Nearly 15 years after his retirement from full-time racing, Mario Andretti, at age 68, remains a dominant force. One of only two drivers to win race in the four major motor racing categories — Formula One, IndyCar (USAC), World Sportscar Championships and NASCAR — Andretti was the honored guest last week at the 35th Rolex Monterey Historic Automobile Races and Mazda Raceway, Laguna Seca.
Andretti, the only driver to win the Indianapolis 500 (1969), Daytona 500 (1967) and Formula One World Championship (1978), participated in a variety of events during the three-day gathering held in conjunction with Monterey Auto Week. He drove a few demonstration laps in the Lotus 79 in which he won the Formula One Championship, he held autograph sessions and he threw the checkered flag for the Toyota Race of Legends.
Andretti also held a press conference for about 25 writers and photographers. Relaxed and smiling often, Andretti covered myriad topics, family to visiting his Northern California winery, his career to long-gone friends and colleagues.
Here’s an excerpt of the interview. Questions were asked by journalist and photographers, (including myself) during a casual 45-minute session in an administration building near the raceway paddock.
Question: What are your observations returning to Laguna Seca?
Mario Andretti: I’ve had invitations the past for some of these same kind of events, but my schedule now . . . I have so much on my plate. It’s difficult to make the time to do some of the things I would really like to do.
One thing I’ve always seen when I get to attend something like this is that people are having so much fun. It’s thorough enjoyment. Everybody has a smile. All of my life in competition there’s been so much tension you could cut it with a knife. It’s totally different world. I can’t believe you have the sound of race cars all around you and you can actually relax and enjoy yourself. You can have a glass of wine the night before and everything is going to be okay. This is the good life. I could definitely get used to this sort of thing. I don’t know if I’m allowed to have so much fun.
Q: What was it like driving the Lotus 79 again?
MA: To have the opportunity, it brings back so many memories. It’s amazing how much time by from when you sat in the cockpit off a real racecar. And then when you’re there, it’s almost like you’ve never left it. But so many things come back to you. I’m out there trying to be so careful. That thing is so precious. He (Steve Earle, event organizer and founder) is crazy to let me even sit in it. I know it’s a delicate piece of equipment, but I had to make some noise.
Q: Is the Lotus 79 your favorite car?
MA: It’s definitely one of the favorite cars of my career, no question about it. It’s one of the few cars I really feel I understood. I understood its pluses and minuses, if you will. I think I was really able to extract what the car could give me. And the payback was very handsome. But it wasn’t a given. If you got it wrong, you really got it wrong. You had to go for the sweet spot.
Q: What part of your career brings back the fondest memories?
MA: From as personal standpoint, I have to tell you that winning the Italian Grand Prix and clinching the World Championship had to have been the ultimate in my career. In Italy, at age 14, that’s where I saw my very first Formula One race. I was still in a refugee camp and that’s where my dreams really began of pursuing my career.