An interview with: A.J. Foyt and Mario Andretti
J.J. O'MALLEY: Good afternoon, everyone. Sorry for the brief delay, and welcome to this Grand-Am teleconference as we get ready for the most anticipated road race in North American sports car history, the 50th anniversary Rolex 24 at Daytona. Today we visit with two of the greatest drivers in the history of the sport. A.J. Foyt is a four-time Indy 500 winner, a Daytona 500 winner, two-time Rolex 24 winner, 24 Hours of Le Mans winner, and he's also grand marshal for this historic 50th anniversary Rolex 24 at Daytona. Mario Andretti will be joining us later in the call.
A.J., 50 years ago you competed in the inaugural race in a Pontiac Tempest at Daytona and you led the very first lap. What were your thoughts back then and how has the event progressed to what it is today?
A.J. FOYT: Well, I was hell of a lot younger, too, and didn't realize how nice it was to be that nice. No, it's come a long ways on technology and on the cars, the vision and the motors and everything else. It's a great race, you know.
J.J. O'MALLEY: What are your thoughts on being grand marshal of the 50th Rolex 24?
A.J. FOYT: Well, who would have ever thought I'd be around that many years, and the way I'm feeling today, I don't know if it's good or bad. But I'm glad to be looking down at the grass, I'm still here, and I'm really looking forward to getting down there, even though I'm having a lot of problems. You know, I had to go through a couple operations the other day, and I did it in one day, and everybody said you can't do two. I said, well, I've got to go to Daytona so we've got to do it and get it over with.
I wish now I wouldn't have done that, but you know how A.J. is, I never give up, and I definitely look forward to being down there one way or another.
J.J. O'MALLEY: The first Rolex 24 that you won, you started out in one car, you jumped in another, I mean, that's the stuff of lore, you know, racing lore. When you reflect back on your sports car races here at Daytona, is it like really special for you?
A.J. FOYT: Well, I would definitely say it is. In that first one, Mr. France and Bill, Jr., they called me two or three times. My daddy was in the hospital dying at that time, and like he said, there's nothing else you can do besides go out there, get out here this weekend and have fun. Like I said, if I'd never won another race, that was probably the greatest victory I've ever had in my life because when I did come back we brought the trophy back to him. It was just a great race that I'll never forget, and I'm looking forward to coming back there for the 50th this year. Not in a racing capacity; I wish I was, but just trying to heal up some of these racing bruises that I've got through the years, showing up now at this late stage.
Q. In your overall -- you've done so much different kinds of racing, but in the overall scheme of things, having two wins in the Rolex 24 sort of rounds out your racing record, doesn't it?
A.J. FOYT: Well, it really was, you know, because a guy that I teamed up with at the time I guess didn't like me, and I did not know that at the time. They threw me in at midnight I think on the first one that we would be with Bob Wollek and we've been great friends. I think he was probably one of the greatest sports car drivers and endurance racers you could ever be with. A lot of that win went with him. He drove very hard all day and all night, and after that then we teamed up at Sebring and won, and then we won again there. I couldn't have had a better partner.
Just like the Le Mans 24-hour race with Dan Gurney, I couldn't have had a better partner than Dan Gurney because Dan was a great racer, too.
I've had a lot of great memories in my lifetime, and I'm just glad to still be back here to watch other people go racing.
Q. How much did you enjoy the time when you ran your own sports car team, because you had your Copenhagen sponsorship on a bunch of Foyt Enterprises cars in the '80s, and amongst the IndyCar and NASCAR programs, not everybody remembers some Porsche 962s especially that came out of your shop. Did you enjoy running and fielding cars in sports car racing?
A.J. FOYT: Oh, I definitely did. I definitely had a lot of fun with my 962 when we teamed up. You know, we led the race until right there at the end and then we had a cylinder go bad. I think we could have still won the race, but then we had some ignition problems that just made the car quit running. No, I had a lot of fun. We ran there at Daytona, and it was great driving your own car.
But the people I drove for in the 24 hours on the wins, I couldn't ask for better people, either. I kind of enjoyed sports car racing. The biggest thing, I couldn't do more of it because it kind of interfered with the IndyCars and I really enjoyed the IndyCars and the sprint cars and the midgets. Whenever I could run sports cars I would, but I always liked sports cars, it's just a different kind of racing and different kind of people. But every time I was over there I really enjoyed it.
Q. I just wanted to know what is your most memorable Rolex or most unusual, I'm not sure if it's the one you just mentioned that you first won, or if you have an unusual memory from the Rolex.
A.J. FOYT: Well, I'd have to say it was the first one, because like I said, my father was in the hospital dying, and the Francises called me about coming down there and I had no idea of even going racing. I was just sitting there and my dad day jumped on me and he said you might as well go out and have some fun this weekend, there's nothing you can do sitting here. I said, no, I need to stay here. And finally to be lucky enough to go down there and bring a trophy back to him, I'd have to say that was probably the highlight of my racing career on everything.
Q. That was in 1983?
A.J. FOYT: Yeah, '83 I think it was, '82, whenever it was.
Q. Speaking of the 1983 race, you originally were going to drive with Darrell Waltrip in an Aston Martin Nimrod, and Darrell just got inducted into the Hall of Fame. The car broke down and something unusual happened that got you to the victory. What are your thoughts on that? What happened?
A.J. FOYT: Well, I don't really remember. I think we had a motor problem with the first car, and then I was getting ready to head back to Houston, and then the other Porsche, the Coca-Cola Porsche, I can't remember the guy's name, and then Preston Henn wanted me to come in and start driving at midnight because he was driving, and I said, well, okay. Then I went over, and never drove a Porsche, so I sat in the wrecked Porsche, I can't remember the poor boy, he's deceased since then, but it was a red Coca-Cola, and they explained to me where the gear shift was and all that, so when I did get in Preston's car, I kind of had an idea something about a Porsche because at that time I had never been in one.
Q. That was Bob Akin's Porsche --
A.J. FOYT: Yeah, you're right, Bob Akin. Super-nice guy. It's a shame what happened to him. I sat in his car. He had the red Coca-Cola, Bob Akin.
Q. And then when you came back the following year was in the 935 and you finished second but then in '85 you went to a 962 and had a terrific battle with Al Holbert and I think Al Unser was on your team, too?
A.J. FOYT: Yes, he was. Al was there, and like I say, I couldn't have had better cars when I was down there running. They was top cars, they was class, you know, and they was cars you had to beat. Even though you had other cars there, Preston had made sure he had some of the top cars.
Q. And both of those cars are going to be there along with about 35 other cars.
A.J. FOYT: That will be good. I'll be glad to see them again.
Q. There's a lot of fan anticipation for this race coming up. You as a competitor, when you were going into a big race kind of like this coming up this weekend, did you feel anticipation, also?
A.J. FOYT: Oh, yeah. When you go into a big race like this here, you don't wait until the day you get there. It starts working on you probably a month or so before. I know it did on me, and probably the only one I ever went to just kind of overnight was the first one we won where I was going to drive for Darrell. That was kind of an overnight deal.
But no, whenever I've had a big race or go into a big sports car race, a week or two, it really works on you, and you want to make sure you know the course good, you want to make sure the car is good, and you just work at it, you know.
J.J. O'MALLEY: Thank you very much, A.J., and we hope you get some more recovery time. We look forward to seeing you this weekend and all the other past champions of the Rolex 24 at Daytona.
A.J. FOYT: Thanks a lot. I look forward to getting down there.
J.J. O'MALLEY: Mario Andretti is another driver whose name is synonymous with the sport. He won the 1972 event in a factory Ferrari with Jacky Ickx and he's won the Indy 500, the Daytona 500 and Formula 1 world championship. He debuted the Porsche 962 in the 1984 Rolex 24 at Daytona when he promptly put the car on the pole, and his son Michael co-drove in that race, and a couple years later he also drove a Porsche 962 with his sons Michael and Jeff. So Mario will not be participating this weekend, though his son John is going to be racing with his son, Jarett. So it's going to be quite an Andretti affair in the Rolex 24.
Mario, welcome to our conference call to get ready for the 24 hours at Daytona. We talked a couple minutes ago about all the accomplishments you've had in your career and at the Rolex 24. What are your thoughts looking back as a leading Formula 1 and open wheel driver when you came to Daytona to compete in the Rolex 24 at Daytona?
MARIO ANDRETTI: Well, Daytona, obviously when I -- the first time I was there was in '66, I believe, and the race was not classic yet. It was not really established in the sense, I was fairly young. However, it was very welcome. I know that obviously you saw the involvement of all the factories that were there and so on and so forth. It was a huge field.
So the race became a big event immediately, and I was happy that I was invited to race there for Luigi Chinetti. It was a private Ferrari, along with Pedro Rodriguez. So it was a good beginning for me.
I was really trying to basically at that time, trying to get my feet wet in road racing, quite honestly, and this was a great opportunity, especially 24 hours. I think we wound up finishing top 5, fourth or something like that. So it was a good beginning for me.
And from there on, I always looked forward to every one of the events.
J.J. O'MALLEY: In '72 it was a factory effort with you and Jacky Ickx when you won the race.
MARIO ANDRETTI: Yeah, indeed. '72 was a good year for us on many fronts with that particular car. It's amazing that we were on pole, and right at the start I dropped a cylinder. We were on 11 cylinders, but we just hung in there flat out, and our sister car was leading. I think it was the last hour or so, and we were running second, and they lost fourth gear, so we ran -- both of us were limping somewhere, but we were able to overcome that and win. So it was a very satisfying win.
They all are, but whenever you have something that you have to overcome like that, it's always a little extra special.
J.J. O'MALLEY: Mario, you ran the very first Porsche 962, and I know the car was fast, but there was a couple problems that cost you a chance at winning the race with your son Michael. What do you recall about that race?
MARIO ANDRETTI: Well, that was the introduction of the 962 in the States, and it was a derivative of the 956, and the difference was the 956 had twin turbos, and the '62 by EMSA rules was only allowed one turbo, and that's really what created the problem with us. The car was fast, put it on pole, and Michael was quite a rookie at that point, but he was really -- he was quick. He was solid.
What happened is that with a single turbo, they put it right on top of the gearbox, and there wasn't enough heat shielding for the long distance, and in about -- I don't know, we were only about a few hours into the race, the gearbox overheated, and it seized. And only because of the -- like I said, the turbo created so much heat, and they underestimated that. So that was a shame because I think Mike and I could have probably walked that race.
Q. You, Michael and Jeff had a very strong run a few years after that in the family Andretti car.
MARIO ANDRETTI: Actually that was -- I was looking up some of the statistics. I think that was the last race that I was in in 1991, I believe, and that was the three of us. I believe it was '91, right? Do you have any idea? I think it was.
Yeah, we had a good go, and here again, the turbo was pitching at the end there, so we didn't have a very good finish. But we had a good race throughout. We finished, but we finished somewhat in the mid-pack.
J.J. O'MALLEY: Mid-pack for Mario Andretti is fifth place overall. You were fifth overall and you were third GTP. That was the day that Hurley Haywood won his fifth Rolex 24.
MARIO ANDRETTI: I'm not a statistician, not only on my own stuff.
J.J. O'MALLEY: But you know a lot about the cars you've driven. I know your nephew is going to be racing with his son Jarett this weekend in a Mazda RX-8 in the GT class. It's good to see John back. Have you talked to John at all?
MARIO ANDRETTI: We talked briefly. It's great that John is really supporting Jarett all along the way and now driving with him. I think it's really admirable that he's doing that, and Jarett is really coming along well. The kid is running strong in midgets and so forth, and now he's doing the right thing, obviously expanding into road racing, so he's going to have a very good feel for the overall side of the sport.
I love to see that, the versatility.
J.J. O'MALLEY: What do you think of the way the field has grown over the years, and now we've got all the new Daytona prototypes, and we've got a large number of GT cars, 46 of them with the brand new Ferrari especially built for the Grand-Am, a brand new Audi and a number of other cars, so I think it's going to be one of the most competitive Rolex 24s since back in the '80s.
MARIO ANDRETTI: I agree. It's awesome. The great thing about today, too, the cars are so reliable, so you're going to have probably 98 percent of the field running at the end. It always makes for a hell of a race like that, and as you said, with all the new equipment, factories involved, the new Corvette there and the Grand-Am class, it's actually worthy of the 50th anniversary, no question.
Q. What I want to know is out of all your racing experience, how big is seeing that sports car win at Daytona? Does that sort of round out your résumé as far as being a race car driver?
MARIO ANDRETTI: Well, I'd like to think that all wins are important, and where I put a lot of stock was on being able to win outside of my sandbox, if you will. My specialty was open wheel cars, and then when I got into sports cars, winning there, it was to me extra special. So it falls into that category.
And then, of course, look at Daytona, the 24 hours, that event has become a classic now, so it gives it even that much more weight, to be able to have your name in the winning column. So again, every win is precious in its own way, and this one certainly carries its own weight.
Q. Your record at Daytona with winning the 500 and winning the sports car race and everything, that really stands out when you look at your record, your success at Daytona.
MARIO ANDRETTI: I love Daytona, quite honestly. I did -- I was involved in a lot of the testing, which was really good for me with Ford when they were developing the Mark IIs and Mark IVs that were so successful. I mean, we had run a simulated 24 hours, and we were there like weeks and weeks testing and testing. You know, I didn't do a lot of races. Obviously I was busy in IndyCars and Formula 1, but whenever I had the opportunity to race there with IROC or NASCAR a few times, I felt pretty confident. You know, I certainly knew those banks and the road course, as well. So I always felt good there.
My events there, I consider that a real privilege to have had the opportunity. Quite honestly it's a fabulous venue, and of course you could see that the popularity of it now, I think it makes it all that much more important for me to have had some good experiences there.
Q. I just wanted to find out, what do you think is your most memorable or unusual Rolex that you've been in? Is there one that stands out? I don't know if it's the one that you won or if there is an unusual situation that happened.
MARIO ANDRETTI: Well, the ones that obviously we had the good results, and I've had a couple of good ones there, are very important. But now that you mention it, to be racing there, I raced there with my nephew John as a teammate, Michael, and then the last race that I did there with a Porsche 962 was with both my sons, Jeff and Mike, and you know, when you have those opportunities, I mean, these are things that you can never really predict that could ever happen. But when it does, you savor that. When you look back at that, I see how sweet it was to be together like that. So those are memorable moments that I cherish very, very much.
Q. Mario, correct me if I'm wrong, but this year NASCAR made the announcement that they'll be running a Rolex race at Indy. If so, will you be there for that race, and if you are, what kind of feelings and emotions will be going through you getting back to that Indy track?
MARIO ANDRETTI: Well, you know, going back to Indy, I go back every year, obviously, and I assume the race -- I think I have some idea when they're going to be running it. Say if my grandson Marco or someone like that has the opportunity to be involved, I might go there and watch.
But you know, I go to Indy for the 500, and actually I do some driving myself with a two-seater car, which I really enjoy. So I'm at Indy every year. You know, that's one of the classics that certainly I want to be part of for the rest of my days.
Q. Of all the times you've run the Rolex 24, what was your favorite race car?
MARIO ANDRETTI: Well, the ones that you win usually, but actually when I look back, my favorite car was the first one, the 962 Porsche. That was really an awesome car, you know, in its day. It was the middle '80s and so forth, and it was very sophisticated and very fast and really fun to drive.
But then having said that, I had so much experience with the Ford, the GT cars, which in its day they were just phenomenal. You look at the record they had. So I don't know, I'm waffling around quite honestly because I had a lot of good cars there, a lot of satisfaction.
But what stands out is these two cars, the Ford and the Porsche. Then while I'm saying this, I remember the Ferrari, the 512, you know. I sat on pole there with a Ferrari, I sat on pole with the 312, the 512 and the Porsche, and whenever you're that fast, the car is good. So that's what dictates what you really love, what you fall in love with.
I know I didn't give you a perfect answer.
J.J. O'MALLEY: We'd like to thank you, Mario, for joining us today to talk about the 50th Rolex 24 at Daytona. We hope you can make it to Daytona one of these years. We'd also like to thank the members of the media for taking the time to join us today. We appreciate your coverage.