In this inaugural edition of the Guest Mailbag we’ve gone directly to racing royalty, and are privileged to welcome the inimitable Mario Andretti. As the only living driver (and one of only two drivers ever) to have won races in F1, IndyCar, NASCAR and the World Sportscar Championship, Andretti’s name has become synonymous with motor racing across the globe, and at 80 years old, he remains actively engaged with the sport.
Not surprisingly, the response to our invitation to ask Mario a question received an overwhelming response, and we’re deeply appreciative that he was able to take the time to answer the vast majority of them. There’s still time to send questions in to future mailbag guests Rick Hendrick, Tony Kanaan and Jimmie Johnson: please email email@example.com and include the name of the person your question is directed to in the subject line. Questions for the Haas Formula 1 team and Acura Team Penske are now closed, and their answers will be available soon.
In the meantime… Mario Andretti. Enjoy.
Q: When you look back at Grand Prix and IndyCar history, are there any drivers you wish you could have met and/or raced against? For example, Tazio Nuvolari, Jimmy Murphy, or Juan Manuel Fangio?
MARIO ANDRETTI: I wish I had met Alberto Ascari. And I would have liked to race against Michael Schumacher.
Q: What was the scariest or hardest drive you had to a victory?
MA: In the rain at the Japanese Grand Prix in 1976.
Q: My first Indy 500 was the one you won. Wow, that was a fun day. Comparing that car to the latest that you have gotten to drive, how busy are the drivers in the car making adjustments? Were there more available adjustments on the car for drivers back then, or now? I have always been interested in how much work the driver is doing during the race – people watching on TV just don’t see how much goes into driving at the Speedway. Thank you for everything you have done for auto racing!
MA: The race cars in 1969 didn’t have the electronics that the latest cars have. There was a lot of educated guessing going on in 1969. The only adjustments we had in the cockpit were the front and rear rolls bars and brake bias. Today, there are many adjustments for drivers to make. While it helps that they are all on the steering wheel, there is such a myriad of information from engineers to drivers, that today’s drivers have more to do. They get directives from engineers constantly; they need to get it all done and can’t let it disrupt their concentration.
Q: When was the last time you physically saw the real 1969 winner? Any interesting stories about it? Do you think it will ever be back on the grounds of the Speedway?
MA: The 1969 car is owned by the Smithsonian. The last time I saw it was probably 20 years ago. I’m pretty sure it will never be back at the Speedway. The Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum has tried, but the Smithsonian won’t lend it. The most interesting story about that car is that it won me both the Indy 500 and the national championship that year. It was a great car.
Q: When was the last time you raced the 1969 Indy 500-winning Hawk? Why hasn’t the Hawk been part of the pre-race historic cars at the 500?
MA: I raced that Hawk 15 times in 1969, the last time at Riverside California in December of that same year. That Hawk actually won at Indy and four other times that same year (once before Indy, and three times after). The Hawk has not been part of the pre-race historic cars at the Indy 500 because it is owned by the Smithsonian and they won’t lend it to the Speedway.
Q: The combination of Jim Clark and Colin Chapman accomplished amazing things at Indy in the 1960s at the same time that they were winning F1 world championships. In your experience, where would they rank as a driver and team manager/engineer?
MA: You are right about those two accomplishing amazing things. They could still rank at the very top today. Jim Clark will always be considered one of the greatest-ever Formula 1 drivers, and Colin one of the most knowledgeable and influential designers, engineers, inventors, builders. What a pair.
Q: You drove for both Andy Granatelli and Colin Chapman – both innovators in racing, and somewhat larger than life in personality. How were they alike, and how were they different? Many thanks!
MA: Andy and Colin were alike in thinking outside the box. Now I know that’s a super worn-out phrase, but what I mean is that they were not afraid to shake things up. They both looked for alternative or unconventional solutions, considered every possibility and didn’t dismiss anything. It was always ‘what if we try this’ or ‘what if we try that’. And as far as how they were different, Colin was an engineering genius and Andy was an entrepreneur, a marketing genius who put STP on the map.
Q: Thank you for doing this! I use to live in Central PA, and the stories a lot of the guys would tell about you were not of what you did in IndyCar or F1, but what you did at local tracks. Even my Dad speaks of watching you race at Fairgrounds speedway in Sedalia, Missouri as a life-changing event.
That being said, when you look back this time racing local dirt tracks, were you able to enjoy it, or were you more focused on the next step? Also, with the ladder system changed from what it was into the major racing circuits, what experiences have drivers lost by not racing at places like Port Royal, Lincoln, and the numerous other local dirt tracks that no longer exist?
MA: When I was racing at dirt tracks, I was doing both – enjoying it and thinking of moving on. The experience I derived from driving on dirt tracks helped me tremendously in dealing with car control. Those tracks helped me develop overall car control, and especially on slippery conditions. On dirt tracks, conditions change every lap and you have to keep searching for grip. That’s how it is in wet road racing conditions. So you learn the ability to really search for grip and adapt.
Q: I remember a Long Beach race, (I think with CART and not F1), where a race car was parked on course, but off the racing line, and after several laps, when all the drivers must have known where it was, you came around and hit the car. I could not believe it. Did you forget it was there, or were there other circumstances?
John G. Hill
MA: The incident was at Toronto, on the back straightaway where there is a slight bend approaching. There was a car parked on the right. The race director Wally Dallenbach had a yellow flag on the side alerting us that the car was there. After several laps, he pulled the yellow flag because he thought everyone knew. But I thought pulling the yellow flag signaled it was clear. He should not have pulled the yellow while there was still a car on the track. I could have been killed.