PRESCOTT VALLEY, Arizona – The legend of world champion pro racecar driver Mario Andretti endures two decades after his retirement, and that was apparent here Friday afternoon, March 20.
For nearly two hours Andretti, 75, visited with fans and signed autographs at Sun Valley Tire & Auto Service, 8337 E. Highway 69, as part of the "Salute to Heroes" event, which will donate its proceeds to programs and services for military veterans through the U.S. Veterans Initiative.
The two-day gathering concludes today, March 21, with activities scheduled at 1 and 6 p.m. at Prescott Valley Event Center.
On Friday, a Firestone Indy car, a Bigfoot monster truck, a local fire truck and an Air Force F-16 cockpit simulator were scheduled to make appearances at Sun Valley Tire, and yet Andretti, an American icon, was the main attraction.
By late morning, some 50 to 100 people stood in a single-file line on a bright-and-sunny first day of spring for the chance to get their photo taken with Andretti, shake his hand and receive an autograph.
These days, Andretti is a spokesman for Firestone, a tire company with which he's been associated for the past four decades. On Friday, he wore a Firestone shirt and promoted the company under a tent next to Sun Valley Tire, which he said is "a valued customer" of the brand.
A longtime test driver with Firestone, Andretti helped develop the racing tire that resulted in many of his most notable achievements, including winning NASCAR's Daytona 500 in 1967 and Indy Car's Indianapolis 500 in 1969, his official biography states.
In his heyday, the versatile Andretti also won the Formula One World Championship and the famed longtime Pikes Peak International Hill Climb in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
A four-time IndyCar National Champion and three-time winner at the 12 Hours of Sebring endurance race in Florida, Andretti was skilled and talented enough to win in sports cars, sprint cars and stock cars.
During a career spanning five decades, from the 1950s to the 1990s, Andretti took the checkered flag 111 times, his biography adds.
Named U.S. Driver of the Year at one point in the 1960s, '70s and '80s, Driver of the Quarter Century in the 1990s, and Driver of the Century by the Associated Press in January 2000, Andretti has long since cemented his legacy.
What follows are excerpts of the Daily Courier's interview with Andretti at the "Salute to Heroes" event.
Q: What connection do you have with U.S. military veterans? How is "Salute to Heroes" related to your appearance in Prescott Valley?
A: My connection is obviously from the heart in the sense that I have the greatest admiration for veterans. And what they're doing here is something that's so profound. And especially the Vietnam veterans group seems to be forgotten. These are heroes that we should all be so proud of, and it's time to give them their day, their due credit and appreciation. I'm honored to be here because of that.
Q: After you and your family immigrated from Italy to the U.S. and made Nazareth, Pennsylvania, your new home in the mid-1950s, you, your twin brother, Aldo, and some friends built a stockcar, a 1948 Hudson Hornet, and raced it for the first time in March 1959. What do you remember about that car that made it special?
A: That was the beginning for me. At the age of 15 when I arrived (in America) there was a racetrack right there in Nazareth, where I still live now, a half-mile dirt track. And they were racing these stockcars, modifieds and so forth, and I wanted to race. We got a lot of information (on how to build the Hudson) from one of the NASCAR teams. They were racing it, and we did a pretty good job because we started winning right away. That was the car that actually started my career and I never looked back.
Q: In 1969, you not only won the Indy 500, you registered nine wins and five pole positions that season, going on to capture a third IndyCar national title. Was that a turning point in your pro career?
A: My turning point was earlier. In '65 I won the national championship (in IndyCar), the youngest driver to do so. And it was my rookie year at (the) Indy (500), finished third. I was on pole the next two races. In '69, that was the second race that I finished at Indy. I didn't finish in '66, '67, '68. From a career standpoint, it was probably the best-known race in the world, so that was a big launch for me as far as "the awareness," if you will. But career-wise, by '69 I already had three national championships and two seconds. I had won a lot of races by then.
Q: If you were a pro driver today, could you have been as versatile and as successful as you were when you were racing? Could you have transitioned from Endurance to Formula One to Dirt Track to Grand Prix racing and won in each class like you did?
A: I would've, because I had to go up against the wishes of every car owner; that was my main effort. Nobody wanted me to drive for somebody else, you know. But I controlled my own destiny. I created a lot of work for myself, but I wouldn't change a thing for me. There are contract obligations sometimes that can be a conflict. But as a driver, I derive the most satisfaction out of being able to move around and not just race, but also win in different categories that our sport has to offer. When I look back, that was a precious part of my career.
Q: You have some history in Arizona. With your son, Michael, in 1986, you became the first-ever father-son front row in qualifying for the Phoenix IndyCar event. In 1988, you won the 50th IndyCar race of your career in Phoenix. In 1993, you won your 52nd and final IndyCar race at the Phoenix 200. What does this state mean to you personally and professionally?
A: Still I'm the oldest guy to win an IndyCar race (at 53 years old) right here (in this state) in Phoenix. I have probably 100,000 miles (of racing) in Phoenix because we used to do all the tests and development for the Firestone IndyCar tires in Phoenix during the winter. Phoenix was so good for us. I logged so many miles, and I used to love this place. And we had good, positive memories there.
Q: In 1991, you, your sons Michael and Jeff, and nephew John, raced against each other for the first time in the Indy 500. Jeff was named Rookie of the Year, an award you and Michael received in 1965 and 1984, respectively. How are Michael, Jeff and John doing?
A: My son Michael is an owner (of racecars) now after a very good career. He fields four cars in the IndyCar series that won championships – won Indy three times. My grandson, Marco, Michael's son, drives for him. On my twin brother's side, you have John, you have his son, Jarett, and we have Adam (John's brother) also. So we have quite a few of us. We don't know anything else. All we know is racing.
Q: How hard is it to believe that you've been retired from pro racing for 20 years, since 1994? Do you follow any of the current drivers?
A: I drive a two-seater car; it is a Honda program. And that takes me to pretty much all the (IndyCar) races. So I stay close. I follow my grandson (Marco). He's the one that is driving the IndyCars, and that's what his blood is. There's a lot of talent out there to appreciate and to follow. The series is rich of young talent. That's how solid it is. The sport is still very enjoyable for me. It's my life. Doug Cook/Daily Courier