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Latest News and Commentary

Mario 'Piedone' Andretti, Driver of the Century
by Lino Manocchia
January 16, 2002

Italian journalist Lino Manocchia followed Mario Andretti's career from the early 60's to the early 90's, when he finally retired from active competition.  Lino last sat down with Mario at Fontana last year, and in this article he talks about what he remembers most about Mario 'Piedone' Andretti.

A much younger Mario Andretti.  This photo adorned the cover of Indy Car magazine and was taken in 1965, Andretti's rookie year at Indy.  The handsome Andretti, was very popular with the ladies.

A burning desire to win. A desire so deep, so absolute, so passionate, to reach the top. Mario Gabriel Andretti knew no other way. He was that way when he was a rookie at Indy, and he was that way when, at the ripe old age of 38 (old by F1 standards) he became Formula 1 champion of the world. 

Mario's 'way of life' is American, but his heritage remains attached to the land near Trieste, Italy. Although he's very proud to be an American, his heritage is important to the great Andretti. Always remembered by the racing fans, he was clear choice as "Driver of the Century" by the American Media. 

"I came to United States, when I was a teenager because of international politics" explains Mario. "I was born in Montona, near Trieste, before the 2nd World War. My father became administrator of a factory. He inherited some land in Istria and financially we were pretty well off." "It seemed like we had a fortune back in that difficult time. My family exported wine and flour. Then, after the war, unexpectedly, the Yugoslavs arrived and they took everything, including our financial savings." 

"We escaped to Lucca (Tuscany), and we lived in a refugee camp where we remained from 1948 till 1955." Then the Andretti family, with papa' Gigi and mamma Rina, who still leaves in Nazareth, PA, moved to the USA and settled down in Nazareth in Eastern Pennsylvania. 

With his wide Dee Ann after winning the 1969 Indy 500 driving a Brawner Hawk Ford 

Thanks to Mario's racing success, Nazareth became famous around the world, and in appreciation, the town renamed the street on which he has lived for more than 30 years, 'Victory lane.'

"Since I was young, auto racing and the great drivers always attracted me", confesses Mario, "and my idol was Alberto Ascari. I am convinced that from birth, race drivers possess the desire to race, the skill to drive car, the other instincts and quality of racing.. "The passion and will to win is in a driver's genes. The character necessary to become a professional race driver cannot be taught." 

"Among the many pieces of advice I have given to my children, I always emphasized that they should not be overly aggressive. Back in 1970 I was driving everything that was offer to me, sprint cars, Indy cars, Formula cars, sports cars. They were not always good cars and I learned how to control my aggression." 

Then Mario reflects and asks himself "which is more important, the talent to drive or the determination to win?" He never answered, but the results speak for themselves. 

Mario remembers, with a touch of sadness, the twist of fate that ended the career of his twin brother Aldo, who retired after a bad accident in 1969. "Probably, if destiny didn't intervene in Aldo's career, today the racing world would count my brother among the great champions, like the Unser's." 

Mario's Formula 1 championship in 1978 is something that has a deep emotional impact on Andretti. "I don't' know if I can describe what the Formula 1 World Champion means to me" Andretti said. 

Colin Chapman, Mario Andretti and Clint Brawner at Indy in 1969 

But history shows that the 1978 championship was nothing short of a motorsport miracle. The association between Andretti and Colin Chapman, the design genius and owner of Team Lotus, resulted in a rebirth for both driver and team. Lotus, which had reached the summit of motorsports by winning the Indy 500 with Jimmy Clark in 1965 and claimed F.1 titles with Clark, Graham Hill, Jochen Rindt and Emerson Fittipaldi, had become a laughing a stock in the sport in the mid-70's. 

When Fittipaldi switched from Lotus to Team McLaren in 1974, Lotus fell into a deep slump, and the team even missed some races because it was in such disarray.

Together, though, Andretti and Chapman rebuilt Team Lotus, getting together in 1976 and winning the season-ending Japanese Grand Prix, taking four wins in 1977 and winning six races and the F.1 crown in 1978. 

Today Mario is 62, (born February 28, 1940) but he doesn't yet consider himself a retiree. His right foot, which has not been used aggressively for more than half decade, is still strong. 

And what of this nickname "Piedone"? Back in 1964, Mario was racing at the oval al Trenton, N.J., his first race in an Indy Car. Regular drivers included the likes of A.J. Foyt, -Roger McClusky and Johnny Rutherford. Clark and his Lotus-Ford also competed this day as a warm-up to the Indy 500. Clark started seventh but dropping out with mechanical problems. Afterwards, this reporter asked the famous Scot, "what do you think of that rookie Mario Andretti?. "He has a heavy foot" was the answer. Translated into Italian, 'heavy foot' means 'Piedone'. From that day, whenever I saw Mario l called him 'Piedone'. 


Andretti drove the Holman & Moody Ford Fairlane to victory at Daytona in 1967 

In his day, if a car had wheels, Mario was interested in driving it. "Stock cars always attracted me" Andretti said. "In 1967, I told Bill France Sr, who was someone for whom I had a great amount of respect, that I intended to participate in his classic Daytona 500 race in Florida. He was great gentleman, and he really opened his arms to make me feel comfortable in Daytona, but the rest of the stock car community was not quite as inviting.

"I never forget winning the Daytona 500 that year. Late in the race, I came into the pits leading. Fred Lorenzen, my teammate came in after me, but the people at Ford let him go out seven seconds before me because they wanted him to win. 

With Miss America 1967 after winning the 67 Daytona 500 

Lorenzen was their top driver and I was a guest driver for Ford because they supplied engines to my Indy car team. Once I returned to the track, I chased him down and we had a battle, but finally I passed him. It was difficult because Lorenzen was a master of drafting. With three laps to go, we were coming down in the straightaway to lap Tiny Lund, who signaled me to pass on the right. Instead, I passed him on the left, on the inside, which surprised Lorenzen. He hesitated and passed Lund on the outside and that caused him to drop back a little. That was all I needed to break the draft. From that moment, the race was mine." 

The "Good Ol' Boys" weren't very happy about Andretti's win, and victory lane ceremonies were strangely lacking in enthusiasm. But it didn't matter to Mario. 

MICHAEL "the son" 
Being a father of a race driver has not always been easy for Mario. "Although I kept track of Michael's early races, I had some uncomfortable feelings when he enter the cockpit. The same thought kept coming to me:" is Michael safe in that car? Does he have the ability to be a race driver?" 

The decision to become a race driver was his. He was 16 when he went to Belgium to try the Andre Pilette driving school. Now, Michael is a complete driver in every sense, but back then we didn't know and I was worried about his safety. He demonstrated that he has the talent and the desire to win and be a champion. He only needed the luck and opportunity." 

Mario got is own lucky break that day at Trenton when was asked to substitute for 1952 Indy 500 champ Troy Rutman, a giant compared to the diminutive Andretti at well over six-feet tall. As a rookie without previous testing, Mario lapped the unfamiliar car at competitive speeds and topped 180 mph on the straights. 

"Often I ask myself: was I crazy or just ignorant of the risk?"   "But I was young and the roadster attracted me so much. However, looking back it was so dangerous. We even ran without any safety harness." 

The record of Mario of Nazareth is rich with success, victory, and glamour that has resulted in respect and appreciation from the fans and the competitors all over the world. It's possible that this year, for the last time we will see Mario Andretti at Le Mans with a "special" Audi car in an attempt to win the only major race that doesn't appear in his golden book of victory. It's not definite yet, but Mario is trying to put the deal together with Audi.

With the exception of this race, Mario truly has won all there is to win. "This type of race" Mario says, is exciting for me. Racing for a full 24-hours against strong and worthy rivals who all want to win. For sure, the race is not going to be a walk in the park, and I need to be well prepared for the physical challenge of endurance racing." 



Driving the Ferrari 312B to his first F1 win at Kyalami in 1971 

Mario has driven many types of Ferrari cars, including F1, but it was the Lotus 79 that made him champion in 1978. Yet Enzo Ferrari, who built the cars raced by his idol Ascari, played a major role in Mario's early F1 career. Mario won his first Grand Prix in South Africa in 1971 driving a Ferrari 312B, and later won twice in the doubleheader Questor GP, winning both heats over Jackie Stewart in a Tyrell.

After leaving F1 as a full time driver in 1981, it was Ferrari that provided a fitting end to his F1 career in 1982. The Ferrari team called Mario and asked him to substitute for the injured Didier Pironi, who was leading the F1 point championship at the time, but would be unable to race for the rest of the year after a serious crash in German Grand Prix. 

Though very fast, the Ferrari 126 was also dangerous, having taken the life of the fan favorite Gilles Villeneuve earlier in the year in Belgium. Arriving at the Ferrari factory at Maranello, Andretti was greeted with a gigantic luncheon, before getting into the cockpit. "The man from Nazareth" after just three laps, destroyed the lap record of the Fiorano test track. 

Mario 'Piedone' Andretti  driving the Ferrari 126 at Fiorano, where he shattered the lap record after just 3 laps, at the ripe old age of 42.

In Monza for the Italian Grand Prix, Mario put the red car on pole position after an amazing qualifying lap and the Italian crowd went wild. They still talk about it in Italy. In the race he finished third after a sticky throttle took away any chance of winning. 

In his book "Piloti che Gente" Enzo Ferrari wrote about the various champions who had driven his race cars. He had this to say about Mario, "The kid from Montona was a courageous, generous and serious professional. For many years it was impossible for me to hire him because he made a lot of money in the USA and he hesitated to return in Europe. I thought of him as the next Niki Lauda (who won the F.1 championship for Ferrari in 1975, and again two seasons later). Mario won the world championship, but regrettably not in a Ferrari." "Born in Istria he is the idol of America. The glory of Indianapolis is also with him. Andretti is a champion in the pure sense of the word. We still keep in touch." 

With opinions like this, from a legend like Ferrari, it is easy to see why Mario "Piedone" Andretti is considered the Driver of the Century. 

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