At 71, Mario Andretti is anything but retired

This country's most versatile racecar driver reflects on his four-decade career and talks about his love of Baltimore

August 27, 2011|By Sandra McKee, The Baltimore Sun

Some things never change. As you walk around the hospitality and pit areas at an IZOD IndyCar race you can still find Mario Andretti signing autographs more than five decades since he drove his first racecar in competitive open wheel racing.

Andretti, the most versatile American racecar driver in history, is at age 71, theoretically, long retired. But that's hard to prove.

Over four decades beginning in the 1960s he won four Indy Car championships and became the only driver in motorsports history to win the Indianapolis 500 (1969), the Daytona 500 (1967) and the Formula One World Drivers' Championship (1978).

He won 52 Indy Car races (second on the all-time list) and set numerous Indy Car records that still stand — including pole positions won (67), race-laps led (7,595) and most career Top-3 finishes (144).

And now he's excited to return to Baltimore — a city he has long visited to quench his love for crabs — for next weekend's first Baltimore Grand Prix.

We caught up with Andretti to discuss his career, his "retirement," and his return here.

So, how is retired life?

I have no retired life. I came out of the cockpit in 1994, but I am so active. I'm working with Blue Chip companies (Firestone, Magnaflow, Texaco/Havoline), I have my winery (Andretti Winery in Napa Valley, Calif.), a driving school in Charlotte and I drive the two-seater car, giving fans a taste of the IZOD IndyCar Series at the races. My plate is full, and I like it that way. I don't think I'll ever, ever retire until they put me in a box. I'm still very ambitious. I only came out of the cockpit for the obvious — I was getting too old.

With all you have to do, can you say you're content on the sidelines?

I was competitive. I have good memories, but I feared overstaying it.

Dee Ann (his wife) reminds me, quite often, that I didn't talk about it with her. She says, 'I know you. You'll be antsy.' It was the hardest decision I ever made. But looking back, I'm counting my blessings. At age 59 in 2000 I was able to compete in my last competitive race at Le Mans. In 2003, I was upside down at Indy. I know I'm out of it. Now, I watch my grandson do it. I'm full of criticism, obviously (he laughs). All I want is to see him do well."

Your son Michael said you came in from one of those two-seater runs recently and asked for softer tires so you could go faster. Is that right?

I'm always looking for an edge. I like to maximize the situation and not leave too much on the table. If I'm going to drive the two-seater car, I'm going to drive it 100 percent. Otherwise, let someone else do it. The objective is to give the passenger the best ride possible.

Mario, one of my questions was, 'How do you spend your free time?', but it doesn't sound like you have any.

"I have no free time. It's the same as it always was. In between time, I do my own thing — tennis, water skiing. I haven't given anything up. It's fun for me. It's better than walking on a treading machine. I like the outdoor activities. They keep me tuned up somewhat physically and I enjoy it.

Didn't Dee Ann have some plans for your retirement?

Poor Dee Ann. She's been solid, an angel throughout my career. If anyone really sacrificed so I could achieve the satisfaction I really did from my career, it was her. She supported me by sacrificing the things that she liked. Vacations. Time together. She'd like to travel for fun, not for business. I don't know any other woman who would have stood by me like she did. Our 50th wedding anniversary is coming up in November. I think we'll go somewhere to celebrate that.

Do you remember what your first dream was in racing?

I fell in love with racing in Italy watching Formula One. I was 10 or 11 when my dream began. But there was so much uncertainty, because of our family being displaced with communism and so forth. We had no idea where and how we would wind up. But God allowed me to put the plan together.

We came to the States in mid-week in June. That next Sunday, Aldo (his brother) and I found out there was a race track. We could hear the noise. Boom. We went down there. It wasn't F1, but it looked very doable, and I thought, "This is heaven. We can get started."

Did your dream change when you came to the United States?

My dream was very clear. I had very ambitious goals to the point where I didn't dare express myself to anyone. It's what helped me push myself to certain limits. My desire was so strong. I loved it. There was nothing else in life I really wanted. I wanted to be a race car driver. I wanted to reach Indy Cars. I came up through the ranks – sprint cars, midgets. When I got to the Indy Cars, then that gave me the ultimate dream. Once I had a couple championships in Indy Cars and won several races I knew I could go to the very top teams in Formula I – Ferrari, Lotus. I was very lucky. My strategy worked very well.

What was the secret to your success?

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