Mario Andretti is a true legend. In his fifty-some years of racing, he has taken on nearly every genre of the racing world – from sports cars, stock cars, midgets, sprints, to his beloved Formula One Indy cars. He has seen the checkered flag well over a hundred times. He was named Driver of the Year numerous times, Driver of the Quarter Century in 1992, and was named Driver of the Century in January, 2000, by the Associated Press and was inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame that same year. His list of accomplishments is like no other racers in the world. He is a four-time Indy Champion and the series champion for the (IROC) International Race of Champions. He was inducted into the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America and the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame. He was also declared ABC’s Wide World of Sports “Athlete of the Year.” His awards and race statistics are extensive and too numerous to mention here but one can only say Mario Andretti is the once-in-a-lifetime kind of race car driver.
Andretti was born and raised in Motovun, Italy, where he has raced and won many times.
“So many fond memories,” says Andretti. “I drove basically my last Formula One Race for Ferrari in [Italy]. I finished third in the event back in 1982. Yeah, Italy, that’s my homeland, of course, and I am the honorary Mayor of the town where I was born.”
Racing captured Andretti’s attention, even at a young age. He cannot remember a moment when he wasn’t thinking about racing. With no television, video games or cell phones to rely on, he followed the sport through print media and whatever other avenues were available.
“For some reason I just fell in love with the sport,” says Andretti. “At a very, very young age and primarily, it was all by the excitement that was provided by following the newsreels. It captured my imagination and that was it. That was my pursuit. I always keep saying I never had any plan B so to speak in life.”
Mario and twin-brother Aldo were racing partners, speeding their wooden, hand-crafted carts through the steep streets of their hometown in Italy. When they moved to Nazareth, Pennsylvania, at fifteen, both brothers were happy to learn there was a half-mile dirt track there. Through the years, Andretti tried out several different avenues in racing and won in all of them, proving to himself and eventually the world, he was born to race.
“I moved around to different disciplines throughout my career but my specialty was open-wheeled, single theater cars which is Indianapolis type cars or Formula One. They were always my preference. Again, my curiosity took me to other places; to stock cars at different times and sports prototypes – that sort of thing. I just found this love of the challenge of being able to move around and see what the other specialties are all about.”
One thing a driver doesn’t like to think about is accidents. Andretti is no exception. Although he has been very lucky throughout his career, he has lost several friends racing.
“I’ve been very, very lucky. I know many bullets that I have dodged and the sport was even as safe as it is today with the cars and the tracks. I know that I’ve lost a lot of friends and colleagues in this business but, with all the racing I was able to do and still be able to survive it all, believe me, I count my blessings because I know how lucky I’ve been,” says Andretti.
One of his worst crashes occurred in 2003, nine years after retirement, at Indianapolis while on the final run of the day.
“Those things, as you say, happen very quickly. The car that I was following had an engine blow up and he crashed quite heavily. I had no way of knowing, it is a blind first turn, so when I arrived on the scene there was pieces scattered all over the place. I tried to dodge the big pieces. In the middle of the track, there was a chunk of the safe wall and I hit that, it got lodged under my car and it sent me up in the air. That was the surprise of my life, I can tell you that. I never expected that since I didn’t hit a wall or anything and, of course, at the speed which was in the telemetry of 222 miles an hour and that thing coming off the corner, the car started flying very, very easily. You can see it fly up through the air like a piece of paper in the wind. I was fortunate that it landed on its wheels. It could have been a lot worse obviously, but I walked away from it with just a slight bruise here or there – very, very lucky moment.”
Today that is one of the reasons Andretti is very dedicated to the safety aspect of racing and, in fact, is determined to let safety of the sport be a part of what he wants to be remembered for.
“As far as the legacy, just one who was so immersed and so in love with the sport that I dedicated my life to it in so many ways. Not only in driving but also I got interested in pursuing the safety of the sport so the drivers would have longevity, and the sport would have a bright future in itself. I think I was very much part of this moment to improve the safety over the decade. I think that is pretty much the mark that I would like to leave there.”
During Andretti’s years of racing, there have been many changes not only in the sport, but who participates in it. Today, there are several women challengers on the racing scene and he’s okay with all of it. With several women now involved at the top level of the sport, one of the best known is Danica Patrick.
“I’ll say and I mean it, she’s made the female gender very, very proud. There’s certainly a spot for them in the sport. They’ve proven that. They have increased the interest I’m sure from the female sector and in general. Everybody is interested, how can she do against these bad boys and all that. These gals are definitely holding their own well.”
Andretti also believes in giving back to others, especially the wounded warriors in the military. While at a Indianapolis 500 Brickyard race, he took double-amputee Retired U.S. Army Sgt. Latseen Benson on the ride of his life inside a Formula One Indy car.
“It’s always very extra special when you have someone like Sgt. Benson that has undergone such a terrible ordeal. I know he was very apprehensive at first – As a matter of fact, at one point he was very quiet and says to me, “Mr. Andretti, you’re not going to hurt me, are you?” I said, “No, don’t worry. I don’t want to hurt myself and I won’t hurt you.”
By the end of the run, Retired Sgt. Benson was beaming from the excitement having just run the Indy 500 track with Racing Champion Mario Andretti. This was not the first time for Andretti to witness that kind of reaction.
“Yes, I enjoyed that. I’ve done some of that on the journey that we did to the Middle East about two years ago and when they took the racing car over to Iraq. We were in Turkey, England, and different places. I had the opportunity to take around many of these unfortunate soldiers. The biggest satisfaction was to put a big smile on their face at the moment, so this falls right into that category.”
After years and years of racing experience – from dirt tracks to the GrandPre’ – midgets to Formula One – just what type of car does the racing legend “Driver of the Century” have in his home garage to drive on his off time? A Chevy, of course!
“Right now, my favorite one is the ZR1 corvette. I treat myself with sports cars and am very partial to sports cars as my daily driver.”
There are many things to consider when buying the right sports car – such as looks, performance, comfort – and that is what makes it so enticing.
“That’s what it’s all about. That’s part of our life. It’s not that we need 700 horsepower to tool around the road, the neighborhood, but it’s just one of those things. You gotta have it, even though you don’t use it. That’s the way it is. We love the toys so, that’s how I treat myself.”
Besides racing, Mario Andretti has been associated with many successful businesses and has a true entrepreneurial spirit. Some of them are Firestone, MagnaFlow Performance Exhaust, Mattel Hot Wheels, his own Andretti Winery, the Mario Andretti Racing Experience, Go Daddy, and Circuit of the Americas.
He was also the voice of the 1967 Ford Fairlane which won the Daytona 500 in the movie Cars. It was actually an imitation of his own success of that same race. He made several appearances on the TV show Home Improvement by playing himself and also appears in the IMAX movie Super Highway. He was in the documentary Dust to Glory, of which he was the Grand Marshal. Andretti has also been featured in a documentary called A State of Wine.
See a related article pertaining to Mario Andretti’s visit to Jacksonville, North Carolina, to help in the opening of another Bridgestone Firestone store by clicking HERE.
“They are opening a brand new tire store and they feature the Bridgestone Firestone brand. I work with Bridgestone Firestone so we are going to try to help them make as much noise as we can at the opening. The Booker family has been solid supporter, client and dealer of Firestone products so I’m very anxious to get there and have a good time. Hopefully, I’ll see some race fans. Come visit us!”
For more information on Mario Andretti, check out his website HERE.
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