Q&A with Mario Andretti on Austin, Formula One, IndyCar and more
It’s hard to think of a bigger name in American motorsports than Mario Andretti. It seems everybody knows his name, including people who aren’t race fans.
It helps that he’s had such a storied career: Four-time IndyCar champion, 1978 Formula One world champion, victories at the Indy 500 and Daytona 500, plus in endurance racing and more. Not to mention records in laps lead, race starts, pole positions — the list of accolades goes on and on.
Andretti, 72, who continues to be involved with motorsports long after his days as a racer, was today announced as official ambassador for Circuit of the Americas, a racetrack under construction in southeastern Travis County.
The circuit is scheduled to host Formula One races in November and Australian V8 Supercars and American Le Mans series races starting next year. Tickets for the first Formula One race, scheduled for Nov. 16 through 18, go on sale tomorrow.
Andretti toured the facility Thursday before flying to Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth for IndyCar’s Firestone 500 tonight.
I spoke to Andretti this morning before he headed out to the Texas oval. Although soft-spoken and humble, his passion for motorsports is evident, particularly in the emphasis he places certain words and his deep understanding of the sport. We touched on several things, mostly the Austin circuit but also IndyCar. Below is a Q&A:
Describe your role as official ambassador at the Austin circuit.
I don’t know. What do official ambassadors do? (Laughs) Well, obviously I’m going to work closely with the activities, with what’s going on and stay totally informed. Throughout the last year or so, when the project started, I’ve been bombarded by questions from media all over the world — because I know them and they know I’m here (in the U.S.) — and quite honestly, I wasn’t very well informed, which didn’t bode well with them or for me. So we started talking with them some time ago, and when things started really aligning themselves, I said, “Now I need to come down there and see myself, with my own eyes, what’s going on and get more in-depth with the plans and everything.” And this is what I did. And I feel really good about what’s going on down there. I mean, anything that can be an asset to our sport is something that I certainly get behind. And this is definitely going to be that, no question about it, from a standpoint of having, finally, a venue that can compete against the rest of the world as far as infrastructure and presentation. So it’s definitely going to be a destination point for years to come, no question about it. I met all the principals involved and, all I can say is I’m quite impressed.
How much of the circuit were you able to see? What did you do during your visit?
I did little of everything. They took me everywhere and explained everything that’s going on. I had seen the plans before so I was quite familiar with that, so now was the time to see the real thing: the buildings, the progress being made and even spoke with the contractor in charge, just for curiosity sake — it’s not my position to judge that side of it. They had everything available to me, and I was curious about how they’re planning, so, you know, it seems they have their arms around it. There’s a lot of work to do, no question, but they are working.
Obviously Turn 1 is impressive, particularly when you’re standing at it, but is there any other part of the circuit that stood out?
I’m going to have to see about that. It’s no use now, until I actually get on it, but I can’t see how it would not be interesting. A 3.4-mile course, I’ve seen the layout, it’s gotta be good. To me it looks like it’s going to be a nice rhythm course. I only ran on the paved surfaces now — which basically I was in Silverstone (laughs). I’ll have plenty of opportunity. As soon as the asphalt is laid out I’ll be one of the first ones to get on there. Obviously I’m going to have my own opinion on it, and I’ll express it.
Is there anything organizers can do now or in the future to ensure that the race is a success long-term?
I think they’re trying to do everything that’s possible. I’ve been in very close touch with (Formula One supremo) Bernie Ecclestone, and everything seems to be good there. As soon as I start the race here tonight (at Texas Motor Speedway) with the two-seater, I’m going to Montreal. I’ll be there with everyone in Montreal, and we’re going to be having another meeting with Bernie and obviously he’s going to be picking my brain. But it seems like everything seems to be good on that front. I can tell you this, that I guarantee you that Formula One will embrace just a quality facility that Austin will have as a solid base for Formula One in the future.
What can be done to increase Formula One’s audience in the United States?
They’re doing it. You have to have two things. One, you have to have the theater, and the other one you have to have stability — you know, something to look forward to. In my opinion, it’s going to encourage participation from U.S. drivers, and maybe more U.S. drivers that have dreams of being in Formula One will probably have some opportunity. They will probably also have some sponsors getting behind them. The basis is to have a facility that can actually be here for the future, now and forever. This is not just putting down a tent in the ground that can be picked up the next day. This is there to stay. So once it’s done, we have a place. Formula One wants to be in the U.S., no question. The teams do, the sponsors do, and we want it. This type of presence can only help keep expanding the interest, and I think the Formula One base in the U.S. is grossly underestimated anyway.
You’ve driven circuits all over the word, what in your mind separates a good circuit from a great one?
A great circuit has elevation, it’s got to have some features such as that, and overtaking, that’s what driver’s like, and that’s what the fans like. You know, you gotta see action. And they’ve got really at least three real good overtaking points on the design of the (Austin) circuit. Can you do better? Maybe some things will have to be maybe redone a little bit, but going in the design to me looks good.
Can you go into details about what can be done better?
Let’s wait until everything is done and assess it then. You know, maybe all of us will have some opinions, and they will be expressed. Going in, I have no criticism at all.
IndyCar races at Texas Motor Speedway tonight, the first high-banked, 1.5-mile circuit since Las Vegas, where Dan Wheldon was killed in a crash last year. Would you have any trepidation if you were racing this weekend?
No concerns about safety?
I mean, we’ve been here before, and I think what happened in Las Vegas is a terrible fluke, if you will. I think poor Dan Wheldon was just caught into the perfect storm. And let’s face it, a lot of people have a tendency to dwell on that, but, you’re not safe going to work every day 100 percent. So no matter how much effort goes into the safety of either the tracks and of the cars, you’re unfortunately going to look at a potential incident like we’ve seen. And that’s the name of the game. The only thing we can do is maintain the safety in focus as a work in progress, and we are and continue to do better and better. But I like to say that the cars they’re running today are better protected than the cars they were running last week, so we’ve made progress even there already. If I were driving in this race, I’d have no trepidation whatsoever.
Do you think reducing downforce plus the new chassis are enough for driver safety
You can always keep improving. They’ve reduced some downforce, which I think is good. It puts some more of the driving back in the cockpit, and maybe they’ll be spread out a little more. The more downforce you have the more encouragement to be two inches apart and wheel-to-wheel and three abreast. I think they’re going in the right direction. Is it perfect? Probably not, but you just keep working it.
Do you think it’s possible IndyCar could run at Austin?
Oh yeah, absolutely. That’s the other thing, you know, it’s not just Formula One. If you listen to the plans that they have, this is a destination. The plans here are for this facility to be operating year-round with activities and other racing. They want to keep this thing working 24-7, so to speak. They’re very ambitious, and I’m impressed by that.
If you could bring back any aspect of racing from when you drove, from any era or series, what would it be? Regulations, systems on the car, circuits ….
I always look forward. I don’t look back. Everything had its time and its day. I think we’ve progressed, and I think we’re victims of our own success, to some degree. By that I mean technology is such that the sport is so regulated so you have more of a cookie-cutter situation. There was a little bit more diversity back even 10, 12 years ago. It is what it is. The sport is forever evolving. I like new things, and I love technology, and I think was was, and we’re looking forward with what we have today.
Is there any aspect of motorsports today you would change?
There’s always something. Sometimes I think the officials take on a bit more responsibility on their own to officiate and police certain things. And then there’s an argument that if something is so flagrant and dangerous you need to pay attention to it. So there’s different trains of thought. But whenever you give officials that authority, there’s going to be some bad calls. So the world is never perfect, but is everybody trying to make it the best way possible? Yes.
Many of our readers are still learning Formula One and are curious about it. How would you describe the sport to somebody who’s curious about it?
I think it’s clearly the most technical form of motorsports today. The fact that each team is an individual manufacturer. And the part that’s most fascinating, is you have machines that are so different from one another, but when it comes to performance they’re less than a tenth apart. That to me is totally fascinating. That’s what I loved about Formula One. It’s the purest form of the sport, no question about it. The cars are just engineering marvels, and the sound, the looks, everything about it. How quick they are. It’s any driver’s dream.
Who’s your pick for Formula One world champion this year?
Gosh, I mean, there’s no way I can pick one. It’s been a fascinating season again. It looks like Ferrari is starting to look a little better. Even in Montreal it looks like they’re up there. I don’t think you can count anybody out. Now McLaren is really showing their thing and Ferrari and then you have, you know, Williams sticking in there, so I don’t have a pick yet. I really don’t.
Do you have a pick for IndyCar champion?
Not yet. Not there either.
Photos: CircuitoftheAmericas. Above: Andretti with circuit Executive Vice President Bruce Knox, left, and investor Bobby Epstein.