Mario Andretti is one of the most decorated race car drivers in the history of motorsport. His astonishing career spanned several categories, yielding World Championship titles in Formula One and IndyCar, as well as victories at the prestigious Indianapolis 500, Daytona 500 and the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
He is also one of only two drivers to have won races in F1, NASCAR, IndyCar and the World Sportscar Championship (now WEC). But while Andretti’s accomplishments in racing all came as an American citizen, his journey started in Montona, Istria; the once Italian village which now lies inside Croatia.
In an exclusive feature for Mobil 1 The Grid, the 78-year-old describes his early life as a refugee following the post-WWII Istrian exodus, his family’s subsequent journey from Italy to the United States, and the ever-growing Andretti family legacy, which started with a special bond with his twin brother, Aldo.
We arrived in the United States in June, 1955. The motor racing season was in full swing.
Soon after settling, my brother Aldo and I went to our uncle’s house. In the background, there were bright lights. Then, we heard the roar of engines. It was the sound of stock cars.
Aldo and I looked at each other, and we just ran towards where the noise was. It was about a mile away. We peeked through the fence and saw these brute looking things.
When we moved from Italy, we thought, ‘Oh God! There goes our dream’. We didn’t know very much about what was going on with motor racing in the U.S. But all of a sudden, we were thinking, ‘You know what? America probably won’t be so bad after all…’
I have great memories of my early years. And I still dream about Montona.
I remember Aldo and I had a gentleman build a little buggy for us to play with. We used to race down a nearby hill and just raise hell. I don’t know why we did it. My family didn’t even have a car.
A few years later, at the refugee camp in Lucca, there was a garage, where they not only repaired cars, but also allowed parking inside the walls. Many of the merchants and businesspeople would come in and park there. We used to hang around there a lot.
Aldo and I regularly went to the movies where, during the intermissions, they had news and sports reels. In Italy, with the likes of Ferrari and Maserati, racing always featured first. I would go to the movies just to watch the reels about Formula 1. I totally fell in love with it.
Two years after arriving in the U.S., aged 17, Aldo, myself and four other buddies started building a race car, so that we could race locally. And two years after that, aged 19, Aldo and I started racing.
For our first season, in 1959, we had one race car and two drivers, so we had to alternate. He would drive one week, and I would drive the other! As twins, we pretty much thought the same way. Then Aldo got hurt, and he took a sabbatical for the following season.
By mid-season, he was itching to get back in the car. He kept begging me, but I said, ‘You’ve got to wait…’ They used to have heat races, and a break before the feature race at the local track. I asked the promoter if he would let Aldo take a few laps with my car to shake a few cobwebs off, and he permitted that. But then Aldo went out and destroyed my car!
We were actually underage when we started racing. If my father had known that we were going to race, he would have stopped it. So the first season that we raced, he didn’t know, and he only found out when Aldo had got hurt.
As brothers, we didn’t allow anything to stand in our way. That’s how strong our desire was to pursue a career in motor racing. I felt that I was born to do this. Period.
Aldo had some interruptions, and was eventually forced to retire. I was very fortunate and blessed. My career just went uninterrupted.
Quite honestly, throughout my career, I was fortunate enough to dodge many bullets along the way. I only missed two races because of injury, out of 896 races.
At the start, my objective was to get into single-seaters as soon as possible. And I always had Formula 1 in my head, because that’s where my love for the sport began.
At Indianapolis, in 1965, I befriended Colin Chapman and Jim Clark. I finished third at the 500, and was crowned Rookie of the Year. At the banquet, the day after the race, I said to Colin, ‘Someday, I’d like to do Formula 1’. He responded, ‘Mario, when you think you’re ready, just call me. I’ll have a car for you’.
I will never forget that. It gave me so much energy at that point.
In 1968, when I called Colin, he said, ‘Right, we’ll do the last two races of the season, at Monza and Watkins Glen’. At Monza, we went and did a first test. It was the first time I ever drove a Formula 1 car, and I actually set a quicker time than Chris Amon had done a week before in a Ferrari.
On the Saturday of the Grand Prix weekend, I had to return to the U.S. to race at a dirt track in Indianapolis, because I was going for the championship. I got back to Monza for the race, but they wouldn’t let me start, due to the rule which prohibited two races in a 24-hour period. I had my car on the grid, in seventh position, despite only qualifying on the Friday morning. Officials were going to waive it, but Ferrari protested.
So my full debut was at Watkins Glen, where I put the car on pole position, next to Jackie Stewart.
I went on to satisfy most of my ambitious goals in motor racing. You have the love and the passion for something, and then you have that desire to go and do it. It’s something that’s either in your gut or it’s not.
My son, Michael, is also so ambitious in this sport. He had a brilliant career in IndyCar. And today, he is thriving as a team owner. He fields cars in different disciplines and different divisions, and now he’s eyeballing Formula 1.
I keep hoping that my grandson, Marco, can win more races in IndyCar. I know he has the talent. It just has to happen in the right way for him, to gain all the confidence that is necessary. Sometimes, we’re late bloomers.
Even on my brother’s side, we have third-generation drivers there. My nephew, John, and John’s son, Jarett. And Aldo’s other son, Adam, is still dabbling in it. So the sport has been very important to us as a family.
Aldo and I started this whole mess. And for that, I feel very proud.
Images courtesy of IndyCar, Getty Images and Mario Andretti/Andretti Family Collection.