The name “Andretti” has been synonymous with the word “fast” in the world of motorsports and pop culture for seven decades. For Mario Andretti, one of the most successful racers of all time, going fast has been “business as usual” for most of his life, and he has no intention of slowing down now.
“I stay very busy,” says the Formula One World Champion. “I get ants in my pants if I stay in one place too long. A lot of people who are younger than I am are retired, but not me. I like to have a lot of things on my plate—businesses and relationships with companies and other things to do. I do a lot of promotions that keep me on the road, and that’s what I like and enjoy. I haven’t stopped doing anything, except racing actively, but I’m still a part of a racing team.”
Andretti, who has won races in Formula One, NASCAR, IndyCar, midget cars, sprint cars and the World Sportscar Championship, says he just can’t seem to stay away from the motorsports world.
“I’ll be in it for the foreseeable future,” he says. “Someday there will be a signal, telling me, ‘Mario, it’s time to stop.’ But until then, I’ll keep going.”
At 76, Mario Andretti is still very much immersed in the motorsports world, even driving the first lap before every IndyCar race. He also runs his own winery, has appeared in movies, runs several successful business, and has even lent his voice to a cartoon character. We flagged him down for about five minutes in late-2016 to discuss his incredible racing career, his cars and the path he took to fulfilling the ultimate American Dream.
GG: Your family immigrated to America in 1955 with $125 to their name. Seven decades later, the Andretti name is legendary in American motorsports. What are some of the lessons that journey has taught you?
Mario: What that taught me was perseverance. As a young teen living [in Italy], there was no possibility for me to pursue something like that. Arriving in America, a whole new horizon opened up for us, but things were not easy. My dad was vehemently against [my brother Aldo and I] racing, but we were driven by a passion and a burning desire to go forward and become racecar drivers. We found a way. That’s why when many young lads come to me asking for the easy way to achieve what I have, I tell them there is no easy way. If you’re really passionate, you will find a way.
GG: Your family is a perfect example of the American Dream realized.
Mario: I agree with that. My story clearly represents the American Dream. I was able to achieve that and arrive at my most ambitious goals. I have nothing but appreciation for the opportunities we’ve had here in America. It’s given us the life I was dreaming about in Italy.
GG: You cut your teeth dirt track racing driving a hot rodded ’48 Hudson in Pennsylvania with your twin brother Aldo. Do you know what happened to that car?
Mario: A couple of replicas have been built of that car; one was actually built with Sony and one is in a museum in Philadelphia. That was our first car; my brother and I and four buddies started building it in 1957, two years after we arrived in America. We started racing that car in ’59 and raced it for one season, switching back and forth as drivers. During the very last race, Aldo was driving and had a terrible accident. That was the end of that car, but it served us really well.
GG: What was it like growing up with an identical twin?
Mario: I don’t know anything else! Aldo and I were always close because we shared a lot of the same dreams, so that made it natural to pursue things together. His story is not as happy as mine. In 1969, he had another bad accident and that finished his career. But he remained passionate and a lot of that rubbed off on his own sons and grandson.
GG: Your sons, Mike and Jeff, both followed you into the motorsports world, as did your nephew John and grandson Marco. Were you nervous when they expressed interest in racing?
Mario: The kids grew up in this environment and saw me at the races, so it’s natural that they wanted to try it. I always told them, ‘Don’t try it because you think I want you to do it; do it for yourself.’ I said, ‘If this is the case, and you want to do it for you, not because you feel pressure from me to do it, I will help you.’ I think Michael said the same to his son, Marco. As far as being worried for them, yes, of course. When we were racing on the track together, it was easier for me, because for some reason I felt like I had some control over the situation if I was there. Being on the sidelines is the toughest part. I’m not a good spectator. I know what they’re facing and the danger aspect is always there. But that’s the nature of the beast. You have to learn to deal with it.
GG: You became a dominant force in USAC Sprint Cars in the 1960s. How did dirt track racing prepare you for Indy Cars?
Mario: I wouldn’t trade those times for anything in my life. I consider myself extremely fortunate to have had those experiences. When I look at my kids, they never drove those cars. They missed out on something big. I feel that some of that skill that you learn, like car control on the dirt, changing conditions, all of that helps you immensely in road racing.
GG: You won many Formula One races in Europe, including a Championship for Lotus in 1978. What effect did that have on your life?
Mario: I fell in love with the sport watching Formula 1 because I was living in Italy in the ‘50s. As a teen my idol was Alberto Ascari. He was driving for Ferrari, so that’s what attracted me, and that pretty much gave me the reasons to pursue this. So along the way, when I was coming through the ranks in U.S., I always hoped I could have the opportunity to dedicate time to Formula One, which I did. Accomplishing the world championship was the ultimate part of my goal.
GG: You won the Indy 500 once, but ran it 29 times. You were arguably the best driver in all of those races. Why do you think the Indy Motor Speedway and the 500 in particular were so hard to conquer?
Mario: It’s hard because it’s a long race and our cars in those days were very fragile. Today, the cars are much more controlled. They have a lot more ability to finish the race. The reliability factor is what did me in. I dominated that race more than any of the four-time winners. My finish record at Indy is not very good, but a lot of it was mechanical breakdowns. But I was competitive. If you look at my starts, I was up front. They knew we were there!
GG: What is your daily driver these days?
Mario: Primarily, I drive a sports car, either my Corvette or my Lamborghini. We have other cars, SUVs whatever, but I love the sports cars. I have to behave when I drive because I live in a small town and everyone knows it’s me on the road!
GG: You have lived in that same small town since 1955. Why did you stay there, instead of moving to a big city like most big-time racers?
Mario: I live in Nazareth, Pennsylvania. My family came here in 1955 and they all eventually left but I stayed. What I like about where I live is that I can go somewhere, like a store, and here it’s natural. In another state, that’s an issue for me. I have an account at the local auto parts store and hardware store, and they know me. It’s no big deal. That’s beautiful for me, and I could only do it living here. I had many opportunities to move, and actually, was pressured to move, but I always resisted.
GG: You have a hand in all kinds of businesses and products these days. How do you find time to do it all?
Mario: The secret is to surround yourself with the right people—people who are specialized in whatever you’re in. In my winery, we have some of the best winemakers there are. I visit [my businesses], but I don’t have to do everything day-to-day. I always found in racing that if you surround yourself with the best people as possible, that will help you achieve success in the end. It’s the same thing in business.
GG: You had a voiceover role in the kids’ movie “Cars.” Is it strange to watch that movie and hear your voice coming from a Ford Fairlane?
Mario: It’s cute! I got to know the movie’s creator, John Lasseter, and he asked me to do it. It was really fun. Actually, it makes me popular with kids. When I tell them that I know Lightening McQueen, they are really impressed!
GG: You’ve been name-dropped in songs by everyone from Gwen Stefani to Ice Cube. How do you feel about your name being used in songs to represent something fast?
Mario: I think I’ve been mentioned in about 13 different songs. They don’t have to ask me or anything before they do it. The one that shocked me was the Charlie Daniels song. I was in California doing a test drive in a rental car, and I heard that song with my name in it. It’s quite a compliment!
GG: What’s next for you?
Mario: There’s always something new that pops up, a new challenge ahead of us. We are in the process of potentially doubling our petroleum business. As far as my driving, I drive the first lap before every Indy race. In Indy for the 100th anniversary of the race, the passenger in my two-seater was Lady Gaga. She was a hoot! I get to drive celebrities, athletes, even Governor Mike Pence rode with me in the two-seater. I really enjoy it, and I think it’s the best way to showcase our sport. I think most people who ride with me come away for a new respect for our drivers and what they do.