Mario Andretti finds joy at Monterey Historics

The Monterey Historic Automobile Races set everyone's memories in motion, and this year's guest of honor, Mario Andretti, was no exception. Andretti was on hand to celebrate the 30th anniversary of his Formula One world championship by doing demonstration laps in the Lotus 79 John Player Special that carried him to that title in 1978.

This year, surprisingly, marked Andretti's first time at the event. He seemed to enjoy making the rounds around the paddock and ogling the historic machinery nearly as much as circling Laguna Seca in his old mount. He did stop long enough to reminisce about some of his fondest racing-related memories.

"The one thing I see about this event is people are thoroughly enjoying it," he offered as to what impressed him most about the Historics. "Everybody's got a smile. All my life in real competition, sometimes the tension you could cut with a knife. I can't believe you can have the sound of race cars all around you and actually relax and enjoy yourself. This is the good life, man. I could get used to this, but I don't know if I'm allowed to have this much fun," he said with a wide grin.

Mario Andretti back in the Lotus 79 at this year's Monterey Historics
Bob Heathcote/

"This was my first time on this track since '94 [when he raced in CART] and there are so many improvements," he said. "The real come-on was when [event organizer] Steve Earle said, 'Duncan Dayton will let you drive the 79.' On Friday, I tried not to touch the curbing, it [used to be] so terrible. All of sudden I said, 'Oh, man, you can actually use the curbing now,' so I realigned my approach to the corners.

"It's amazing how much time has gone by, but when you're in there, it seems like you never left it. I'm out there trying to be careful. That [car] is so precious; he's crazy to even let me sit in it. It's a delicate piece of equipment, but I thought, I gotta make some noise."

Andretti ranks the Lotus 79 as one of his favorite race cars because he felt he understood "its plusses and minuses" to "extract pretty much what the car could give me."

It gave him his fondest memory–wining the Italian Grand Prix at Monza to become world champion in 1978.

[Editor's Note: Mario actually won the Italian GP in 1977 going away and then in 1978, after winning pole, Gilles Villeneuve in his Ferrari jumped the start from his No. 2 spot in his Ferrari and grabbed the lead. Andretti waited a few seconds and then he too went early. Villeneuve in his Ferrari and Andretti in his Lotus 79 ran 1-2 in one of the great F1 battles of all time, with the Italian tifosi cheering on their beloved Italian car in front and the Italian driver right behind. Then with 5 laps to go Andretti passed the late great Villeneuve and went on to win the race. Afterward the race Stewards docked both drivers 60 seconds for jumping the start, so for the record Niki Lauda won and Andretti and Villeneuve were 6th and 7th, but that took nothing away from the fact that on this day Andretti put on one of the best drives of his illustrious career.]

"It's something that only I can appreciate," he said. "When I was 14 years old, still in a refugee camp in Italy, I saw my first F1 race at Monza. That's where my dreams began." More at AutoWeek

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