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F1 FLASHBACK: Passion pushed Andretti to incredible success in F1 career

13 September 2000

Posted By Terry Callahan
Motorsports Editor, The Auto Channel
INDIANAPOLIS-- Until its demise, in 1957, the Mille Miglia was motor racings greatest free show. Run over public roads closed, sort of, for 24 hours, it amounted to a 1000-mile lap of Italy, and the world turned out to watch.

It wasnt every day you had Fangio skimming your front gate.

Stirling Moss Mercedes-Benz won in May 1955, and his average speed, a trace away from 98 mph, was to stand as the fastest ever. Italian friends, kids at the time, can remember the silver car hurtling by, but for one of them the exhilaration later gave way to tears.

"In my own mind," he said, "I had seen racing cars for the last time." This was Mario Andretti, 15 years old, and about to leave with his family for a new life in America.

"It didnt seem too much like it at the time," he said, "but our lives began to turn around when we got to Ellis Island."

From there the family settled in Nazareth, Pa., where an uncle already lived. In 45 years, Andretti has never left.

"So far as I knew, the only race over there was the Indianapolis 500," Andretti said with a smile. "I understood we had to go to the States - Italy sure as hell wasnt offering us much -- but I was obsessed with being a race driver, and it seemed like I was kissing it goodbye."

We did a book together at the end of 1978, the year in which Andretti won the World Championship with Lotus. Naturally, a lot of taping was necessary, and I spent a week with him in Sao Paulo, Brazil, for he was testing at Interlagos. What impressed me perhaps more than anything else was his way of dealing with people, be they race engineers, waiters, fellow drivers or fans. Each wanted different things of him, and he was comfortable with all of them. Charisma cannot be taught.

Ever since coming to know Andretti well, I tend to have little patience with drivers who go on about what a hard time they had breaking into racing. Marios improbable life story reads one of those epic rags-to-riches paperbacks that people buy for long flights. Born near Trieste, in 1940, his part of Italy became Yugoslavian after World War II.

"Wed lived well until Communism arrived, but then suddenly everyones equal, right? Youre damn right everyones equal -- we all had nothing! Now, they were real compassionate about it; they said if we didn't like it, we could go some place else. From then until 1955 we lived in a displaced persons camp. You dont forget those things when youre a kid; you dont forget when your mothers always crying, and you dont know why. Im not just blowing smoke here."

In those miserable days, Mario clung to a growing obsession with motor racing, with Alberto Ascari his god. And when, in June 1955, the Andrettis sailed for New York, and a new life, it was without a backward glance. Ascari, the last link, tragically had been killed only days before.

Andretti said that, in all kinds of ways, the move across the water was the seminal moment of his life. Contrary to what he had believed, America was alive with motor racing, and on a much less elitist level than in Europe, so that there were routes into it for a kid with fierce ambition, even if his pockets were empty.

Resisting his mothers entreaties that he become an electrician, Mario sought a way into racing and eventually made his mark in the dangerous sprint cars of the early 60s.

"You had to drive those things very desperately," he said, "but I didn't give a thought to safety back then."

By 1964, he had progressed to Indy cars and the following year won the first of many national championships. "Help," by the Beatles, was number one when he won his first championship race; he would win his last in the spring of 1993.

Andretti was genuinely a phenomenon. As a Ford-contracted driver, in 1967 he ran NASCARs biggest race, the Daytona 500, and shook the stock car establishment by winning it. Two years later came the victory in the Indianapolis 500, surely the first of many. Amazingly, though, in 24 subsequent races at the Brickyard, Mario never again won there. "If it had been the Indy 400," he said with a grimace, "Id have had at least six.

"Right from when I started, being one of the boys was never enough. If you re satisfied with just being there, forget it. You may have a good time, but youre never going to win, because racing gives you nothing but fun -- anything else you have to take.

"A lot of people have a talent for it, but most never realize their full potential. Its easier to leave that last bit untapped. But I was never a weekend racer."

It was odd, we long thought in Europe, that this character with the Italian name should be over there, racing against such as A.J. Foyt. Did he not belong more logically at Monza?

Andretti himself entertained similar thoughts, but dimly for quite a while. While Ascari, Italys greatest post-war driver, had been the hero of his youth, and his ultimate ambition was always to become World Champion, in the 60s Indy-car racing paid much better than Formula One, and Mario had too good a thing going to sacrifice everything to sentiment.

There would come a time for Europe, but it wasnt yet.

It was Colin Chapman who first began to spread the word about Mario. The Lotus boss had taken his team to Indianapolis, saw this skinny kid run there and been much impressed. And when the legendary Jimmy Clark was killed, early in 1968, Chapman concluded that Andretti was the man Lotus needed. At the end of that year, Mario accepted a one-off drive in the United States Grand Prix, and rather confirmed Chapmans faith by taking pole position, with Jackie Stewart - after Clarks death very much king of the hill in Formula One - second fastest. The establishment took note.

Still, Andretti declined to commit to Formula One, instead concentrating on his Indy-car program, and taking in Grands Prix, sometimes for Lotus, sometimes for Ferrari, as and when they fitted his schedule. On one of these "day excursion" trips, he won the 1971 South African Grand Prix for Ferrari, and there were also many international sports car victories in Enzos cars.

"Enzo wanted me to sign right there, just drive for him, which would have been cream for the cat -- I mean, Ive always said that the proudest day of my life was when I became an American citizen, and I mean it, but the blood in my veins is Italian blood, and a passport will never change that. I wanted like hell to sign, but my contracts in the States precluded that."

There would have been another problem, too. If Andretti were to be a full-time Ferrari driver, it was clear that the Commendatore would expect him to live above the shop, and that Mario would never countenance. When eventually he did put Formula One on the front burner, running races in Europe throughout the summer, still he ducked back to Nazareth between times.

"It really wasnt such a big deal," he said. "Id go Concorde to JFK, then take my own plane down to an airfield near home. No problem. In fact, there was another strip even closer, but the runway wasnt really long enough, so it was a bit too character-building on a regular basis."

That was the thing about Andretti. You got the whole nine yards.

This was not only a great race driver, but one who also looked the part, and acted it, a man with the presence, like Fangio, like Senna, to quieten a room when he entered it. My wife, who cares nothing for racing, was mesmerized on meeting him for the first time.

"There," she said, "is a star. Even if you didnt know who he was, or what he did, youd know that much about him."

In 1976, by then 36 years old, Andretti finally devoted himself to Formula One, with Lotus. In 1977 he won more races than anyone else, yet missed the World Championship by a whisker, but the following year, in the beautiful and revolutionary Lotus 79, he was unbeatable, facing competition only from team mate Ronnie Peterson.

It was the height of tragic irony that he should clinch the title at Monza, place of childhood dreams, for that same day Peterson lost his life. Andretti, with his gift for saying it all in a handful of words, had only a brief comment on the steps outside the hospital: "Unhappily, motor racing is also this ..."

We loved him in Formula One, and not only because he was exciting on the track and a seam of gold with his laconic one-liners. More than anything, one always had the impression that here was a man among boys, a pro, a fellow whod been round the block a time or two. If there was humor, so there was also wisdom. And, of course, there was the pure infectious passion for what he was doing.

How could any journalist go wrong, though, with quotes like this? On Chris Amon, he of the sublime natural talent, who somehow never won a Grand Prix: "If Chris went into the undertaking business, people would stop dying ..."

Then there was the highly successful racing man whom nobody liked or understood. What makes him tick, someone wondered? "God knows," Mario murmured. "A bomb, lets hope ..."

At Paul Ricard, during practice for the 1978 French Grand Prix, he went off the road at the ultra-quick first turn, the Lotus flying a considerable distance before coming to rest. Mario, quite all right, ran back to the pits, unfazed. "Good flight plan, bad landing," he said with a grin.

After six seasons of Formula One, he tired of trans-Atlantic commuting. It was the end of 1981, and his 42nd birthday approached. Ahead lay 13 more seasons of Indy-car racing - and the odd guest appearance elsewhere. But Andretti wasnt quite done with Formula One.

Enzo Ferrari, his team in disarray after the death of Gilles Villeneuve and the injuries suffered by Didier Pironi, needed a driver for the 1982 Italian Grand Prix. He called Mario, who accepted the offer in a beat: "How do you turn down a Ferrari ride - at Monza?"

Amid scenes of hysterical Monza joy, such I have not seen before or since, he put the car on pole position. A matchless ambassador for the sport, he had won races, by the time of his retirement in 1994, in four decades. He had won the World Championship, the USAC National Championship, the CART Championship, the Indianapolis 500, the Daytona 500 ... and he still likes to run at Le Mans, feeling that the lack of a victory here - he was second in 1995 -- represents a gap in his resume.

Any regrets now? "Oh, having retired two years too soon, I guess. Nigel Mansell was my teammate for my last couple of seasons, and we really didnt get along. At all. We both quit Indy car racing at the end of 94, and I should have stayed on.

"Other than that, well, probably I wish Id committed to Formula One sooner than I did, I wish Id gone to McLaren, instead of Alfa Romeo, in 1981 ... things like that. But those things dont really fall into the category of regrets. Ive been so blessed in my career, raced more than 30 years, achieved most of my goals and come out of it in one piece. Id be a fool to talk about regrets, wouldnt I?"

Was there ever a man who loved racing more? Andretti doubts it. "I always felt," he said, "I was put on this earth to drive race cars."

Text provided by Paul Kelly

Editors Note: To view hundreds of hot racing photos and art, visit The Racing Photo Museum and the Visions of Speed Art Gallery.