Mario Andretti – For The Love Of Cars And Family
Feature Image: Mario Andretti with his two youngest grandkids – Mario and Mia
INTERVIEW BY JONATHAN MICOCCI
His name is synonymous with speed, as in ‘Who do you think you are, Mario Andretti? Or ‘Slow down, Mario’. And the reality is equal to the myth. If it was loud, fast, and intensely demanding, Mario probably won races in it during a career that touched five decades. His unique resume makes him, arguably, the ‘greatest racing driver of all time’.
Though his last competitive race was in 1994, Mario still gives 200+ mph thrill-rides when he’s not making wine in Napa Valley or coaching his grandson, Marco, at the Indy 500.
Join us as we chat with the amiable champion about his grandkids, his winery, and what it takes to be the very best at anything you set out to do.
In this interview, Mario reveals:
- The lifelong philosophy that has brought him success – on track and off.
- How he’s coping with the sudden loss of his sister, Maria, and his wife of 57 years, Dee Ann.
- Why his win at Pocono Raceway was so much more than another race victory.
- Introducing children to risk – How to do it? Should you do it? Whose responsibility is it?
- Why no American has won a Formula 1 race since his win at Zandvoort – over 40 years ago!
Mario Andretti is a racing icon, considered by many to be the greatest race car driver in the history of the sport.
Andretti was born in Italy and didn’t emigrate to the United States until age fifteen. At 19, he began racing stock cars in Pennsylvania and that was the start of an illustrious career that saw the versatile driver compete and win in every discipline he entered – midgets, sprint cars, dirt track cars, stock cars, IndyCars, Formula One, Formula 5000 and sports cars.
His achievements became legendary: The world watched as he won the Daytona 500, the Indianapolis 500 and ultimately the Formula One World Championship, an unprecedented trifecta. No other race car driver has ever won all three titles. Mario took the checkered flag 111 times during his career – a career that stretched five decades and across six continents.
Today he is a successful businessman off the track, serving as spokesman, associate and friend to top executives around the world. He has worked with top brands like Firestone, Bridgestone, Honda, Chevron, Texaco, Mutual of Omaha, Mattel Hot Wheels, AAA, Magnaflow, IZOD, Infineon Technologies and GoDaddy. He has his name on the Andretti Winery in Napa Valley and a petroleum business in California.
He has received hundreds of awards and recognitions. Among the most prestigious, he was named Driver of the Century, he was knighted by his native Italy, and the Library of Congress in Washington DC added him to its Living Legends list. And on the lighter side, but undoubtedly affirmation of his charisma and popularity, he was in the first Pixar Cars movie voicing himself and GQ Magazine named him one of “The 25 Coolest Athletes of All Time”.
GRAND: Hello GRAND readers. This is Jonathan Micocci of GRAND Magazine. I am proud and I am super excited to be speaking today with the icon of auto racing, maybe the greatest racing driver of all time, Mario Andretti. Welcome Mario…
Mario: Thank you, Jonathan. Thanks for having me.
GRAND: Well, this is a huge pleasure for us. And first I wanted to say something right up front. GRAND Magazine is sort of a community of grandparents. We’re all at a stage of life where loss of loved ones is not uncommon and it’s not surprising, it’s all too frequent. And I want you to know that we at the magazine and all your fans were very sorry to hear of the loss of your wife last year. I’m sure this has been a very difficult period for you and for your family.
Mario: Well absolutely. Indeed. In fact, three months before my wife passed, I lost my sister as well, Maria. As you could see, 2018 was not a very good year for me. And as you can imagine, you spend a lifetime…this past November it was 57 years together; and she was with me with in all the battles, all the ups and downs, and she was the, the Rock. In every way. I could always depend on her for any sort of advice. I knew that she would always have the home front taken care of.
We had children at a very early age. When we married, I was 21, she was 19. We had a family immediately, almost immediately. My racing at that point was really kicking in gear. So I was doing a lot of traveling and she held it all together and along the way, we grew together. I couldn’t have done it without her, in any possible way. And because of that, I miss her every day. She was just the strength for me.
GRAND: We can imagine or put ourselves somewhat in your shoes. Has the family pulled together for you? Yours is a close family, right?
Mario: Yes we are. In fact, I think the family even grew closer after her passing. Even though Michael and Jeff; one lives in the middle of the country, the other one on the western side of the country, but we still get together and they make specific plans to spend time and they continue with the same holidays as when Dee Ann was with us. So, I like to keep that going. I think it’s very important to all of us.
GRAND: Yes, we have to carry on…exactly. I’m going to switch gears a bit here… Apparently being the greatest racing driver of all time is not enough for you. Let’s talk about wine. You own a popular and very highly regarded winery in Napa Valley. Part of the reason I know is that we spoke about it in 2010. Also, I was driving around Napa Valley where my daughter lives and I came across it and it was a really pleasant surprise. When we spoke about it back in 2010, you had a plan to keep it as a boutique operation. Can you tell us a little bit about the winery, how it came about and how it’s been going?
“My career started at age 19, 1959, and my very last competitive race was in year 2000.”
I always say, the winery came about during a very weak moment in my life. It’s an opportunity that came along pretty much when I was stepping out of the cockpit and I embraced it, against the advice of my management. But it’s something that we’ve been enjoying ever since. I sort of twisted Joe Antonini’s arm to join me and then to run it for me. Joe Antonini was Chairman and CEO of Kmart at the time when I was active with the Newman Haas team and they were the title sponsor for several years…when I drove and Michael was my teammate.
We obviously grew to be a good friends and when I retired in ’94, he pretty much did the same, retire from his position. I ran across him about the time when this winery project was going on, and it’s a blessing that he came with me because, he’s still in it. He still lives in Detroit but he travels to California, sometimes, twice a week.
Mario: It’s been a great ride with that winery. We have kept it under control pretty much, as you said, as a boutique, maintaining quality. We’re actually above a boutique. A boutique is six or seven thousand cases, but we’re beyond that. We’re three or four times that. We still have our original winemaker. Bob Pepi retired but his second in command has stayed with us. I still have control and choose the styles of varietals. I wish I would have more time to travel there, but whenever I do, it replenishes my spirit. I just love that place. It’s got something very special about it. I call it one of the great things and beautiful things in life, you know, to be able to enjoy that.
I encourage our readers to look at TripAdvisor. You will see one person after another falling all over themselves, having visited the winery, having gotten married there…It’s a wonderful thing and it seems like a great fit with your life.
I’m going to kick into racing a little bit because that is the definition of your life. One thing we know…racing is a very expensive sport and we see a lot of young, rich men in the sport today and I’m sure it was like that when you were coming up. But you didn’t come from that at all. You have a very interesting background…born in Italy…could you give our readers a quick look at how a young boy who was living in a refugee camp in postwar Europe, ends up racing in Pennsylvania?
Mario: As you said, we were affected by the Second World War. Where I was born is now Croatia. It was Italy but Italy lost that territory after the war to Yugoslavia and hard-line communism. And that’s the reason why we chose to leave like the majority of the habitants of that area. And yes, we did spend seven and a half years in a refugee camp in Tuscany, basically refugees in our own country.
My dad kept correspondence with an uncle here in America, and it was a suggestion, “Why don’t you come to America? You know, see if you like it?” We arrived at the refugee camp in 1948 and applied for a visa in 1952 and three years later, in 1955, our visas came through so it was decision time. And Dad decided, “Well, I’m thinking of your future, kids. Let’s go to America and maybe we’ll come back in five years…?”
But anyway, the thing about racing is my twin brother, Aldo, and I fell in love with the sport already while in Italy, while even in Montagna. For whatever reason, I don’t know, but it just captured our imagination and quite honestly, just as kids are allowed to dream, I suppose, and from then on, I never had a plan B. I never said, well, if I can’t become a race driver, I’ll, probably do something else. That never crossed my mind. And because of that, I suppose a lot of things just fell in place.
Coming to America was the ultimate opportunity. We arrived here, it was in June, 1955 on a Thursday. The following Sunday, we were at my uncle Tony’s house. And we look in the background. and there’s bright lights and all of a sudden, a huge roar of engines. Aldo and just looked at each other and man, we just booked and followed the noise. And we found this local racetrack by the fairgrounds with this brutal looking modified stock cars. They looked very strange to us because the last race that we had seen was the Italian Grand Prix in 1954, the year before…you know, Formula 1 machines and all that, but nevertheless, this looked like it was a very doable to us.
And all of a sudden the wheels started turning and we figured that we can probably build one of these things some day. And sure enough, two years later we started building a car. We assembled four other buddies and there was one in particular, you know, every group has a geek, right? Kind of knows everything. And so this gentleman steered us in the right direction to find out all the settings, you know, and all that it takes to build a car of that sort. His name was Charlie Mitch and I think he steered us properly. Two years later we started racing at the age of 19. It was illegal. We had to fudge our licenses, the birthdate, because in those days you had to be 21 to race legally. And we started racing. My career started at age 19, 1959, and my very last competitive race was in year 2000.
GRAND: That’s a record that I don’t think will be beaten. Just a pure racer question: Were you fast right off? Some beginners build up to it and some are just fast out of the box. Were you fast compared to the other drivers?
Mario: First of all, I didn’t really answer your question properly because I just was rambling on. And you said that it takes a degree of wealth and so on and so forth to be able to enter or parents to help out their sons or daughters to get involved in the sport. Well, yes and no. You probably ask 10 professional drivers about how they started their career, you’re going to get 10 different stories.
There are ways, today especially, to enroll in some of the driving schools, and if you have any special talent, you will be noticed by the instructors. You will be guided and it’s relatively inexpensive. It’s expensive if your talent is not really what it should be because talent never goes wasted. Somehow, everybody sees that and you’ll get picked quite quickly. Sometimes more mediocre talents have a tough time…then they have to pretty much pay their way in. And maybe if they are late bloomers, they’ll do better later on. But a lot of people actually use the excuse, well, my parents weren’t wealthy enough. Well maybe you weren’t good enough.
So yeah, there’s a lot of debate about that. And then to go back to the other part that you asked me about, if I thought I was good enough, well, it’s all about measuring up. You had to start somewhere. And at that level, you know, we were winning. When I started winning I felt, well, now is the time to move on to the next category. To me, it was just like going to school. You start in first grade and go on and then ultimately, you reach university. And so every category that I was in at the lower level, if I was winning which, luckily, it turned out to be that way, then I would move on. I would not overstay at any level because it’s difficult enough. You’re constantly testing yourself because there’s always someone that’s faster than you or better than you. And that raises your game. You start thinking more and analyzing situations and doing all the things that you need to do to up your game.
That’s what it is when you’re in a highly competitive world and you care about the results. You care about doing your part and achieving your goals. Again, it’s like anything, it’s just how much energy you put into it. How important is it to you? And if it is that important to you then you do whatever it takes to reach a level where you can derive the satisfaction that you’re seeking.
GRAND: In life as in racing….truer words were never spoken. Yes. Let me ask you about a home track for
you, Pocono Raceway. You’ve had such tremendous accomplishments in racing but I read somewhere that you named winning at Pocono the first time as being one of your proudest races. Do you remember anything special about that race or anything about the track that made you feel that way?
Mario: What was very special about that day…something the press didn’t really notice…it was a double header. There was a supporting event like today’s Indy Lights, the category just before you move on to the top level. And my younger son, Jeff, was racing in that category and he was on pole. He was quickest. And then he won that race. And then my son Michael was on poll for the 500 and later, I won the 500. So between the three of us, we cleaned house that day. And again, it seemed like the press never picked it up but we did. And we celebrated as a family.
These are some of the moments that are so precious to us. As a family we’ve had many…even more than what we deserve together. There’s a lot of pride that goes into that, of course. Especially when you see that your kids see it important enough to pursue a career that has been so important to me, and they’re making a professional life of it.
That was just one of the events that was so important, family-wise. In 91, 92, there were four members of the same family, our family, entered at Indianapolis, which had never happened before or since. It was my son, Michael, Jeff, and my nephew, John, and myself of course. And there were times where Michael was in IndyCars, he and I finished on the podium 15 times. And we started an Indy car race first and second 10 times on the front row. And we finished one/two five times in an Indycar race.
Those are incredible moments for a father and son. One race, I think of ‘93 in Milwaukee, the whole podium was Andretti. It was Michael first, nephew John second and I was third. So we had our moments as you could see. All three of us, Mike, Jeff and myself were rookies of the year at Indianapolis, which can only happen once, obviously, as a rookie. And that’s a very important honor to have there. So looking back, the sport has been phenomenal for us. I always say that I count my blessings every day for that.
GRAND: Your family is so remarkable. Your grandson, Marco, competitive…has won in IndyCars. I’m sure you have a really strong bond with him. You have seven grandkids if I have that right. Do any of the others show an interest in the sport? Do you find ways to connect with the other grandkids?
Mario: I find ways to connect, for sure. We’re a close family…there’s a lot of love in our family. We’re spread pretty much all over but we find ways to get together. As far as any potential young one coming on, we’ll have to wait a while. Michael has twins, a boy and a girl and the boy’s name is Mario, poor kid. And the girl’s name is Miati which is her grandmother’s name. But they call them Rio and Mia. Rio is a terror. The kid, I mean he’s just scooters and everything already, and he always has some race car in his hands. Every toy is something like a racing car, so you never know. In maybe 10 years from now, we’ll see if that’s going to be for real.
GRAND: The sport’s gotten a lot safer since your early days, but it’s still not safe. Horrible things still happen. And how do you feel about that for kids? They ultimately make their own decisions, right? Is that how you would look at it? There’s a lot of risk. Do you encourage kids to take risks? Do you protect them from risk or do you let them just be who they are?
Mario: Well it’s a double edged sword in some ways. I guess I can be guilty of having them exposed to this world but at the same time, I like to think that that I was clear enough to make it known to them early on, when even they just started driving go karts. You can have fun at this. You don’t have to look at doing this for a career or anything. Unless you want to do it for yourself. Try not to do it just because you might think that maybe that’s what I want you to do. My wife and I talked about it many times and she said, “The kids have no chance. Everything you have is motorized. You know, when you play, you have a 900 horsepower boat out on the lake, a race boat. And they’re riding with you. How in the world can they do anything else?”
At the same time, like I said, even with the third generation, you try to make it clear, especially when they start dabbling with go karts or something. And it seemed like nine was the age when all of our kids, well the boys, started getting a taste of something that seems like a race car. Michael in particular, my older guy, I mean he took to that like a duck to water. Just amazing. Seemed like he was just born in it. That’s why he had such a brilliant career.
But each one is a different person with different goals, if you will. And that’s what drives you. How much fire do you have in your belly? How much do you really want it? How much do you really love doing what you’re doing? All of that plays. And all of that makes a difference in the ultimate results, quite honestly. Even in the same family, you see differences. Some love it more than others which is fair enough. We’re all different,
“Yes. I feel it’s very important, especially as you age, to try to keep up with your diet…proper diet and exercise. You can over task your body the wrong way and pay for it dearly.”
GRAND: Let me ask you a pure racing fan question about Americans in Formula 1: some of our readers may not know that Formula 1 is regarded as the pinnacle of road racing around the world and somewhat in this country. And the last American to win a Formula 1 race was Mario Andretti. And that was in 1978, which seems like a pretty long dry spell. Just as a point of national pride, is there a reason you think that we don’t seem to be able to make it on that world stage?
Mario: I think there is a reason…I’ll explain. For me, I fell in love with motor racing because of Formula 1 in Italy in the mid-50’s just before we left. And Italy was so prominent in that circle because Formula 1 just officially started in 1951. The first manufacturer to win Formula 1 and the first world championship was Nino Farina in an Alfa Romeo. And then then it was Alberto Ascari in a Ferrari. And then Maserati and so forth, so you could see that as kids, my brother and I were on fire…totally overtaken by that excitement.
Here in America, you have major disciplines such as a IndyCars, you have IMSA sports cars, you have Nascar – where a driver can make a great career without even owning a passport. This is the only country on the planet that has multiple disciplines of a top level of the sport. Formula 1 is obviously, as you said, global. And some of the other countries, let’s just name Italy, France, Germany, and no matter where you go…South America, none of those countries have the type of disciplines that, even though they’re national, have a world stage. The whole planet knows Indianapolis. So having said that, some of the American kids probably don’t first fall in love with Formula 1. Some, of course, have some desire, but maybe the ones that actually have the real talent are okay staying here.
That’s the way I see it sometimes. And because of that, the Europeans don’t, for some reason, they don’t rate our drivers. I know that, when I went there, they would show, ‘yeah, well, Americans can’t drive in the wet’. Well, I blew their doors off in the wet. You had to prove yourself every step of the way.
And the biggest problem for an American right now would be to go there and get with a top team because unless you’re with one of the top three teams in Formula One, you have no chance to bring in any results. So that’s the difficulty. So if you’re a champion here and you’re invited to go there with a mid-field team, why would you do that? You see what I mean?
So…it’s an issue. It’s a problem. We talk about it all the time. There could be some answers to that…to test some of this talent but that would have to take some real will on the part of the Formula 1 sanctioning body. When I started in Formula One, I was invited to do it full time, but I couldn’t because I had my contracts here and financially, I just couldn’t afford to give that up, to be honest with you. In Formula 1 at that time, the earning was nowhere near what we could earn here. Because of that, I did it part time, but I did it with top teams. So that’s why I was on pole. That’s why I won races, you know, Ferrari and so forth. And that’s what it would take for anyone from here to get a try to be with a top team. That’s the only way you can evaluate yourself and know whether you’re capable of dealing with that category with whatever skills you possess.
GRAND: I hope that someone at the FIA is listening. Again, switching a little bit, let me ask you about your health because we always see you looking fit and healthy. We’re here in St Petersburg, Florida and we saw you not long ago, driving coach Tony Dungy around in the two-seater IndyCar…looking great. Do you have any advice, regimen, diet, exercise that you do that’s special, that keeps you going that way?
Mario: Yes. I feel it’s very important, especially as you age, to try to keep up with your diet…proper diet and exercise. You can overtask your body the wrong way and pay for it dearly. My daughter’s quite a health nut. She helps me an awful lot to keep me straight. And again, I know what I need to stay fairly fit. Then as you said, believe it or not even driving that two seater gives me a reason to work extra hard, to stay in shape because it takes quite a bit out of you.
To give you a for instance, just in Indianapolis last year, one day I drove 752 miles, from 9:00 in the morning til 5:30 in the afternoon giving rides, with only 30 minute breaks. Some of the younger drivers were taking longer breaks. So not that I’m stupid. I just wanted to test myself, you know, that I can do it physically and again, it’s just each individual, if you care about feeling good and staying healthy, there’s certain things that you need to do nowadays. Your diet, for sure, is important, very important. You can either do it right or do it wrong. But it’s a very personal thing. I don’t think I could say, ‘okay, I’m going to sell my diet’, you know. It’s nothing like that but I know what I need. I know what I like. I follow that and it’s working for me.
GRAND: You have a personal philosophy that is obviously sustaining you…to be able to accomplish as much as you have for as long as you have. Do you have a personal secret? You’re a ‘man in full’. Is there a reason behind that or is it just your nature? What’s the secret of life, Mario?
Mario: I don’t know any other life except what I lead. And I know what I need to satisfy myself…whether that works for anybody else, I don’t know. But I have a certain pride that I think drives me. If you do something…I always say it’s very convenient to be mediocre and I despise mediocrity, quite honestly, because of that. So, if you have a certain pride to accomplish things, just a little bit beyond what’s standard, then you’re going to work a little harder. But there’s a reward at the end of it. Is that reward important to you? It is to me. We use pretty much the same doctrine in our businesses and this seems to work. You surround yourself with the best people possible. For me, never pretend to be what you’re not, never pretend to know what you don’t. These are philosophies that I have and I applied that in my racing and we do the same thing in our businesses.
GRAND: There’s a book in there, sir. There is a book. Let me ask you, our readers would wonder, what kinds of speeds are you showing your passengers at a track like Indianapolis in that two-seater?
Mario: Actually, the day after the race, we give 33 rides over 200 miles an hour. We reach speeds that normally you won’t have the opportunity to experience unless you’re a professional. The Indy Experience, the team that I drive for, has fantastic equipment. They’re giving me what I need to give a good solid feel of what the real thing is about. Some places I give 85 to 90% of the ultimate experience. I find this probably the best way to showcase our sport, with that two-seater.
GRAND: Do you give any thought to any type of racing you might do for real right now or do you feel you don’t need to do that, don’t want to do that anymore?
Mario: I’m crazy enough that I would probably step in a race car if I was asked to, but I’ve done my racing, I have to be satisfied with that, which I am. I’ve competed in almost 900 races in my career and why take up a seat that belongs to some youngster? I’m just enjoying doing what I’m doing, enjoying watching our own family…being involved…Michael with his team being successful. Just by having, as I always say, skin in the game, it gives me a definite reason to stay very close to the sport which I love so much. And that’s really all I can ask for. But if I would have that desire…okay, I have the desire, but I mean, if I say, okay, I need to be in a race car again, it would be rather stupid, I think at this stage. Just let me think that I could do it. I could smoke a few of these dudes today, but I’ll be satisfied just watching my grandson and hopefully he’ll win the Indy 500 this year to compliment the 50th anniversary of my win.
GRAND: Well we hope so…we are pulling for Marco. We are big fans of your family. I’m super grateful…I could chat all day but want to keep this to a length our readers would be able to absorb. So I will thank you for your time and your generosity and continue to wish you and your family well, Mario.
Mario: Thank you so much, Jonathan.
GRAND: You take care and I will look forward to hopefully speaking to you again in the not too distant future.
Mario: You bet.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER/AUTHOR – JONATHAN MICOCCI
Jonathan Micocci is president of GRAND Media. He’s a native of Washington DC, but can be found at home in Florida when he’s not visiting his grandkids in California.