Monday with Mario Andretti
"If everything seems under control, you're just not going fast enough."
A few weeks ago a colleague of mine, Matt Hranek, mentioned that he was doing a special project, one that involved one of the most iconic racing drivers of all time, Mario Andretti. Naturally, I begged, pleaded, and eventually invited myself (promising to be an extra set of hands for the project) to tag along to meet the man, himself.
It was an early Monday morning and I was anxiously waiting outside the Holland Tunnel entrance on Canal Street. Matt pulled up in his Land Rover with photographer, Stephen Lewis at 9:30AM --
I hopped in. It's about a couple hours drive to Mario's and by 11:30AM we were finally pulling up to the gates of his home. It's a lot for a person to take in, knowing that they are moments away from meeting one of their heroes. With "Villa Montona" written in script across the front gates, we proceeded up the long driveway.
In 1940, Mario was born in Montona, Italy, which is now Croatia. At that time, World War II had broken out and Montona had become part of Yugoslavia. Mario and his family lived in Yugoslavia for three years before making their way to a dispersement camp and later to a refugee camp in Lucca, Tuscany, where they resided for the next seven years.
I was absolutely gushing from the minute I stepped in the door. Race memorabilia flooded his office and the common room where he hosts guests. There were pictures from his racing days across the 1960s-1990s crawling up the walls, a Ford Cosworth engine coffee table, and keys to various cities across the United States.
Mario is an enchanting story teller and I was mesmerized by the tales of his upbringing. He spoke about when his family was living in Italy, he had no idea what the future would bring and at that point he didn't even have a thought about becoming a racing driver. However, in 1954, Mario and his twin brother Aldo, had the opportunity to go to the Monza Circuit to watch the Italian Grand Prix. Mario saw Alberto Ascari racing in a Ferrari and the dreams began to flourish in his head. He knew at that point he wanted to be a part of motor racing.
A year later, Mario and his family moved to the United States. Only a few short days after arriving in the states, Mario and Aldo discovered an oval race track close to their home. From that day, they decided to start racing with their first car, a 1948 Hudson Hornet Sportsman Stock Car that they built with their friends.
Mario quickly got the racing bug, surpassing his brother Aldo in the sportsman stock car class. He went on to his first Indy Car Championship in 1965 with a second straight national championship the year after. In 1967 he won the Daytona 500 stock car race and in 1969 the Indianapolis 500. By 1970 he claimed his second victory at the 12 Hours of Sebring and had his sights set on Formula 1, winning the World Championship in 1978. Mario become the first driver in motor racing history to have won titles in Formula 1 and Indy Car. He's raced on the same team as his son Michael, competed in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, and has won Driver of the Year in three different decades. As a racing driver, Mario wasn't bound solely to open wheel racing, which is what made him so dynamic.
Mario is not only one of the most influential racing drivers in history, he's genuinely one of the kindest people I've ever met. He welcomed all of us into his home with open arms and is incredibly modest about his successes in racing.
At one point in the day I admitted to Mario how much I loved cars and motorsports and how my younger brother and I were huge fans. He smiled and turned to me "Oh that's wonderful. So you like race cars, Mara? Would you like to see one?" He led us to his garage, where a few motorbikes sat, his Corvette Z06 and his Indy Car from his last race ever, a Lola T9400 chassis and Ford XB engine, at Laguna Seca in 1994. (His daily driver, an orange Lamborghini Aventador was in the shop that day). You know that feeling when people say they were on Cloud 9? Well, I was drifting away into racing heaven on that cloud.
We chatted for a while in his garage. Mario telling stories about James Hunt and Lord Hesketh, his friend and team manager Paul Newman, and what it was like to win the Japanese Grand Prix. Remember one of the final scenes in 'Rush' when Nikki Lauda pulled into the pits to stop racing because of the torrential rain? It was 1976 and Mario won that race with Colin Chapman and Team Lotus, which sadly, we didn't get to see in the movie.
A few hours later and tons of stories to go home and tell my friends about, it was time to head back to the city. We graciously thanked Mario and his wonderful assistant Amy for taking the time to meet with us. It was hard to pry myself away from the stories and the memorabilia.
Mario sits on a plethora of knowledge and history about the heritage of racing and it didn't quite strike me until I left. To be in the home of Mario Andretti, the man who has so predominately paved the way for motorsports today — to listen and learn from him was truly an experience I will not soon forget.