The Italian-born, American-raised Mario Andretti motorsport dream began at the 1954 Italian Formula 1 Grand Prix at Monza. Andretti, 14, along with his twin brother, watched in awe as the Ferrari of their first racing idol and local hero, Alberto Ascari, sped down the track, not knowing then that this precious childhood moment would also define their career. .
Monza holds a special place in Andretti’s heart and declares that he could not have written a better script: in 1978 he secured the Formula 1 World Championship there, twenty-four years after attending his first race. That fateful weekend in 1954 set in motion a series of events that would ultimately lead to a remarkable career spanning five decades, 879 races and 111 victories in various motorsport classes.
I sat down with the racing icon to talk about his remarkable career, his thoughts on Formula 1 today, taking a journey down memory lane back to the place where it all began.
EH: Let’s start with Monza, and what it meant for you, at 14, to see your first big race there.
ME: Good Monza. I could say that it was probably the true beginning of my dream of being a racing driver, and I couldn’t have written a better script because it was 1954 and 1978 that I got the title. [Formula 1] World Championship. For me it was amazing, of course, to win the race, I won the race the year before. I won that year  also but I was penalized along with Gilles Villeneuve for supposedly skipping the start which I think was debatable, I just reacted to Gilles who took off; I reacted and stopped and left. But anyway that’s another story. And the reason I didn’t protest was because my teammate Ronnie Petersen died that day, so I didn’t have the energy to go and continue a protest. But just to repeat what I said about how important that particular day or weekend was in 1954 at age 14, that’s what started it all. Not only for me, but I also have a twin brother. [Aldo] and we both had the same dream and that is what we pursue.
EH: And then a year later, your family moved to Nazareth and you and Aldo discovered a nearby race track.
ME: We had no idea what to expect when we moved to the United States, but we soon discovered, three days after arriving here, that there was a race track nearby. We had no idea about oval racing, you know American type racing, but the sound was good and it seemed like a lot of action and at the same time it seemed very doable at that level to me. As you can imagine when we saw Monza, the Grand Prix cars [of] Mercedes, Ferrari, Maserati, all of that seemed so far away, so unattainable, that when we saw these cars in races locally, they looked really gross. But again it seemed doable, it seemed like something we could build. In fact, that’s what we started, two years later, at 17, that’s when we started building a race car and started driving two years later.
EH: How did it go with that car?
ME: In fact, we were winning. That was really a great launching pad for us because it was one car, two drivers. Obviously, Aldo and I had to share, but he started first, he won the draw and it is a matter of record, he won the first race. The following weekend I did. But we win races. That year we crashed and did all the good things that are normal for young racing drivers. That was a very auspicious start for us, as you can imagine, and it encouraged us along the way. We had a very good season, except at the end of that season, my brother got seriously injured because in the last race of the season, which pretty much determined his career at the time. He ran for ten more years, but then he had another very big accident that really took him off. But for me it was an early springboard to launch myself to the next level and I kept going and was much luckier. I started my career in 1959 and my last race was Le Mans in 2000, so I basically had a 41-year career.
EH: In 1969 you won the Indianapolis 500, what did that victory mean to you?
ME: Well, it is one of the ambitious goals that you set yourself, to win the classics. And if you are racing in the United States, the classic event that is known around the world is the Indianapolis 500. I felt very comfortable from the beginning there, which was in 1965 and I was Rookie of the Year, I finished third and I continued and I also won the National Championship, and I was the youngest driver to do it at that time. And then winning it four years later was a huge thing for my career and it opened a lot of doors for me. But two years earlier I won the Daytona 500, which is the big shiny event for stock cars that is so popular here. And two weeks after winning Daytona I won my first 12 hours of Sebring with Bruce McLaren as my teammate, so my career was shaping up pretty well. But as you can imagine, winning the most well-known events around the world is the most important part, that is what can really change my life, which was for me in many ways.
EH: In 1991 in Milwaukee we saw the Andretti Podium, which must have been a very proud moment for you to share it with your family.
ME: Yes, indeed it was. And that’s pride with a capital “P” actually, because how can you imagine having my own son Michael and my nephew John, Aldo’s son and myself on the same podium. Then later Michael became my teammate. He and I shared the front row many times in qualifying and we have also been in pole position, I think 12 times together. And we were first and second like eight times in IndyCar. You can imagine how sweet it is for a family to be able to share those moments, you can’t even technically plan it, it’s just going to happen or not. And I had so much satisfaction over the years from that point of view as the family continued. My two sons are racing and, like my brother, my second son, Jeffrey, was not as lucky as his brother or me. He suffered a devastating injury in 1992 at Indianapolis that nearly cost both his legs and that determined his career. But then something like this puts perspective on things, like how lucky, how lucky Michael and I have been in the sport. And it’s not a fact, you know, because both my brother and my other son paid dearly for what they tried to do and we know how much we can appreciate the luck we’ve had on our side throughout our careers.
EH: How do you handle the competitiveness and tensions that arise between peers when that partner is your son?
ME: Well, the competitive juices were there. He was not willing to give either to him or to take an inch. But the one who was really on pins and needles, as you can imagine, was my wife because she was on the sidelines watching us fight, and a lot of times we were touching wheels and things. Not too much, I wanted to be sure that we would take care of each other and that we weren’t doing anything stupid to put my son in danger or he put me in danger, but we weren’t giving anything. Actually, the first pass, the first overtaking that my son gave me competitively for the lead, we touched wheels all over the corner and it was very forceful. But at the end of the day there was a lot of satisfaction. When it happened, I thought “how dare you Michael!” and then when he went into the sunset, I think “that’s my boy.” It is a double-edged sword. You know we had the closest end to IndyCar in 1986 at the Portland Grand Prix.
EH: Yes, Father’s Day. I bet your wife’s heart raced when she saw that at the finish line.
ME: Yes of course. However, here’s the thing. In fact, he definitely deserved to win that because he had a bit of an advantage over me as we approached the end of the race. There were about three laps to go and my engineer was yelling in my ear that Michael was having trouble picking up fuel. At that point I had settled for the second and knew I couldn’t catch it. And I actually stood in my seat, and here he was getting closer and closer. Basically on the last lap we had an endurance race to the finish line and I only bit an inch off it. And he was so upset. When we were on the podium, he realized that it was Father’s Day and he says, well, happy father’s day, Dad. [laughs]. You probably thought you could give him a break and let him win, but no way!
EH: You’ve raced pretty much everything there is to race on four wheels, so of all the motorsport classes you’ve competed in, which one is your favorite?
ME: It has to be Formula 1, mainly because that’s where my love for the sport really began. And of course the opportunity to get into the sport came in America, so I had a very satisfying full career here in America with IndyCar, then stock cars, and so on. But if someone said that you can only choose one discipline, I would choose Formula 1. It’s that simple.
EH: After three decades of competing in Formula 1 and now today as a spectator, how do you see the evolution of this sport?
ME: Well, changes are expected, and they are subtle changes so to speak. If you are in the sport as close as I am, the changes are almost natural, they are not a big deal. What allows me to understand things quite well is that I have been through decades and have seen great changes materialize, but it was gradual and it is the same now. What I understand, for which I am quite happy, is that I entered the computer age that is now. We started with computer instruments in the car. [in IndyCar] In the mid-1980s, I entered the so-called modern era of computers until the mid-1990s. And I stay in it, I keep driving a two-seater that is the same as a proper race car, only that it is expanded for another passenger, but all the technology and everything is the same. So just keeping up with things makes it easier to accept and understand. I love progress and I love technology, and I like how sport is today. Obviously it’s a lot more regulated because there’s so much knowledge out there that it can make cars undrivable, but there’s a human element, so it has to be regulated, which is fair enough. In fact in the IndyCar we were hitting speeds, the records that were set in the mid 90’s when I was still driving are still up, they had to slow down the cars for safety reasons so that as you can see there is driven faster. of what they are doing today. I am not outdated in any way.
EH: What is your favorite track that you have raced on?
ME: Any track that wins [laughs]. That is the only way I can answer that. The other question is, what is your favorite racing car? All the race cars I ever won a race with. So it is as simple as that. I don’t know how else to say it because it is a fact.
EH: And which of your 111 career wins is the most memorable?
ME: The most memorable thing would probably be winning Indianapolis for what it really meant in regards to his career. But for personal satisfaction I had to win the Monza Grand Prix in 1977. In 1974 I won the 1000 Kilometers of Monza for Alfa Romeo with Arturo Merzario, which was really my first victory at Monza. But winning the race, the ’77 Grand Prix, was huge for me because of what Monza represented in my life. I don’t think I could have gotten more satisfaction than that. I count my blessings every day. I think I won more races than I deserved and I am grateful for that every day, so I don’t take anything for granted. My life in motorsports has been absolutely complete.