The 103rd Indianapolis 500 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. This is part two of our exclusive interview. For part one, head here.
Automobile Magazine: When you review your career now, what was an area in which you excelled as a driver, where maybe you had an advantage compared to most others?
Mario Andretti: Quite honestly, I think it was my mindset, where I just said, ‘No matter what obstacles I was facing . . . ,’ because if you dwell on some of the difficulties, you take yourself out of the play. I never took myself out of the play. If I would have spoken loudly on this, I would have probably been laughed at. But in my mind, I always felt, ‘You know what? I don’t care what I got to overcome today. I have a shot at winning this thing.’ Never take yourself out of it. Always look at the positive side, and that’s what’s stayed with me. The eternal optimist, yes, because that’s what kept me happy, that’s what kept me just really wanting to keep doing it, because along the way I had experienced some of these events where I said, ‘Shit, I should never have won today,’ and I did. I would say even to my grandson [IndyCar driver Marco Andretti], I said, ‘If you have any given day that you feel like, man, there’s no way, I’m out of it—then you are. You’re out of it before you get out of bed in the morning. Might as well sleep late.’ That optimism, I think, ultimately, in many ways, it pays you off, but also it keeps your mind fertile. I think in the game of chance where you have so many obstacles going against you, if you dwell on that part, forget it. You’re done before you start.
Perhaps less important than that mental approach, but also on the mental side: Did you have specific superstitions or routines?
Well, it’s interesting, but that’s something that’s—obviously it’s very private. It’s very personal. But I had some stupid superstitions myself, and one in particular and I do it today: You’ll never see me enter a cockpit from the right side. I was never a horse jockey, but I always board my snowmobiles—I board everything—from the left side. My son, Michael, he knew all that, so he purposeful, whenever I would look at him, he would enter the car from the right side. ‘See, Dad, I’ll show you. It’s not important.’
It’s funny, but psychologically . . . and then if a fan would hand me a marker, a green marker, I’d throw it on the floor—and I’d sign my autograph with blue or whatever, anything, with red, black—but never green. You know why? It’s coincidence, but in many times, when I signed in green, then something happened. It’s totally coincidence, I know, but you know what? When you’re in a game of chance, you take no chances like that. I used to do stupid things like that, now that you mention it. That works today because I’m looking . . . okay, I’m in a car. I don’t want a tire to blow or something like that, or a suspension to break or something to happen to my kids. If you give me a green marker, you got to pick it off the ground.
What about the left side of the car? Did that start just because of the way cars of a certain era were built?
Yeah, just that, because in the old days, like even the Offenhauser , you had one exhaust pipe that was going right by your elbow, and it was on the right side, so you definitely would not enter the car from the right. But then [later you could] enter from the [right], and then you’d say, ‘I’ve been doing this for so long, and things are going pretty good. Let’s not change anything.’ Then you’d stay with it. It’s weird, weird, weird, and some other things, like in the morning or whatever, but I think we all have some idiosyncrasies. It’s stupid, but psychologically you look for anything that can give you some reassurance, like, ‘Okay, I’ve done that one right.’
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Everyone knows the automotive landscape has changed significantly in the past few years, and motorsports—depending on the series or the country—the public seems to have lost some interest in it. Some people within the industry even suggest that one day, races will be conducted by autonomous cars. It seems ridiculous, potentially depressing even. What’s your take?
Yeah. I talk about it, because that’s a negative quite honestly, and you just mentioned something—autonomous cars—obviously that’s . . . the farthest thing from what we are all about and what we know the attraction is. If you’re going to get in a car and then push a button and say, ‘Okay, I’m going to a drug store,’ and then eat an ice cream there along the way, instead of driving, [then] why would you care of the abilities of somebody that’s racing somewhere?
It’s interesting, right there. A little side note: I was invited to the 60th anniversary of Car and Driver [a few years ago] in New York. Bob Lutz [was there]. We’d all get up and say a spiel about the love of the car. We’re all car guys and everything else. Bob, he’s very eloquent, and all he talked about in his spiel was about the coming of autonomous cars. I’m looking around at everybody, and he’s halfway through. I get up. I said, ‘Who the hell invited this dude?’ I said, ‘Do you know who you’re talking to? (Meaning a room full of enthusiasts).’ I got a standing O. I said, ‘You’re talking about a magazine that’s called Car and Driver, and you’re talking about autonomous cars?’ He never spoke to me the rest of the evening. I said it as a joke, but I said, ‘What a subject to bring in, the freaking autonomous cars, when you’re celebrating . . . you just put this magazine out of business.
Alright, now that’s hilarious . . .
That’s a sore subject. Here’s the thing: I remember when the turbine cars came on in the ’60s, and I’m in the trenches. I get the temperature of the water pretty good from the fans. The [turbines] gave us an innovation, and we’re excited, but 100 percent of the fans would say, ‘You know what? If the whole field is with those swoosh cars, I would never go to the race.’ The noise of the engine is half of, obviously, the spectacle. It is. When I was a kid, when I would go [to the tracks] and I’m on the other side of the fence there, and hearing the cars practicing and stuff and just the noise itself.
I hear these comments, ‘Well, by 2030, Formula E’s going to supersede Formula 1.’ Well, I know I’m going to be long gone, so I’m going to be up there and say, ‘Oh my god. You don’t know what you’re missing.’ But anyway, times do evolve, and it’s hard to really predict, but there’s a little bit of sadness in that area, of [the interest in driving cars]. I detect this very clearly about our kids today. Just to give an example, one of Michael’s sons, which is Luca, is 20 years old and hasn’t got a driver’s license yet. I cannot even fathom that. I was counting the hours, the minutes, and the seconds until I was 16, and I could get a permit.
I don’t know. I wish I would have had a magic wand to look into the future a little bit, but there is cause for concern. There is cause for concern, no question. Just thinking of the young talent, the young careers, looking forward, I’m always concerned about that, because I love the sport so much that my only pleasure is for the sport to thrive. I know, like you said, that the different disciplines have gone through challenges. IndyCar sure has from a political standpoint, and I think it gave NASCAR the platform to really grow. That gave them everything that they needed to grow from a regional series to a mainstream series, by even giving them Indianapolis. Tony George, he’ll never know. He’ll never know how much damage he actually did to open-wheel racing.
But as you said, fortunately IndyCar, there’s one series that for sure is gaining steam, but they had to. They had no place to go but up, but they are. I personally feel very bullish about the prospects of IndyCar. I think the sponsors again are looking at it and viewing it in a very positive way, which is always a good sign. The drivers’ talent to me, right now, with looking at the veterans, who are still young, and young rookies coming on, it’s probably second to none in the history of IndyCar racing. I think Formula 1 still has got that universal appeal, no question. I think NASCAR, they have some of their challenges. IMSA is really gaining ground. IMSA is probably better off now than they’ve ever been. Sports-car racing in America is probably right at the highest level right now, which is great because of all of the manufacturers involved.
In some ways, I suppose, the topic of getting an American driver, or drivers, into F1 is a bit tired at this point. But you’ve always had a strong opinion about that.
Well, here’s the point, and I’ll make this very clear. I’ve been harping on this, but . . . I’m a perfect example of what needs to be done. [Years ago] I started to talking to [ex-F1 boss] Bernie [Ecclestone]. Bernie and I get on really well. But this is one area [that’s a challenge] because it’s got to do with the finances and all that.
But I said, ‘Bernie, what would be a better thing to really, really try to build a [U.S.] fan base [than] if you could have a top team like a Ferrari or a Mercedes invite, say, Josef Newgarden or Alexander Rossi to be [in a] third car for [those teams] that weekend, like [guest appearances]?’ You give them a decent test, a couple days somewhere. That’s how I started. I didn’t go to [the back-marking] Manor [team]. I was with Ferrari. I was with Lotus. I put the freaking car on pole in my very first race. Why? Because the car was capable. I said [to Bernie], ‘If I would have been in a BRM, I would have been wherever the hell the BRM started.’ You know what I mean?
[Look at] Rossi. He was tough to evaluate in many ways, but when he was in Formula 1, he struggled, struggled, but he was with Manor. He was beating his teammates and everything else. Was he ever given a proper test or anything? I talked to [Red Bull Racing’s driver guru] Helmut Marko. We were at COTA [in Austin], and it was about three or four years ago, five years ago, maybe. He says, ‘Hey, Mario, if you see some talent in the U.S. that maybe we should look at, maybe let me know.’ I said, ‘Well, what’s wrong with giving Rossi a chance?’ He said, ‘No, no, no.’ I asked why. Marko said, ‘He just doesn’t have the mind for it.’
How the hell could he all of a sudden just totally dismiss the kid? The kid, he had [at that stage tested] in Formula 1, he had driven pretty much most of the tracks, got some experience. But he would not give him even a try, because he judged him. Why? Maybe he didn’t like his personality or something. You know what I mean?
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It does often seem nonsensical, when you put it that way.
Yeah. I said, ‘Well, who do you want me to come up with? Paul Tracy or something?’
Now that would be something to see! But speaking of other modern-day drivers, who do you look at and think, man, I’d love to have a go at them?
All of the guys who are at the top now. I’d love to have a crack at Lewis [Hamilton] and Sebastian [Vettel] and Max [Verstappen]. I would love to be able to just have a shot at them, with pretty much equal equipment and measure up. That was my whole ambition. Your whole career was written on that, you know. You want to measure up against the best, because the best is what really helps you get your game up. If you feel that you’re on top of it, if you’ve got them covered, then you’re not going to make any more of an effort. There’s always somebody that’s going to be quicker than you, and that’s what keeps you motivated. That’s what makes you try harder, and that’s what makes you better. I always said, yesterday’s champions will be champions today given the same equipment. I still believe that, no question.
You dream about some of these things, of course, because my competitive spirit is alive and well. It’s a good thing, and it’s not really a frustration. I think it’s a good thing. It’s natural for me to be thinking those terms. [Maybe] someday if we [get an] assist we’ll have a crack at it, that’d be nice. I don’t know who I should talk to for that.
Was there a driver or drivers you ran up against at some point that you thought, man, that guy’s really going to be something, but then for whatever reason, they flamed out or ran out of money and never really ended up going anywhere in the sport? Or at least not like you thought they would, based on their talent?
No. You are quoting a lot of realities here about the fact that obviously, as a young aspiring driver, sometimes you need a backer and everything else. But you know something, at the end of the day, I’ve never seen real, real talent go to waste. Sometimes it takes longer or whatever, but you know, a real talent, sooner or later, one time or another, they’ll have the opportunity to really showcase what they’re all about, and that’s going to be noticed. It’s funny—that’s a good question that you just asked me, and I cannot mention one individual I think probably has gone to waste.
Because you raced for so long, you experienced lots of different technological advancements and drove cars that were vastly different in their capabilities and the way they worked. Something I’ve always wanted to talk to you about is high-downforce cars: Watching from the outside, it seems like you have endless grip—until boom, it’s gone in a flash. How do you find the limit in cars like that?
That’s a damn good question, too, and that’s something that keeps a lot of drivers from just really taking everything out of that car because the capability of the car is so high. You figure, it’s tough to find, you gotta have some balls to really find where your limit is—and also if you’re gonna get enough of a warning so you’re not to have a quick breakaway.
What you’re saying is really, really interesting, because this is some of the conversation that I had with even my grandson, Marco. Specifically we were at Sonoma and at the Carousel [turn], and [he was saying he was] afraid he wouldn’t get the warning he needed because the car was sticking so much. [He didn’t want to] wind up in the next county, you know? And I said, ‘No, it will tell you, believe me it will, believe me, believe me.’ And it did. Most of the time, unless the car is really screwed up, it will give you that warning, but even some experienced drivers say, “Oh shit, I don’t know what that was.’ But at one point you just figure, ‘You know what? You gotta do it.’ You better believe it, you know?
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Silly question: You, Michael, and Marco need to travel 20 miles to dinner. Who drives?
Whoever’s car you’re in, that’s who drives. If I’m in Marco’s car there’s no way he’s going to let me drive. If he’s in my car he’s not driving. That’s for sure. Even my daughter Barbie, if I’m in her car, she drives. Nobody gives up the seat.
So what you’re saying is, it really is just in the Andretti blood.