Mario Andretti happy to refuel open-wheel interest
Racing has been Mario Andretti's life. It's given him success and a comfortable lifestyle.
One way Andretti repaid the sport was playing a prominent role in the merger earlier this year of the Indy Racing League and the Champ Car series.
Following the split between sanctioning organizations in the mid-1990s, interest in IndyCar racing in the United States declined. NASCAR seized the opportunity and soared to No. 1 in popularity.
Three years ago, Andretti said he brought the IRL's Tony George and Champ Car's Kevin Kalkhoven together for their first meeting. Among others attending the meeting at Andretti's home in Nazareth, Pa., was actor Paul Newman. He had been a longtime co-owner of Andretti's IndyCar team when he was winning 52 races.
Roger Penske, the most successful team owner in IndyCar racing, also is credited with moving along the merger.
Seated at a table adjacent to his office in his luxurious and spacious home on Monday, Andretti said that he and Newman "expressed ourselves quite vividly during the breakup, to the point of maybe offending some people and losing some friends."
"There were three other very meaningful meetings. One was [just with] Tony, Kevin and myself spent 2 days in Aspen [Colo.]. All this was top secret. A lot of key issues were resolved. One issue was Kevin Kalkhoven agreeing to allow Tony to be CEO of the new company. That was quite a concession [by] Kevin."
Andretti, 68, believes that George, also the president and CEO of Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and Kalkhoven, who made a fortune in the technology business, listened to him because they needed someone they trusted. Andretti also kept George and Kalkhoven in touch with reality.
"I'm on the road 18 to 20 days a month," he said. "People express themselves [to him]. I told [George and Kalkhoven] that fans won't say to you what they say to me. Ninety percent of them tell you what you want to hear."
Referring to the merger, Andretti said: "Obviously, it was necessary to save what used to be the premier discipline in motor racing in America. Now, there's a whole new wave of enthusiasm. Now you have some story lines - Graham Rahal winning the first race [since the merger], Danica Patrick winning in Japan and such great competition at Indianapolis."
Andretti said he played an active behind-the-scenes role because of his affection for open-wheel racing. He is the only racer to win a Formula One championship, the Indianapolis 500 and the Daytona 500.
Andretti also wants his grandson, Marco, to enjoy a racing career similar to his.
"The sport of open-wheel has been my life," Andretti said. "I know it's done for me and my family. To see it diminish in any way was heartbreaking.
"Marco's career was another motivating factor. I have family continuing [in racing]. I know how good it can be when it's right. They were being cheated. Now they have it back."
Andretti is hopeful that Indy cars will return to Pocono Raceway. Through the 1970s, the Indy cars, with Andretti, A.J. Foyt and the Unser brothers, were the big show at Pocono. After the split, however, IndyCar racing never regained its fan base in the Mid-Atlantic area.
"My preferred track to drive was always Pocono, as far as total satisfaction," he said. "It was also the toughest track to drive. I know a lot of drivers felt the same way.
"A lot of the ovals NASCAR is on are perfect for them, because they need banking to show speed and get side-by-side racing. [Indy cars] don't need banking. Pocono, like Indy, is the only superspeedway that offers that." Philly.com