes within the span of only a week?

Believe it or not, you develop a mindset, you know. You erase everything up to that point and you got the midget in your brain, you got the sprint car, you've got the Formula 1 car, you got the Can-Am car, you got the stock car. But once you're in that cockpit, that's where you are, that's your element for that time. And it didn't seem to be an issue. This is one thing that I found, that by moving around the different disciplines and different race cars, as a race driver you develop one feel, you develop a feel of achieving balance.

And you know something? High speed, low speed, and whatever, you just develop that as a sense and you don't deviate from that, you trust your butt type of thing, and don't accept anything else until you achieve that or at least you're never going to—I mean, most of the time you're not going to achieve perfect. But what you're trying to achieve, no matter what you're in, is the same feel. And that's something that works, because it's a fact. That's what you want to do.

A race car, no matter what, it's a different animal, it grows differently, and it runs differently and all that, but it's still an animal that will respond to the same command. And that's one thing that I've found out, and I found that to be the most fascinating aspect of it all, because it was always a challenge, of course. The biggest challenge that I found along the way was to find the limit of that particular animal. And I got into a stock car, the biggest problem I had in a stock car was to overdrive it because I found the limit to the nanoseconds in those cars, being used to the thoroughbreds, the single seaters. But nevertheless, you learned that, too. You figure you got to slow down a little bit in your own mind from what you're trained [to do] to go fast, that means not waste time sideways, [but] go forward.

Today most race drivers are specialists, and the opportunities to compete in various cars and series are few and far between. It seems like drivers such as you, A.J. Foyt, Dan Gurney, and others, had more fun back then by being able to diversify your competition outings.

It was, and I think you also said something very important, that I was a pretty much a junior to Dan Gurney and A.J.

A.J. being five years ahead of me in the businesses and so forth, but yet looking at these guys, they were pretty much driving just about anything they could. That again, that's what stimulated me to begin with. I said, they do it, why can't I? And then the more I did, the more I really wanted to do, and I said I wanted to do even more. Looking back, the opportunity that I've had to start my career with the stock cars, then got into three-quarter midgets, full-size midgets, sprint cars, having the opportunity to come through the system with those type of cars to reach the top level in the U.S. in Indy cars, that's a wonderful opportunity that I wouldn't trade for anything, because to me, that was the only way to really do it. I feel that, oh my goodness, how lucky am I, how fortunate?

What did you enjoy the most, if there is such a thing, from a pure driving or racing standpoint?

You enjoy it all if you're successful. Nothing can substitute winning. And that's how I measure, that's what satisfied me, and that's where my happiness was. Winning was really . . . how should I put it? I was impatient, and looking back, I probably shouldn't have been because to me it was only important to win and not just to be patient, then score and be happy. And some days you should be, you shouldn't probably force a situation so much. But for some reason, I tasted victory early on, it seemed like nothing else would satisfy me. So many times when I made my mistakes even early on and then later, I was always forcing the issue because that's the only thing that actually satisfied me. And looking back when I matured more, I figured, damn it, I could have been a little more patient, I probably could have probably scored a little more. And I made some mistakes but only because, as I said, that's all I wanted to do, is just get up front no matter what.

That is a common thread between successful athletes and sportsmen/sportswomen, professional competitors. Where did that fire come from?

Well, I know that what actually got me so interested, when I fell in love with the sport, my idol was Alberto Ascari. Why? Because he was winning, and he was a world champion at the time, and that's what impressed me the most, and I felt that's why it was important. Luckily, by the will of God, like I said, whether we deserved it or not, we started out, Aldo and I, we won the very first race we competed in, and I figured, man, now you get the taste of that so early, then you figured that's the only thing that matters, and that's it. I never had to really get myself up and then force myself in any possible way. To me, it was a natural approach, a motivation. I was automatically motivated to go out there and win. The mindset, and I say this today and I would say this to anyone, just going into any event, if you overengineer yourself and assess all the aspects of your chances, because most of the time your chances of winning are very bleak, and if you go in there with that attitude like, oh, well—you know what? Like, you almost have to be thinking unrealistically every single time, 'I can win.' No matter what. Don't just spend so much time just looking at the data and everything else that sometimes it doesn't really satisfy you and thinking, okay, well, that's all I can do today. Don't be such an engineer.

I found that sometimes I maintained my approach as a dreamer, and I think it worked for me, because I won sometimes where I shouldn't have. Because I was lucky, I took advantage of other peoples' mistakes or whatever, issues or even dropping out. But I kept that attitude, that mindset: I can win today no matter what. And I think that's your only chance you really have of potentially being successful. Like I said, don't overexamine your situation because most of the time on paper, your chances are not good.

I know race drivers don't like to admit to any weaknesses or thoughts of self-doubt, but to your point: Was there something in particular that could creep into your head and screw with you a little bit? It's one thing to tell yourself to block it out, but sometimes actually doing so is another matter.

Well, I'll confess to you: So many times you look across, and I was so envious of what somebody else was sitting in, you know? No question. And especially in Can-Am, I said, I'd give anything to be sitting in Bruce McLaren's or Dennis Hulme's car, because we always had a one- or two-year-old car no matter the effort, with Ford or whatever. In those days unless you were a factory Lola or McLaren, you didn't have current equipment. And so in that sense, it's deflating, but at the same time, you just try not to discourage yourself. But yeah, believe me, there are moments like that where you just feel, oh man, I just wish I was in his shoes. I wish I was driving that car. Yeah, yeah, that happened many, many times. But again, still, you got what you got and don't beat yourself.

Sometimes, I look at the same thing as when I was a kid and I was dreaming about being a world champion. If I would have said that openly, these people would have laughed at me, but I was allowed to dream to myself, and that's what I kept telling myself even when I was in something that was inferior. I said, I can beat that dude. It was impossible, but I got to say it.

Cars being equal, who was the guy or guys that you felt like you had to be absolutely unbelievable on any given day to beat?

There were several, obviously, along the way. There's always the individual that is pretty much the standard at the time. When I came into the scene as a young Indy-car driver in Champ Cars, A.J. was the guy. You beat A.J., you've really done something. And in Formula 1, when I broke into Formula 1, who was the guy? It was Jackie Stewart. The first three races I won in Formula 1, Jackie Stewart was second to me, which was South Africa and then the two 100 miles at Ontario. Was that unreal for me? Yeah. If anyone else would have finished second, it would not have been as sweet.

There's always somebody that's better than you, no question, whether you admit it or not. But those are the individuals that actually raise your game. That's what you need to work harder and to say, you know what? If I'm going anywhere in this business, that's who I got to beat. Thank God to those individuals that obviously, you work harder and somehow you succeed. And to me, again, I've finished second to A.J. a few times, but he finished second to me as well. And finishing second to him was really a good day, but winning with him second was a lot better. But to be able to experience that, that's how you judge yourself, that's how you feel, 'I think I belong here, I think I have a shot at accomplishing my goals.' It gives you encouragement, the encouragement that you really need to keep going and to stay motivated.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of our interview with Mario Andretti, and read our feature story on the racing legend right here.

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