Indy 500 Centennial Celebration: Exclusive Interview with Mario Andretti

Photo Courtesy of Indy 500 & Mario Andretti
In the super competitive racing world of revved-up cars and adrenalin-fueled drivers, a world where speed rules supreme, it's no surprise that winning means everything. "Speed is what it is all about," says Mario Andretti, winner of the 1969 Indianapolis 500 and perhaps one of best known race car drivers in history. He was also the first driver to break the impenetrable 200 miles-per-hour barrier, and did so while practicing for the 1977 Indy 500.

Perhaps that's why Andretti has a special place in his heart for the Indy 500 - the most prestigious and competitive speed competition in the world - as well as for Indianapolis, affectionately known as the Racing Capital of the World. After all, winning the Indy 500 catapulted his racing career from that of obscure regional champ to worldwide racing legend in about the time it takes a checkered flag to drop.

Premier Racing Event
The Indy 500 turns 100 in May 2011 and is the world's largest single-day sporting event, drawing more than 400,000 speed freaks from around the globe. One of sport's greatest traditions since 1911, it is regarded as the premier event in the National Championship of open wheel car racing.

No motorsport event compares to the fury and frenzy of motor fumes circling the oval. And because open wheel is considered to be the fastest racing, it is also the most challenging for race car drivers to master. It's all about speed and endurance rather than maneuverability.

Mario Andretti, winner of four Indy Car titles over his years of car racing, plans on being in Indianapolis for the centennial event. "It's the greatest spectacle in racing, an event where you simply must be there," says Andretti. "From a race driver stand point, the Indy 500 is huge - it's an absolute Mecca for motor racing. No event is better known than the Indy 500. When I won in 1969, I got fan mail from the most remote parts of the world. It's like winning a world championship."

Held over the long Memorial weekend, every race is a week-long celebration of open-wheel racing. So, just what should Indy 500 fans see and do to best experience the 100th year anniversary? Andretti explains that Indianapolis has two major events when it comes to the Indy 500: The qualifying and the race itself. "The qualifying is electrifying and so full of drama that it keeps you on pins and needles. Because of this, many of the real fans only go to the qualifying," says Andretti.

Besides attending the qualifying, the best way for speed lovers to honor the Indy 500 is to simply enjoy what's going on. "The Indy 500 historically is full of pageantry with lots of things happening not just during the race, but before the race, too," says Andretti. "For anyone that is a fan of this particular type event, it makes sense to want to be a part of the festivities."

Andretti - a Legend of the Speedway
The Indy 500 will be rolling out a special tribute for the centennial celebration: On May 18, 2011, Andretti will be honored as one of the Legends of the Speedway (Others include Indy 500 greats such as Gordon Johncock, A.J. Foyt, and Johnny Rutherford). This will be Andretti's first time back at the track since 1995 and he plans to drive his 1967 Dean Van Lines car.

There may be some surprises as well, with him possibly driving a two-seater car, as well as possibly starting and pacing the race. Andretti considers his 1969 win as the crown jewel of his career and acknowledges how coming back and mentioned as a legend is something very special and dear to him.

"I have incredibly special memories of the Indy 500, having competed there 29 times. And even though I show only one win, I have been competitive throughout. The number of laps I led supersedes all but one of the competitors. So, you see, my memories are quite positive."

A Need for Speed
Known in his industry for being tough as nails but possessing a graceful elegance behind the wheel, Andretti is addicted to speed. He explains how speed provides the excitement and essence of the race car business, but adds that there is one important restraint that future race car drivers and aspiring champs must master.

That's the ability to control speed, or as Andretti says, "to not be out of control." And while he acknowledges that he has no fear while chasing speed, Andretti does admit to being concerned about those things he can't control. "Unforeseen things like equipment failure and getting caught up in somebody else's mistakes can easily alter the outcome. And because of that, the way things unfold is never predictable."


But according to avid fan Greg Fernandez from Fairfax, Virginia, the man can do no wrong. "When Andretti races, he is like a conductor behind the wheel. He takes race track turns as if he were orchestrating an opera or symphony, with super speed yet a grace that makes him the champion he is." Fernandez adds that Andretti is the ultimate ambassador for the sport.

Winning Formula
Though speed is a necessary component to win on the oval, there are other traits that contribute to champions. "It takes a deep-seated passion and focused mind-set to win the Indy 500," according to Andretti. "It's all important that you tell yourself that you're going to win - not to just compete, but to win. Then, in your own mind, you don't accept anything less. You have to be optimistic beyond reason."

But how much of winning races is driving talent and how much is having a good car? "It's a combination of both," replies Andretti, "with the driver always contributing over 50 percent. However, the best driver in the world can't overcome what's lacking in the car." He then explains how a driver is much like the quarterback in football, who leads the team. "If you don't
have a good team, you won't be able to show your talents."

"The formula to winning is to minimize mistakes. And since it's a team sport, I want to be fastest on the track and I want my crew to be fastest in the pits. After all, it's the best driver with the best team that wins."

But any winner knows that there are sacrifices along the way. And though Andretti enjoyed every minute of his pursuit and passion for speed, he still acknowledges that many sacrifices were made along the way - most by his family.

"You never achieve something meaningful without some type of sacrifice and I sacrificed time spent together with my family. Over 40 years, I worked over many weekends and holidays. But I did my utmost to keep us together." Andretti mentions how he had his own airplane to make sure that the children could travel with him and yet be back at school the next day.

He recalls an incident involving his eldest son Michael back when he was in elementary school. At that time, Michael's teacher asked him, "What does your dad do for a living?" Michael's response was simply that his dad was a bread maker. Somewhat puzzled, Andretti queried his son about his reputed occupation as a baker. Michael responded again with what seemed obvious, that you (Andretti) go on planes and that you make the bread.

Safety as Legacy
While Andretti's son may remember him as the dad who made bread and flew on planes, Andretti also hopes to be remembered as a guy who gave 110 percent to a sport he enjoyed tremendously. He notes that many things have changed in the racing industry over the years, most for the better. "The industry has become more sophisticated even as it has become more commercial. Safety has improved hugely."

He hopes to take credit as being a trailblazer, a part of a small group that tried to make the sport safer. "I've dodged a few bullets in my career and I have been one of the lucky ones of my era. I've lived through decades of the sport when it wasn't as safe as it is today: Longevity is not a given."

"I raced from 1959 through 2000 - right into the computer age. Unfortunately, many champions were never able to finish their work. I did and am one of the fortunate ones. Today, cars and tracks are safer so drivers can have a full career and retire on their own terms." Andretti adds, "However, it's still a work in progress."

Karin Leperi

Karin Leperi is a nationally-acclaimed award-winning writer and photographer with bylines in over 95 publications that include print, broadcast, internet, and mobile platform media. A gypsy at heart, she has traveled to 97 countries and is still counting. Specialties include travel, culture, cuisine, cruising, nature, photography and lifestyle. ...(Read More)

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