Andretti: Indycar racing competition ‘off the charts’

Mario Andretti
Mario Andretti

One of America's greatest race car drivers was experiencing the icy road conditions in eastern Arkansas on Thursday afternoon, and he wasn't enjoying it.

"It's bad. Really bad, bad," Mario Andretti said during a telephone interview while driving from Memphis toward Little Rock on Interstate 40. "One lane is still covered [with ice], and there are lots of big potholes. The trucks are trying to avoid the holes and they keep coming over. … It's just bad."

After flying into Memphis on Thursday morning, Andretti was driving to Little Rock to attend today's grand opening of the Firestone Complete Auto Care at 7426 Cantrell Rd. He is scheduled to be at the event from 9 a.m. until noon, and there will be an autograph session. There also will be a racing simulator and drawings for prizes.

Andretti, who turned 75 on Saturday, is the only racer to win the Daytona 500 (1967), the Indianapolis 500 (1969) and a Formula One world championship (1978). He also won four Indycar championships, and even though he retired in 1994 he stays close to — and remains quite opinionated about — the sport, and not just because of his son, Michael, who is a car owner, and his grandson, Marco, who is a driver.

"I do criticize when I see things that could be done differently or better, but right now I know that in Indycar racing the competition is off the charts," Andretti said. "Last season, the racing was some of the best I've ever seen. The driver lineup is just so talented. There are some lads that are just phenomenal racers."

Andretti remains steadfast in his dislike for how Tony George mishandled Indycar racing in the 1990s. George is the former president and CEO of Indianapolis Motor Speedway who formed the Indy Racing League in 1996, which split both the open-wheel racing and its fan support.

Many, including Andretti, feel it also gave a significant boost to the popularity of NASCAR stock car racing.

"[Things] done by Tony George remain in a constant state of repair today," Andretti said. "It gave NASCAR a great foothold, and they did a great job taking advantage of that."

Marco Andretti is entering his eighth season driving Indycars and has two career victories, but none since 2011. His grandfather remains confident in Marco's ability and opportunity for success.

"He has a lot of desire and he works really hard at this race craft," Mario Andretti said. "He needs to improve his qualifying, and once he does that you're absolutely going to see more wins. We haven't seen the best of Marco yet."

One thing today's racers are missing, Andretti said, is seat time on the track. In his day, in addition to road courses, various paved ovals and dirt tracks in USAC, drivers would also step into stock cars and sports cars.

"To me, it was a personal thing. I was going to race," Andretti said. "To me, nobody was going to affect my destiny. As long as I didn't miss any activities or responsibilities I had for whatever owner I was working for at the time, I was going to drive."

Andretti is one of three drivers to win the Daytona 500, Indy 500 and the 24 Hours of Daytona (A.J. Foyt and Jamie McMurray are the others). In 128 Formula One starts, he had 12 victories. No American has won an F1 race since Andretti's victory in the Dutch Grand Prix at Zandvoort in 1978.

His legacy remains solid, but Andretti said he hopes fans see it beyond the victories and championships.

"I don't know anyone who loved driving a race car more than I did," he said. "When fans were able to see that and tell me, it was the greatest compliment they could give me." Arkansas Online

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