Mario Andretti meets the press at Road America

 by Paul Josephson
August 1, 2003

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Mario Andretti talks to media at Road America
Photo by Mark Cipolloni

Adam Saal, CART’s Vice President of Communications, introduced racing legend Mario Andretti to a group of reporters underneath the tent by the Administration Building today at Road America. The race, now called the Mario Andretti Grand Prix of Road America Presented by Briggs and Stratton, has been rejuvenated, thanks to Mario’s efforts in bringing together both sides, CART and Road America, to have the race at America’s premier road course.

Mario started by saying he’s been beating this drum for quite some time, but that he has never felt like he does today. He said many fans have approached him already and thanked him for bringing the race back to Road America. “Real fans will support road racing,” Mario said, but he went on to say that CART must cultivate not just street races, but other tracks like Road America that have been with CART for awhile.

Before getting involved in negotiations between both parties, Mario said that each side had a compelling argument for taking the race off the schedule. He said his involvement started during a California radio show, Speedfreaks, several months ago, where he was a guest. The response to possibly bringing the Road America race back was overwhelming after that show. He then went to Chris Pook and asked if Chris would entertain discussions about bringing the race back. Mario said that Pook had to think about it for awhile because of some legal issues separating the two sides, but felt that it would be important to the fans to have it back on the schedule. When Mario approached Road America’s senior management, they said that they would love to have the race back. So for the next 12-15 days, Mario participated in intense negotiations that went back and forth and got the legal issues cleaned up first. He said that, “The response from the fans was heartwarming,” once the negotiations were completed.

Mario Andretti greets the fans at Road America
Photo by LAT/CART

When asked about how he felt about having the race named after him, Mario said that it wasn’t in his radar; he really wanted to have a good paying sponsor for the race. Although the agreement is only for this year and next, he said that if the event is successful (meaning a good turnout on Sunday), then “two years can be twenty.” He continued by saying that it’s not just the fans, but the drivers and team members as well who said they love being here, so that was additional payback he has received about the race being put back on the schedule.

Mark Cipolloni asked about the impact of Road America on CART’s heritage. Mario said that CART is a product that is unique – it has street events, permanent road courses, and ovals. “This is what CART is all about.” Mario thinks that Chris Pook has backed off a bit about building the series around street courses, by saying that “I’m not sure you can hang your hat on tents alone – they’re temporary. Events like Denver and Miami haven’t carried themselves yet.” Mario felt it’s necessary to remember places like Laguna Seca, Portland and other places that have given CART its heritage. “CART needs to stay a diversified series.”

When asked about his most memorable race at Road America, Mario said it was 1983. The Newman/Haas team entered a Lola that year that Mario drove. He said that the car was awful at Indy earlier that year – he said it aged him about 15 years (laughter) – but by the time Road America came up, the team had worked really hard to improve the car. Mario was really surprised at the improvement and won the race. That year, the CEO of Beatrice Foods, came to the race as a casual fan and left very impressed. Shortly afterward, Beatrice became a major sponsor for Newman/Haas from that race.

Mario said that the track at Road America is very fast. “Drivers have to be disciplined, but they get more satisfaction driving it than other tracks.” Mario said, “It’s terminal speed, three times a lap.” However, even with the loss of horsepower this year, it hasn’t made that much of a difference in lap times – only a few seconds. “CART has a good formula” with this year’s cars.

When asked about whether he was optimistic that the ChampCar Series would survive, Mario cautiously said that there is a lot of dialogue right now, but that “we’ll have some positive answers in the next few weeks; (CART’s) assets are strong.”

Mark asked Mario for his opinion about the new one-lap qualifications for Formula 1. Mario said that “it was an overreaction to a problem, but that it was a good thing for the smaller teams. The onus is on the drivers to be at the limit, rather than making a mistake” (and being sent down on the grid).  He said it’s up to the driver. Although such qualifying is a first in road racing, Mario said he “wasn’t sure we need it. We have a level field, unlike F1.” He was later asked more about it and said that such qualifying could work in CART. “In Formula 1, they did it for a different reason” because of the dominance of three teams. “I’m not sure if it would change things a lot (if it were done in CART). The equipment is the same; the drivers make the difference.”

When asked about Paul Tracy’s situation and his comments of late, Mario said that we shouldn’t pay too much attention to what Paul says “in the heat of battle.” Mario said he’s been there as a driver and can understand what’s sometimes said. Mario, for one, admitted that he’s not concerned about being politically correct when making statements, as long as you’re not offensive to someone.

A reporter asked about restarting his career. Mario said he “has no illusions about restarting it.” Regarding his test at Indy a few months ago, Mario said he did it for two reasons. First, his son Michael was in a precarious situation in that he had a driver that banged up. Mario felt he could provide an insurance policy. Secondly, he said,  “You have an idiot (Mario) in the family, so why not?” (Laughter.). Mario said that he has logged 60,000 miles between testing and racing at Indy over the years, so he knows the track well. He said he “could be competitive immediately.” The Indy car he drove was prepared well, and he was able to quickly get back up to speed. Mario said, “It felt good and replenished my spirit. It was a great day – no regrets, except I owe Michael a car.” He quipped that he’d pay Michael back at $35 a week. (Laughter.)

With that, Adam interjected that the announcement about Road America was made the next day. Mario continued Adam’s comment by saying that this race was something new because of the media tour that included visits to Milwaukee and Chicago. Now that the race has been rejuvenated, Mario said it’s nice to talk about it, but that “it’s up to everyone to roll up their sleeves, not just CART” to promote CART and the races. “It’s a competitive world. The more noise you make, the better people can plan.” Mario emphasized the importance of having the same venues with the same dates, so that people can make plans, not only for the current year but also into the future years. “It’s important to maintain stability in the schedule. I cringe when I see dates changed around; there’s a lot of sense in maintaining a schedule.”

Yours truly asked his opinion about standing starts. Mario said he has always loved standing starts, even on ovals, “but with no traction control!” (Laughter). Adam interjected that CART is reviewing this option.

With that, Adam thanked Mario for his time as Mario’s schedule is very hectic this weekend, and the press conference concluded.

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