The Mario Andretti Indy 500 Interview: Part II

By Steven Capwell and Laini Abraham

Photos by Laini Abraham

LLPG: What else has changed in racing through the years?

MA: The fastest I drove at Indy was in practice; I averaged 232 mph. In 1965, I qualified at 165 mph. You know something? Each lap was the same. I was at the limit of each car. From the driver’s standpoint I had the same horrors, the same satisfactions, the same everything. The speed is relative. It’s faster and things are happening quicker, but you have the equipment to handle it. We train to take this piece of equipment to the limit, no matter where that limit is. You are applying the same effort, physically and mentally. The experts or the cynics say, “Oh, those were the good old days, that’s when drivers were really drivers. They didn’t have all these aids.” You know what? What we had, we did the best with and when we got more we provided what was needed. I went through four decades of that. That’s the part that I love, and I’m so thankful that I’ve had such a long and uninterrupted [knocks wood] career where I was able to experience all this. I count my blessings every day for that because it was so fulfilling. I had no problems staying motivated because things that were happening were things I looked forward to.

Mario Andretti's Wall of Photos, Trophies & Awards
Mario Andretti's Wall of Photos, Trophies & Awards

Speed takes a little bit of getting used to, but rules have to be followed. At any speed, the more you run, the more you get used to it. That is why speed is relative. You have to live it. You can’t just jump into it. You have to live it all the time. You can’t take a vacation from speed. I probably could have taken more time off and not driven in all the different disciplines, but I wanted to drive, drive and drive. If there was a weekend off from my main effort, I would try to plug that hole and drive something else.

Do you think that this is something that drivers of Marco’s generation miss out on?

MA: Yes, very much. What is golden is miles under your belt, miles, miles, miles. To defend Marco, his situation is that there are test restrictions. So much is known about the car that you don’t need to develop like we did. The cost factor comes into play so to make it equal for everyone, they prohibit a lot of testing. These kids don’t get anywhere near the miles that we used to. We used to test before every single race. All winter, test, test, test. Phoenix, Florida. Now after a season ends, these guys have to train in a gym to keep from getting soft. Marco could probably benefit from driving other disciplines, but some opportunities haven’t come to him yet. I would love to see him in a sports car, anything just to race. He is only 24, so he has time. He is maturing. He drives intelligently and is very race savvy. He’s had some scrapes and so forth, most of which were not his doing. And young drivers are supposed to be hard on equipment. That’s how you learn.

LLPG: What is it like to race with and against family?

MA: This is the family business, and there is a lot of pride. To have your kids think enough of it that they want to make a career out of it is obviously something you are going to support. As with anything that is worthwhile, there is a potential price to pay. My brother paid the price, almost the ultimate. Jeff, my other son, paid as well. Michael was like me; he sort of breezed through it and that is great. It makes you appreciate what we had and what we went through. So, the other aspect when you have family in there, your own son, so much talent is there, but there is so much concern and that is forever present. I’m a Nervous Nellie on the sidelines, especially now. On the track with Michael and John and Jeff I felt like I had more control over things. I didn’t, but it felt like I did. I was more at ease.

Now on the sidelines, I appreciate more than ever what my wife was going through all these years. I‘d say “Dee Ann, don’t worry about a thing. I’ve got it handled.” I know what potentially can happen. I don’t worry about their ability, just about someone else making a mistake, or something breaking on the car.  The bottom line is that they are ones who are choosing to do it. There is a potential price to pay for anything worthwhile so you take your chances. It’s a calculated risk. You hope that some of the negative things that could happen to you just won’t.

Still Life with Mario Andretti

LLPG: Is it fun to beat your family on the track?

MA: Oh, yeah! Father’s Day, 1986 in Portland, Oregon. It’s one of the tracks that’s been pretty good to Michael and me. Michael was leading and as we came down to the last few laps. I knew I wasn’t going to catch him. All of the sudden, he started having some fuel pick-up problems and I get a message from the team that Michael is having problems. I really stood up on the wheel. We came down to the finish and I beat him by about two inches. It was amazing. We were standing on the podium and Michael had a puss on him. Finally, it dawned on him and he said, “Happy Father’s Day, Dad!”

If you look at the Indy Car records, we finished six or eight times on the podium. That was huge for us and so unlikely. God, it was phenomenal. Those days in CART were the glory days. In 1992, we were the only family to ever have four members entered in the Indy 500. And my great nephew Jarett just won a midget race down in North Carolina. He’s a sharp kid – very cool, very calm, very intelligent. John really did a great job with his kids and I think Jarett is going about it in a really good way. John is right there with him. And Jarett loves it! You have to love it, really have that passion. Nobody should teach you, or nobody should tell you how great it is. You have to feel it inside, right in your heart. He’ll be a race driver.

LLPG: What do you do for fun on a Saturday night in the LehighValley?

MA: I like to go out to dinner somewhere, especially where they have Andretti wines. Most good restaurants do. Melt, Blue, Cosmopolitan, Miguel’s, Edge, Starfish. In Easton at Valenca, River Grille. The wine business has been fun and rewarding. I think our wines are well-received and match up well. We have medaled in international competitions and we are very proud of that.

LLPG: Do you have any Indy traditions? Things you do the night before or the day of the race?

MA: I always treated Indianapolis like all of the other races. I have a specific, absolute reason for that. If you treat one event special, then what do you say about the other races of the year? Sure, the 500 is special, and there is a perception that you should do everything different, some kind of voodoo. I can be floating around somewhere at 9:30 the night before the 500 and people say “Mario! You have to race tomorrow!” But the time I go to bed is around 11, and I do that for every race. I get good sleep. I don’t lie awake for any race. That’s my routine. My routine at Indy was the same as it was in Trenton, as it was in Milwaukee, as it was in Monaco. It’s like teams that go to the Super Bowl and think they have to change some things, they won’t win. You do what gets you there. Exactly the same. To me, every race was equally important.

I don’t have many superstitions, just dumb things I don’t talk about. I will not sign an autograph with a green pen. I will always enter a race car from the left side. Always. Why? I have no idea. Even today, when I drive the two-seater car, I get in from the left.

Mario Andretti's 1965 Indy 500 "Rookie of the Year" Award
Mario Andretti's 1965 Indy 500 "Rookie of the Year" Award

LLPG: How special is the 100th anniversary of the Speedway to you?

MA: This is huge. Not too many sports can make this claim, certainly no discipline in auto racing. Formula One just celebrated its 60th Anniversary. Indy is where real racing began in America in the early part of the 20th century and so it’s rich because it’s only been interrupted by the Second World War. And the tradition has only gotten stronger. It takes a lifetime to build tradition. I am so happy to be a part of this celebration. We hope to have five cars in the race. And I have two rides. I’ll drive the two-seater car. On the pace laps of the race I’ll be in front of the pace car driven by AJ Foyt. Third time around I’ll book, and do a hot lap and catch the field just as they take the green flag. It will be great. I’m also driving the Maserati that Wilbur Shaw won in twice, the only Italian car to win the 500.

LLPG: Last question: How are you liking being on Twitter?

MA: I absolutely love it! For a long time I didn’t want to be bothered but my kids kept pestering me and now I love it. I think social media really is a great tool. It fascinates me when I tweet something and right away you get a response almost immediately. I don’t answer any questions—my sons do—and I don’t do the whole “ok I just got to the airport,” thing. If I have something to say about something that is interesting to me, I’ll say it. It’s today.

Part I of this interview ran yesterday. You can see it here:

An Indy 500 Weekend Special: An Interview with Mario Andretti, Part I

Stay tuned throughout the weekend for live updates via Facebook and Twitter from Indianapolis!

Steven Capwell firmly believes in braking before turns and accelerating through them. (You have been warned.) He was raised in Catasauqua, went to school in Allentown, lives in Bethlehem, and has recently come to discover and enjoy Easton.

Laini Abraham publishes laini’s little pocket guides. She loves photography, dogs, driving with Steven on straight roads, and has recently fallen in love with auto racing.


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