Excellent Vintage

Excellent Vintage

No other driver has ever performed in the US and in Europe as a true champion quite like Mario Andretti, racing Ferraris to victory in both Formula One and sports series. He will always have a racer’s heart, but today his passion is also for his wine, produced in the Napa Valley

Estimated reading time: 13 minutes

Mario Andretti slips a key into the ignition and, left thumb on red button, summons the Ferrari F12berlinetta to life. The red car idles with the caged energy of a bull trapped in a stall. Just as Andretti is about to get rolling, his passenger cautions that the knob on the F12berlinetta’s manettino has been set to Race mode. ‘Oh, I know,’ Andretti says, giving a flash of that familiar devilish grin. ‘I put it there.’ Well of course he did. Andretti has been in race mode for most of his storied motorsport-packed life, and at 73 he’s not contemplating a downshift. After a two-day pit stop here at his winery in northern California, where he got to sip some of his own Merlot and sample the power of Maranello’s latest frontengined V12, the racing legend was heading off on a typical six-week business itinerary that would take him to nine cities on two continents For fun, he attends a half-dozen Indy Car races a year, as well as a few Formula One events; he’s also the official ambassador for the Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas, a track charged with reigniting F1 passions in the US. When he’s not with family, which notably includes racers Michael (son) and Marco (grandson), at the Andretti compound in Pennsylvania, he finds time to waterski, fly an ultralight plane and skydive. In short, spend time with this force of nature and you simultaneously question your own stamina while instantly understanding why Mario Gabriele Andretti dominated his sport: he radiates drive, determination and a fierce need, like a shark, to keep moving forward. ‘I miss racing more than anything, and at the time I thought I’d never be out of it,’ says Andretti, who retired nearly 20 years ago after a career that saw him win iconic races such as the Indianapolis 500 and Daytona 500, and reached its emotional apex in 1978 when he was crowned F1 champion. The Italian-born, but US-raised, Andretti is one of only two Americans to do so (Phil Hill clinched it for Ferrari in 1961), and remains the last US driver to win an F1 race (Peter Revson being the last American-born driver).‘When I look back on my life and the passion I have had for this sport, I know that I have been lucky,’ he says, the sun filtering through the vineyards as he picks a grape. ‘I took part in almost 900 races and I’m still here to enjoy my life. I don’t take that for granted. ’In a twist that is as surreal as it is tragic, both Hill and Andretti won their F1 titles at Monza in races that also saw them lose close rivals and friends, Count Wolfgang von Trips and Lotus teammate Ronnie Peterson respectively. ‘What can you say about that, it’s sad,’ Andretti whispers. ‘Racing is like that. There is great loss, as well as moments you can’t script. Like the fact that my dream of being a driver started when I saw a race at Monza, and then I end up winning my F1 title there. You can’t write that and have it be true.’

Just then, a bus full of tourists pulls up to the faded yellow walls of Andretti Winery, a medal-winning concern that Andretti launched in 1994 on a whim. But rather than duck and hide, he strides forward, hand outstretched. The visitors gape, shocked by their good fortune. Twenty minutes pass before all autographs are signed and photos snapped. Finally, the host resumes his train of thought.
‘When I look back, I satisfied my biggest dreams racing against some of the biggest names, sometimes winning, sometimes not,’ he says. ‘But I tell you, nothing equals that top step on the podium.’ Andretti’s repeated journey to that top echelon started back in 1954, when a 14-year-old Mario and twin brother Aldo attended the Italian Grand Prix at Monza. It was a treasured trip for a poor boy whose family had left their hilltop hometown of Montona, on the Istrian peninsula, after it had been annexed by Yugoslavia in the wake of World War II (now the renamed town of Motovun, Croatia). ‘My dream began in Italy at that race,’ he says softly, often slipping between English and his native Italian. ‘Experiencing [Ferrari driver Alberto] Ascari first hand, that triggered something for me. That’s when the mould was cast. It’s when I felt, ‘Please, if there’s anything in life I want, I want to be like Alberto Ascari.’ And driving for Ferrari, well, that was simply the ultimate goal.’ That dream would be realized, but first dues had to be paid. The Andretti family, which, according to his biography, had been in a refugee camp near Lucca for seven years, moved to Nazareth, Pennsylvania in 1955, not long after Mario and Aldo saw Stirling Moss’ epic 1,000 Miglia victory while perched on the Futa Pass in Tuscany (‘I saw the head of his navigator Denis Jenkinson bopping all over the place, like a doll’).

Although the family started out with only $125 and no English, they were soon making in-roads into American culture. No more so than the Andretti boys, who discovered a half-mile oval track near their home and set about turning a 1948 Hudson Hornet into a race car. Mario took off like a comet, winning 20 stock car contests in his first two seasons. The hook was set. By 1964, he’d turned professional, finishing 11th in an Indy Car event in New Jersey. The following year, he finished third at the Indianapolis 500, eventually winning at the fabled Brickyard in 1969. There seemed to be no type of machine that the young Andretti couldn’t finesse to victory, from midget cars to drag racers. Andretti simply shrugs when asked how he managed such a feat: ‘From the driver’s standpoint, you know, the sky looks blue and the clouds look white and everything is pretty much the same.’ However, he admits things weren’t routine when he finally slipped into an F1 seat. ‘I tested a Lotus at Monza in 1968, and as soon as I sat in an F1 car I thought, “Oh, wow, this is agile, it fits me so well.” And, of course, when I got in the Ferrari [for his 1971debut with the marque at the F1 race in South Africa], I felt at home. It was what the doctor ordered.’ Although contractual demands with US racing teams didn’t permit Andretti to commit full time to Ferrari’s F1 effort, 1972 saw him co-driving a Ferrari 312P with Jacky Ickx to great success in endurance races at Daytona, Sebring and Brands Hatch. When Andretti had a stellar F1 season in 1977 and a championship one in 1978 with Lotus, Enzo Ferrari again tried to engage the driver’s services, but arrangements couldn’t be worked out. Although Andretti was never a works driver for the Scuderia, his memories of Maranello are vivid and plentiful.

Maranello was very special to me… They were my people
Maranello was very special to me… They were my people callout]‘Maranello was very special to me,’ he says. ‘There was our common language. Just that sort of, well, something very warm. They were my people. There’s nothing to equal that. I always say, my passport is American, but my blood is Italian. To me it’s the most beautiful country in the world, and I’ll argue that with anyone.’ The feeling is mutual. In 2006, Italy bestowed the honorific title of Commendatore on Andretti, and he is also the Mayor of the Citizens of Montona in Exile, as he explains it. In fact, much of that reconnection with Italy can be put down to his relationship with Ferrari. When prompted, his Prancing Horse memories come pouring forth.

One involves him testing a Ferrari 512 in 1968 at Daytona at the request of engineer Mauro Forghieri. The Ferrari mechanics didn’t realize Andretti had been born in Italy, and were busy making fun of how skinny he was. ‘Then the next day, they hear me talking fluently to Mauro, and, boy, were their faces red,’ Andretti says, doubling over in laughter. However, his racer’s edge sharpens and his voice lowers when reminiscing about Enzo Ferrari. ‘What was so special to me was that I had a one-on-one relationship with Il Commendatore, and that will always remain one of the special events of my life,’ he says, recalling the first time he met the man. ‘It was at the 1,000 km of Monza in 1969, and I was a young driver and I was intimidated,’ he says. ‘He would not mingle or give small talk with the drivers. We looked at him like era come Il Papa, like he was the Pope.’

The breakthrough moment for Andretti came after he had damaged the nose of the car on the circuit’s high banking. ‘I was so scared when I came in,’ says Andretti. ‘But he gave me a smile, as if to say “No big deal.” I felt that at least he knew I was a racer; that I was going flat out. So that smile from him, that was golden. It was so important because we revered him so much. He was our teacher.’ Andretti would have yet another shining F1 moment with Ferrari in 1982, when he substituted for an injured Didier Pironi. Invited to test the extremely competitive 126 C2 at Ferrari’s Fiorano test track on a Saturday, Andretti recalls logging nearly 90 laps and setting the track record. ‘I gave the mechanics Sunday off. When I buzzed by the track that day with my wife Dee Ann on my Moto Guzzi, there was a huge crowd waiting to see me test, but I was done,’ he says with a shake of his curly grey locks. ‘I took third that race.’ Andretti recalls being invited back years later to Maranello along with all the other living Ferrari drivers. ‘It wasn’t long before [Enzo Ferrari] passed, and it was so special,’ he says. ‘It was the first time I saw him, you know, really moved.

He said, “It’s because of you that Ferrari is what it is today.” Which is not true, it’s the whole team, but he gave the drivers the credit. It was such a precious moment. And that was the last time I saw him.’ The 1980s saw Andretti dominate in Indy Cars (1984 marked his fourth national championship) as well as drive with son Michael, both at Le Mans 24 Hours, where in 1983 they finished third, and at Indy Car events (they were the first father-son front row at the 1986 Phoenix Indy Car race, a familial feat they would repeat 10 times by the end of the decade). Such statistics have elevated Andretti from famous to legendary in the eyes of many racing experts. ‘No one comes close to Mario when it comes to the variety of races he took on and won, from stock cars to dirt tracks, to ovals to F1, often some in the same weekend,’ says Donald Davidson, track historian at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. ‘And through all his success, he’s always been so amazingly courteous with teams, fans and the media. A true gentleman of racing.’ That career has rewarded Andretti both emotionally and financially. And, through the years, he has treated himself to a number of fine automobiles, including Ferraris. ‘I had a Boxer in 1984, but before that I had a 1972 Daytona, which I should have kept, knowing what they’re now worth,’ he says with a whistle. ‘My wife was so in love with that car. I traded it in with [US dealer] Luigi Chinetti on a Dino. My wife almost killed me, but that’s another long story. I guess I’ve had four or five Ferraris, but right now my car is a Corvette ZR1.’ The F12berlinetta is about to do its best to break up that automotive relationship. Race mode engaged, Andretti almost smokes the wide Michelins as he rips down the winery’s narrow driveway and brakes hard before making a quick right down a country road. Inside the car, which is awash in leather, Alcantara and carbon fibre, Andretti seems pleased. ‘It’s lovely, about what I expected,’ he says. ‘It’s my first time in an F12berlinetta, but I can tell I’d have no problem putting it through its paces knowing that it’s been well-engineered and well balanced. This sort of power [730hp] can be dangerous if you don’t know what you’re doing, but there are lots of electronic aids there to assist.’ The racing driver is never far from the Sunday driver in Andretti. He praises the F12berlinetta’s ‘docile nature’ as an everyday road car, but laments that he doesn’t have the machine on a track or on a winding Napa Valley road free of police cruisers.

You must stay with your passions. That’ll keep your juices running
There’s a slow car in front of the F12berlinetta, and Andretti spots an opportunity to pass. He flicks the left carbon-fibre paddle shifter twice and the Ferrari rockets past the offending vehicle in a blink. If you think the veteran driver might prefer a manual transmission, you’d be mistaken. ‘I have always loved technology,’ he says. ‘And it’s exactly the same here with this road car. These technological leaps make you more proficient as a driver. I like the paddles, and having everything, including the blinkers, on the steering wheel. It makes it feel just like an F1 car.’ Enough talk. There’s suddenly some clear road ahead and Andretti’s eyes narrow. His right foot dips into the throttle and the endless acres of vines start to blur. The joy in Andretti’s face is unmistakably childlike, a flashback to the teenager who saw Ascari at Monza and suddenly envisioned his life’s mission. One is reminded of something Andretti said when we were together back at the winery: ‘I am out of the cockpit, yes, but I have not really retired. I’ll never retire and just go fishing, it’s not me. I have to satisfy myself by continuing to be productive, whether that’s with my business interests or driving a two seater [Indy Car] at events. You must stay with your passions. As my friend Paul Newman always used to say, “That’ll keep your juices running.”’

From issue n° 23 yearbook 2013

To get more of The Official Ferrari Magazine mix of people, lifestyle, arts and culture: Subscribe now