As the story goes, at the age of two, Mario Andretti and his twin brother, Aldo, would often race around the family kitchen in Italy, holding pot lids like steering wheels. Seventeen years later, Mario and Aldo began tearing up racetracks for real.
The brothers were born in 1940 in Montona, Istria, which was part of Italy until Yugoslavia annexed it at the end of World War II. The Andretti family left in 1948 and spent the next seven years in a refugee camp in Lucca in Tuscany. While there, Mario was introduced to the glamorous and thrilling world of racing at the Mille Miglia race and later the Italian Grand Prix at Monza. Two-time Formula One driver Alberto Ascari instantly became Mario’s superhero.
In 1955 the Andretti family emigrated to the United States, where they settled in Nazareth, Pa. Mario and Aldo brought their passion for racing with them.
“I don’t know where that came from,” said Mario. “For some reason, we were drawn in that direction. I keep searching for myself as to why. There was no family background that was tilted toward motor racing, but my brother Aldo and I, it just captured our imaginations. It was always one of those distant, impossible dreams. I always say this; for some reason, we never had a Plan B.”
At the age of 19, the twins hit the oval dirt tracks in a 1948 Hornet Hudson they had rebuilt. But they had two problems. The first was their father, who would have been furious to know his boys were racing cars.
“That first year we didn’t dare tell him that we were racing because all he knew about racing was fatalities,” Mario explained.
Their second problem was their age. You had to be 21 to drive professionally, so they had their driver’s licenses altered and told everyone they used to race in Italy in the Formula Junior series. The Italian brothers sure looked the part and were accepted with open arms by the regional racing community.
They each had two wins after their first four races.
While Aldo’s career was cut short because of two major crashes, Mario’s illustrious racing career spanned from 1959 to 2000, his last race coming at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. His accomplishments on the track are nothing short of astonishing.
He took the checkered flag 111 times. He won the Indianapolis 500. He won the Daytona 500. He grabbed the Formula One World Championship and the Pike’s Peak Hillclimb. He’s won on ovals, road courses and even on the drag strip. Mario Andretti will be remembered as one of the world’s greatest and most decorated athletes.
“That’s an incredible compliment,” said Mario when presented with that fact. “You don’t think about those things; they happen. It’s been very fortunate, you know, because looking at the reality of the sport – the danger of it through the decades – it’s unusual. I was one of the lucky ones. Most of our peers didn’t make it. We used to lose four or five guys a year. I was able to pursue my most ambitious goals and somehow, I came out on the other side. I count my blessings every day.”
No one and no setback would ever put the brakes on Mario’s dream.
“I was so driven by such a burning passion,” he exclaimed. “I put 110% into it. When you have that will, you somehow find a way to make things happen. I just loved, loved, loved what I was doing.”
Mario’s confidence grew as he began winning races against some of the biggest names in motorsports. Len Duncan finished behind him in Three-Quarter Midgets. He took the checkered flag from Jackie Stewart in Formula One. And triumphed over A.J. Foyt at Indy.
“Those are the moments that strengthen your belief and confidence,” said Mario. “I belong here. I’m OK.”
What did Mario find so alluring about motorsports? Was it the money? The girls? The thrill of cheating death? “I think it’s all of it,” he said. “It’s not something everyone is able to do. There are so many factors there that attract you to it.”
The question on most people’s minds is: What’s it like to drive that fast? “The speed itself is something that becomes relative, mainly with practice, practice, practice,” he said. “The more you do that, the more things slow down. But it’s a lure. You always want to go faster, faster, faster. That’s what you train for. You don’t just wake up one day and drive 250 miles an hour. You don’t go from the third grade to the university.”
And while race cars and tracks have been getting safer and safer, there’s still great danger in driving those kinds of speeds.
“Let’s face it, it’s the elephant in the room. If you dwell on that, you’re going to be more dangerous to yourself,” said Mario. “The risks are there. No question. If you dwell on the negative, you don’t belong there. A lot of people say, ‘You’re just totally crazy.’ Well, maybe so.”
In the Andretti family, apples don’t fall far from the tree. Mario’s two sons, Michael and Jeff, along with his nephew, John, all became competitive race car drivers.
He calls the family’s racing statistics “precious.” In the early ‘90s, all four of them drove in the field of cars at the Indianapolis 500. That’s the first and only stat of its kind to date.
And then consider these Andretti family statistics: Michael and Mario finished first and second 10 times together. They were on the front row together five times. They’ve been on the podium together 15 times. In 1986, at the Pocono 500, Jeff took the pole and won the Indy Lights race, while Michael sat on the pole for the 500 race, which was won by Mario. In 1992, in Milwaukee, Mario, Michael and John all stood on the podium.
Mario holds a special place in his heart for the city of Indianapolis. It is, after all, home to the greatest spectacle in racing. The Brickyard has been a backbreaker and dream maker for so many drivers good enough and brave enough to dare take it on. More importantly, the Brickyard has served as the testing ground for all manner of technical automobile advancements, from tires to engine configurations.
“Many things that started there continue on in the production level of car manufacturing,” said Mario.
Regarding the Indianapolis 500 itself, Mario said, “It’s our Super Bowl. The tradition is so solid and so long. It’s an event that defines your career in so many ways. “The month of May is magic around Indy. It’s a festival. We take advantage of what Indy has to offer, that’s for sure.”
And that would include an obligatory pit stop at St. Elmo Steak House for its famous sinus-clearing shrimp cocktail.
Mario’s little-known passion is opera. He claims to sing several opera arias in Italian. “I love it,” he said. “It’s the kind of music that gives you goosebumps.”
As they say, music calms the savage beast.
If you’re interested in visiting Indianapolis, talk to your AAA Travel professional or visit AAA.com for complete trip planning assistance.
For information about Indianapolis’ 200th Anniversary celebration events, visit indyturns200.com. The 2020 Indianapolis 500 is scheduled for Aug. 23.