Andretti offers peek at speed of racing Retired auto driver subject of IMAX film

January 23, 1998|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

Mario Andretti laughs.

"Martini is the star of the movie," he says. "He's getting fan mail. Three letters last week, addressed to Martini Andretti."

Andretti continues with affection.

"I love that pig," he says. "And he's lucky I'm around. If I wasn't, he'd be prosciutto."

The movie is "Super Speedway," and it opens today on the IMAX screen at the Maryland Science Center. Martini, a family pet, has a small -- but telling -- part in the movie, as a bit of the Andrettis' personal life is revealed. But, for the most part, the movie answers the very basic question, "What's it like out there?"

It's a question Andretti has heard his entire career and a question that has always left him grasping for answers.

"It's not like tennis or golf," he says. "With tennis, you can go pick up a racket, take a lesson and understand how much talent and skill it takes to be as good as the top pros. Same with golf, pick up a club. But not many can go out and get in a race car and experience a drive at over 200 miles an hour."

The speed was Andretti's biggest concern. He wanted realism. He wanted people to feel what it's like to be inside a race car at speed. And he worried that, with a 65-pound IMAX camera strapped behind his head, he might not be able to go that fast.

But Andretti went fast. He went 234 mph down the straightaways at Michigan International Speedway. His lap average was 212 mph. In 1993, he set a closed-course record at an average lap speed of 234 mph. That meant he was going 250 down the same straightaway.

"I can tell you that, in 1993, I was at the very, very limit," he says. "I went for it, and it was not a comfortable ride. And 212 was the limit, too. That camera, 65 pounds, was this wide and this long [he holds his hands a foot or so apart]. It was a huge lump, and it was nerve-racking for me."

The fact that he went to the limit did not surprise director Stephen Low. When he went looking for a driver for this movie, he sought one who "could put some teeth" into the production. Out of the full-time racing business for a year at that time, Andretti was raring to go.

"Twenty years ago, I might have told them to get a donkey to do it," says Andretti, whose career spanned 36 years and included victories in the Daytona 500 (1967) and Indy 500 (1969) and four Indy Car and one Formula One championships. "But in my situation, the fact I was retired, I really looked forward to getting in the race car. Me being the donkey was good."

And one of the best parts about it was that it allowed him to spend more time with his son Michael. For Andretti's sons, racing has been their entire lives -- just as it has been for their father.

When Mario thinks of his favorite memories, they involve both Michael and Jeff and their racing together.

He recalls a race weekend at Pocono Raceway in 1986. His younger son, Jeff, won the Indy Lights race on Saturday and Michael won the pole for Sunday's Indy Car race. The next day, Mario won the 500.

"We cleaned house," says Andretti. "We won all there was to win there that weekend, and it will be forever."

There have been bad times, too. Andretti has lost a lot of friends in racing accidents, "when their luck ran out." There was a year at Indianapolis when he and Michael were taken to the hospital during the Indianapolis 500. There was another time at Indy when Jeff was taken to the hospital with both his legs mangled.

"The worst day of my life," says Mario Andretti, who says the fear is always with him when he watches his sons race. "It will never go away. No matter how tough you think you are in dealing with potential negatives, when you see your sons facing it, as a father, you are always full of anxiety. I should be a real crusty veteran, but I'm a wreck."

"Super Speedway" shows Mario, 57, with his sons and his grandchildren -- and his singular pink pig Martini.

The movie is about a season with Michael Andretti, but it's more than that. The film peeks at the personal side of the man who probably has been America's greatest, most versatile race-car driver.

Martini may be getting the fan mail, but it is Mario Andretti's legend that gives this film substance.

Facts and figures

What: "Super Speedway," IMAX film

Where: Maryland Science Center

When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday; 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekends

Cost: Admission (includes IMAX film, Racecar: The Science of Speed exhibit, planetarium and demonstration stage) $9 for adults, $7 for children, seniors and military

Information: 410-685-5225

Pub Date: 1/23/98

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