Mario Andretti. Interviewing an Icon.

Mario Andretti and ET June 2015

Mario Andretti wine 2005

Mario Andretti headshotThe term “Icon” is thrown around far too often in sports.

To become a true icon, an individual has to boast a pedigree of historic proportions, and his notoriety and popularity has to transcend the boundaries of his profession.

Mario Gabriel Andretti easily fits the description.

Born in Italy, The Andretti family moved to The United States when Mario and his twin brother Aldo were just boys. Their family settled in Pennsylvania and quickly got involved with the sport on area dirt tracks.

Maybe those clay roots are the reason Mario and I get along so well.

He advanced beyond the dirt to become one of, if not the biggest name in auto racing.

Mario excelled in ChampCars and SprintCars on dirt tracks, advancing to IndyCars and the famed Indianapolis 500. He won his first IndyCar championship in 1969, a year after he won NASCAR’s Daytona 500. In the 70’s he carried his success to Formula One, winning the world title in 1978. Returning to IndyCars, Andretti added 3 more championships.

To this day he is the only driver to win an IndyCar and Formula One championship in a career, and along with Dan Gurney, win races in all of the major pursuits: F-1, IndyCar, World SportsCar and NASCAR.

Mario retired from driving in 1994, banking more than $11 million dollars in winnings. He was easily named Driver of the Century.

So how special it is for the anchor and producer of a Canadian national motorsport radio network to have regular access to Mario Andretti?

It’s kind of like being able to ask Albert Einstein about physics.

If you ran a baseball show, it would be akin to interviewing Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Mickey Mantle, so we always jump at the chance to turn on our trusty Raceline recorder to get caught up with Mario for his thoughts and opinions on the current racing issues and headlines.

He arrived in Toronto a few days after the rain-plagued Indy. Mario heartily agreed that despite the conditions, this year’s Indy was the best ever staged at Exhibition Place.

“It was! With the changing of the weather and the changing conditions, watching the guys adapt to it, the better prepared teams brought up some new faces that handled the situation beautifully. It was not a predictable race at all. Newgarden and Filippi put on a wonderful performance for their team with a 1-2 finish. There’s a lot of depth of talent in this series and you couldn’t ask for anything better. Good overtaking, good competitive events. I love the IndyCar series and I want it to prosper in the best possible way!”

Moving to technical issues, Mario strongly believes The IndyCar Series needs to re-address the aero kit problem. The new wing packages have created a wide schism in the series. Chevrolet’s kit is superior to Honda’s, and the Bowtie powered cars have dominated the Honda powered cars. Including Toronto, Chevy has won 8 races and Honda just two. AJ Foyt stated Honda’s aero kits are “out to lunch”, while Michael Andretti declares all they’re doing is spending a fortune to get slowed down. Michael’s dad says IndyCar needs to fix the problem.

“I think the series made a mistake quite honestly, and I want to be very clear on that. The way the aero kits were implemented divided the series. Right now, only one manufacturer is happy. They need to fix it and quickly, because the one good thing about IndyCar racing, as we said, is the on-track product. You don’t want to mess it up! You don’t want the equipment putting good talented drivers out of contention. The sooner they can fix the aero kit issue the better it will be.”

I have expressed distinct displeasure with IndyCar’s shortened and compressed schedule. With the races packed together on consecutive weekends, it’s very tough on the drivers and teams.

Toronto ended 8 straight weeks of racing that included The Indianapolis 500. I also strongly dislike the fact the IndyCar season ends far too soon at the end of August, while competitors NASCAR and Formula One stay visible right through to late fall. Mario could not agree with me more.

“This is one area that I have been very outspoken about. I think IndyCar management is making a terrible mistake with a disservice to themselves and the fans. To me it’s a crime to end the season at the end of August when everybody else goes right through to November. And by cramming the schedule into the middle of summer, they’re killing the crews. There needs to be some reason here. I mean we have been around a long time. To re-invent the wheel right now is not the way to do it. Some in IndyCar management are very inexperienced. They need to take notice and listen to those of us who have been in this sport all our lives, and not run away from football and baseball. All sports co-exist year-round. IndyCar is the longest-running series in motorsport. We don’t need to run away from any other sport! The problem is they’re using consultants who don’t know the sport, and I’m going mad over this!”

A former champion, Mario still follows Formula One very closely. I asked for his opinion on the dominance of the Mercedes team and drivers Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg. Andretti believes a dominant team is accepted more readily in F-1 than in any other series.

“The saving grace is the two drivers Rosberg and Hamilton, are both winning races and are allowed to just fight it out. I really don’t think there are team orders. They are aware they need to concentrate on the Constructors battle for their team. Then you have Vettel and Ferrari keeping them honest this year. Williams is a thorn in their side because of their Mercedes engines. This is all interesting to watch. F-1 might be predictable, but the interest is still very high.”

We finished our chat talking about his outstanding line of Mario Andretti wine. Miss Janice and I can personally endorse each one of his California based varietals. Mario say the winery is flourishing and that’s good news for fans of the grape. It sets up interesting competition with Niagara’s finest.

We also shared a laugh over the fact his twin grandson and granddaughter Mia and Mario no longer cry when grandpapa comes close!
Because despite the man’s legendary status in this sport, at the end of the day, he’s just a good, down to earth happy fellow, who just happens to be a motorsport icon.

Tailpipes: We are inviting you to the Canadian Motor Speedway open house on Saturday June 27th from 11am to 4 pm during the Fort Erie Friendship Festival. The CMS Fort Erie Corporate Office on Garrison Road is opening its doors for face-to-face updates on the project from CMS management. Check out our new officially licensed CMS retail items and enter our Open House contest. See you there!