“Once you start winning, you accept nothing less.”
In this issue, we sit down with the legendary Mario Andretti. The retired world champion race car driver and proud Lehigh Valley resident welcomed us into his home on a sprawling estate in Nazareth, Pennsylvania, where he discussed his scariest racing moments, what his parents would be most proud of and his roots as a political refugee. Read on.
DN- Your family came here in 1955 as political refugees after the town you lived in, Montona, Italy, fell under communist rule post World War II. Tell us about that.
MA- It was decision time. Dad said “I think we are going to American for five years and then we are coming back. And we stayed. What do kids know? When I was born the war broke out, so I knew of nothing but that. As kids, you make do. It is easier to adjust. It was not scary to come to America, it was exciting. Dad always said “I am doing this for your future.” I have a twin brother Aldo, and a sister, Anna Maria. So that’s it, we came over and I am still here.
DN- Why did your family settle in Nazareth? And with all your success and wealth, you could live anywhere in the world, why did you choose to stay in Nazareth?
MA- We came to Nazareth because my Uncle lived here. At the time to get a visa, you had to have a guaranteed job and housing, and because my Uncle Tony was here, we came here.
I chose to stay for many reasons. I married a local girl, my parents were here. I started traveling the world and I never really found a need to go anywhere else, mainly because family was the most important thing to me and whenever I went anywhere I always looked forward to coming home. I always drove for teams on the west coast and there was pressure to move there, but I never did. Actually in 1968 I brought a really nice property north of the Poconos near Lake Wallenpaupak, 600 acres, two lakes. It’s been so wonderful for us as a family, great enjoyment. I don’t think I could have found anything like that anywhere else. I love the community, the idea that we are close to the cities, but still outside, there is breathing room. We have everything that we want here.
DN- With the current discussion on immigration and refugees, as a former refugee and immigrant, where do you stand on the issue?
MA- Well, it’s really a sticky situation, it becomes very political. Remember, we waited 3 years for our visas, then we had to go to the consulate, we had a physical. We were turned upside down before we were accepted. I have sympathy for those affected, because I can relate, it’s a horror. But at the same time, there needs to be laws to be safe. From my standpoint, having experienced it myself, we came here legally and I accept that as the way.
DN- How do you feel about the comparisons between Nascar and Formula 1 racing? Some people consider Nascar to be less sexy, less sophisticated, less technical.
MA- Well Nascar is a national series and it has it’s attraction. It’s a little more controlled, not as pure, if you will. Formula 1 is a truly international series. It has a lot of that appeal, that sex appeal. From a driver’s standpoint, when you look at what you are trying to accomplish, you look at the flavor of it all, and where the satisfaction comes from. Don’t leave Indy cars out. That’s a series that actually embodies a little bit of both, the versatility there.
Like I always say, from a driver’s standpoint, it’s whatever melts your butter. I was fortunate to delve into a little bit of all of it, as one of the few drivers who got a taste and flavor of all of it. I was not satisfied to just specialize. If I were to specialize, it would have been in Indy cars, but I wanted to be into sports prototypes, some stock cars, and Formula 1. And I was fortunate enough to win in all of them. I was experienced and qualified, I’m one of the lucky ones. I count my blessings every day for everything that has happened to me career wise and family wise and frankly, I’m still living the dream.
DN- What was your scariest moment as a driver?
MA- I have many scary moments. Wanna see one? (Shows video on YouTube). It was during a test at Indianapolis in 2003. I hit something on the track. Watch me up in the air. It was a practice day, at 225 miles an hour.
Yeah, you think that maybe this is the end. Yeah, inevitably. I had a suite up there, I thought I was going to end up in the suite.
I’ve had the ability to just put it past me. In a sport that can be violent, you are going to have situations, some are my mistake, but most are going to be someone else’s mistake in front of you, or equipment failure. That was my greatest fear, things I could not control. I felt confident enough, that I thought I would probably not make a mistake big enough to kill me. I always knew though, that there was the spectrum of things beyond your control. I raced during the years when the sport was nowhere near as safe as it is today. We used to lose five or six guys a year. We would look around at the beginning of the season and wonder who isn’t going to be here at the end. It was something you had to accept, we knew of nothing else, that’s the way the sport was.
It was not very macho to ask for things that were protective in the cockpit, but then we thought, hey, you know what? We want to race next week. It took a lot of time for the sanctioning bodies to make safety changes. Today, obviously, everything is being done for the safety of the sport and the guys in it. But still, it will never be 100 percent safe, to drive on the road even is not 100 percent safe, but you do everything that is humanly possible.
DN- Knowing the dangers of the sport, did you worry about your children becoming involved?
MA- Of course I had fears for my children, especially knowing what they would face in the sport, but what could I say to my children? It was ok for me, but you shouldn’t do it?
The one thing that I think I made very clear is, “If you do this, do it for yourself, not because you want to continue the family tradition, or to please your Dad.” Yes, the concern is there, because it’s real. My younger son Jeff, paid quite dearly in 1992 in Indianapolis. He had a terrible accident, which was not his fault. It was equipment failure, but he almost lost both his legs.
I have a twin brother who was also effected by two major accidents and had to quit ten years into his career. I lost some of my best friends to the sport.
DN- What effect did the loss of one of your best friend’s fellow racer, Ronnie Peterson, have on you?
MA- Here again, he is not the only one. He is one of several close friends and teammates. The difference with him was he died the same day I clinched the world championship. It could have been the happiest day of my career, and I couldn’t celebrate. He wasn’t just a friend, he was so close to us. He spent time up at the lake, we had family times together. Those are the dark days of our sport unfortunately. You are never the same but at the same time, you know that this can happen.
DN- On the other side, what have been some of the most thrilling moments in your career?
MA- Obviously, the victories, the championships, that’s what you asked for. When you have something that has this danger aspect, that is a challenge that you want to meet, to conquer. You don’t want to let the beast devour you. You want to control that, bring it home and win. It is the ultimate satisfaction. The more you do, the more you want, it’s intoxicating. Once you start winning, you accept nothing less.
DN- What do you see as the future of racing?
MA- The future is strong, the sport has come of age. Indianapolis is celebrating the 100th anniversary of the running of the race next year. It’s one of the oldest sports in the world. It’s solid, it’s strong, and it’s got a fan base.
DN- What about your family and your family’s legacy in the sport, in business?
MA- Well, I have a third generation of racing in my family. There is Marco (points towards direction of grandson’s home), just up the hill. We have our own legacy, but we also have some young talents who come in and drive for my son Michael, his racing team. His racing is pretty widespread.
My business is spread. Two of my major businesses are in California. I have go karts in Georgia, soon to be in Orlando, a petroleum company on the west coast, a winery on the west coast… My son Michael has his own team based in Indianapolis. His business is basically world wide, Indy cars, Formula 1. Our wings are pretty well spread.
DN- Has anyone in your family ever considered being involved politically?
MA- I’ve been asked, and that is not my calling whatsoever. I am very serious about what I believe in, but I have no desire.
DN- What effect did the loss of the Nazareth Speedway have on the community, in your opinion?
MA- To me, negative. Here was a speedway that was televised nationally. We were in 120 countries. It gave the town some prominence, it had a resounding name, Nazareth. It was a positive thing for the community but for some reason it was not supported enough. There were also reasons that were beyond the thought of the community. When the Indy car community split in the mid 90’s, it kind of caused a lot of confusion in the fan base and they all migrated to NASCAR. It was the fault of one individual. For us that love the sport, it was a loss, but you know we have Pocono.
I don’t think it can ever come back, I think Pocono will have to be the one that will have to do.
DN- What do you think your parents would be most proud of?
MA- Probably the fact that I’ve been honored by the Italian government. I’ve been knighted, the highest civilian honor. I was just in Rome, a couple weeks ago, they started a recognition for individuals that contributed to the relationship between the US and Italy-people such as Boccelli, Armani…and I was included in that group. That was a real honor. I always look at the pride in representing my sport. Things like that make you proud. My Mom and Dad would be proud, smiling. My Dad left everything because all of a sudden under communism, nothing was yours anyway. They left everything they built. To be recognized by your native country, my Dad would have had pride in that.
I’m the honorary Mayor of Montona, the town that my father came from. There is a movement to make sure the legacy of the town never gets lost. The honor guard was there, it was very official. I was received by the Mayor of Venice, a couple of years ago. The wood that Venice was built on comes from the town that I was born in, it has that connection.
DN- Is there anything else you would like to ad for our readers to understand about you?
MA- When I reflect on a lot of things as far as my life, like the ups and downs, it’s amazing how important the family around you is. The support that is given, just by being there unconditionally. To do anything that is worthwhile, there is sacrifice, usually anywhere. I felt very selfish my entire life, because who was I satisfying? Myself. I missed Barbie’s graduation. I missed out on some of that part. However, my wife Dee Ann was there solid, like a rock of Gibraltar. The best part about Dee Ann was whether I came back with a trophy or not, I got the same hug. There was no ticker tape parade when I got a win. It was even, always.
I realize the support I got. With our kids, we have been very fortunate in many ways. They have never been distracted by some of the negatives kids can get into. I’m proud of them, their careers. I am very blessed to have my family together like that.
About the Contributors
Dawn Ouellette Nixon
Dawn Ouellette Nixon is the Editor of the Elucidator. She also pens the "ask" interview column and the occasional feature. She lives on College Hill in…
Cassandra Srager is a freelance photographer currently based in the Lehigh Valley area and a recent graduate of the School of Visual Arts of New York City.