IRL: Indy500: Mario Andretti Legends of Indy Racing press conference

Q: Well, we want to welcome everyone back to the media center, the conference room here at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Once again we're being joined by a worldwide audience on the Internet and we want to remind you that if you have ...

Q: Well, we want to welcome everyone back to the media center, the conference room here at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Once again we're being joined by a worldwide audience on the Internet and we want to remind you that if you have questions that you would like to e-mail for our final legend to be honored tomorrow, Andy Granatelli, you can do that. legends@indy500.com is the address, so we welcome you on the Internet and obviously, all of you are with us here today. There's really not much of an introduction needed for this man. Probably along with Muhammad Ali, probably one of the most known names in the world is Mario Andretti, former world driving champion, 1969 champion here at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and from what I understand, our newest "Yellow Shirt." Is that true? I understand you even brought your shirt with you this morning.

Andretti: Activated it this morning, yeah.

Q: It's great to have you back here and let's get an opening comment if we can and let me allow you to . . . let me tell you very quickly before we start questions that we have Mario here in the conference room for approximately 28 minutes, until a quarter of and then he must go. They have the autograph session and all the other festivities, so Mario the mike is yours.

Andretti: Well, thanks for the opportunity. I really. . . I was very flattered when I was invited to come here for today and I look forward to it. Quite honestly, I've missed this place as you could imagine. We visited around and it's amazing all the work and the transformation that has gone on the last few years and I had the opportunity to have a pretty good look at the new layout, the Grand Prix course. Tony and I drove around as much as we could today. We tried to knock a few tires around in the corners, but it's very interesting. I had seen the layout on a computer module before, but the real thing looks pretty good. It looks pretty interesting, so I think that's going to be a very good advantage, it's going to be a good home for the U.S. Grand Prix, I feel.

Q: Let's get to one Internet question first. This comes from jharden@midamer.net. Mario, you were my favorite in great part because you would drive anything and drive it well, especially championship dirt cars. Lately it doesn't seem many of the guys are interested in trying other forms of machinery and therefore, seem to lose touch with the fans. Do you think the versatility shown by drivers of your era, Big Al, A.J., Bobby, J.R. and yourself, contributed to your popularity and made you better drivers?

Andretti: Well, I think, yeah. To answer the latter part of the question, I think it helped us expand our dimension as far as skills and in just being able to deal with all the different disciplines. I derived a lot of satisfaction personally from being able to do that. Today, what is different is that I think the commitments are somewhat more demanding to drivers of a particular series. When an owner pays a certain salary to these drivers that they pay to the top drivers, they want to own these guys. They don't want them to go out there and spread their wings and potentially injure themselves doing something different. They feel the responsibility to the sponsors and everything else, plus, the fact that you do probably more testing in preparation for the races, so you have less time. I remember when I would be on my way to some of the Champ Car races, they talked about a Champ Car dirt race, even coming to the Hoosier Hundred, I'd be running a midget two nights before, I'd be running a sprint car the night before and I'd be running three races before I arrived and do the Champ Car race. Today, every Champ Car race is at least three days commitment, so, again, the nature of the beast is different and I'm sure a lot of these guys, the really talented guys that are running today would love to be able to go around and do different things, but I think it's almost impossible to do that anymore.

Q: Mario, when they were going to bring the Brickyard here, you had said something to the effect that, you know, this is always the hallowed ground of Indy cars and all that. Now their adding a third event. How do you . . .

Andretti: First of all, let me correct you there. I never, ever, ever said that this was just the sacred ground for, like, I've been accused of saying for single-seaters. To me I've always said the more racing, the merrier and I never objected personally, not that it made any difference to this, so . . .

Q: Well, now that Formula One is coming here, adding another event to this place, you know, you said some pretty positive things earlier. You know, how do you see that affecting the 500?

Andretti: Well, the 500 has been affected by other factors, not by adding the other events. There are other factors that have affected that. That's another story entirely. To me, the Indianapolis, to be a host of the U.S. Grand Prix is a good thing, it's a very positive thing. It's a solid home for it. You could see that the commitment is solid. The commitment is a huge commitment that was made here by creating a facility that will host a world championship event. It's wonderful. I think Formula One has been missing from these shores for too long and in recent years, it's been sort of a makeshift situation because when you have the street courses, you know, the longevity factor is always in doubt and when you have a permanent facility such as this, then you think that the future for that could be solid, so that's excellent. I think I have all of the praises for Tony George for having that foresight and vision to be able to do this.

Q: Mario, outside of your win here in '69, what is your fondest memory of this place?

Andretti: My fond memories here are of just being able to lead it. I just did an interview and you know, we looked at 29 years of being here and only one win, makes you think, "Gee, what did he do the other 28 years?" When you look at the record, you know, I am third in all-time lap leading and I've led more laps here than some four-time winners, so I've been a factor. It's a fact, so I've been a factor here and when you're leading, you're in control and that's what it's all about, so in by far, my experiences here at the Speedway have been all positive. There's very few negatives here.

Q: Mario, there was talk a couple of months ago about how you tried to arrange a deal for Michael yourself to race here in the Indy 500, but something outside, other factors, be it Ford or something, kept that from happening. Could you talk about that and how important it is to you to get Michael back here in the Indy 500?

Andretti: Well, yeah, I'd love to be able to see Michael here. Of course I do. I mean, this is one of the things that to me are very disappointing, that guys like him, let's face it, he's not getting any younger, but does he have the talent and the ability to win this race, you're (expletive) right, but he needs to be able to be here and have the chance to try. To be missing from here since 1995 is a total travesty, not only for him but for all the other talents that are in CART that would bring a lot of excitement here, a lot of electricity and could only be good for everyone. It could be good for the Speedway, it could be good for the fans, could be good for them. That's the travesty of it all that that's not happening. These poor guys are caught out because of politics, things that they have no control over and for whatever reason, for one reason or another, they're not here. That's the sad part. That's the only thing that makes me sad.

Q: Have you tried to work something . . .

Andretti: I tried to work something and somehow it didn't go down. I'm not going to go into the details or pointing fingers, but for some reason or other, it didn't seem to go down and that's, again, that's really disappointing. Michael's disappointed. You know he said at least if he would have won it a few times like Little Al did, you know, it would have been easier to take, but he was so close and so competitive when he was here and he wants it so bad, but here it is. He hasn't had a chance to really go for it, so that's bad.

Q: Mario, looking at the U.S. Grand Prix here in the fall, from your perspective what can we expect in terms of the racing and the atmosphere compared to the 500?

Andretti: Well, I think it's going to be, it should be totally different. I think what's going to be interesting for me to see, whether a dual facility really works. I've never seen it work before and if it's going to work, it's going to work here. For some reason, I've seen really great road course layouts in conjunction with an oval. We've seen Daytona. I mean, it's been there since the 60s and I've raced there like 24 Hours and you know, a big crowd is 45,000 people. It never catches on. The ambience doesn't seem to really correlate, but if it's going to happen, it's going to happen here and I hope it does. From everything I hear, it just, the excitement of this event coming back here, the fact that it's Indianapolis, the fact that it's going to be presented so well. I think that it's going to have a big draw. I think there's going to be a big crowd here. A lot of people probably don't realize how strong the Formula One fan base is in the United States and now they have a chance to really come here and see that the U.S. can showcase the facility second to none, so all of that, I think, is going to play well. I just really hope and pray that it does exactly what it's designed to do.

Q: Mario, your feelings of the Speedway and the IRL/CART split are pretty well known, but was it difficult for you to come back here when they were talking to you about this?

Andretti: Not difficult at all. No, I will always support the Speedway. I don't want to see this race diminished in stature at all. I mean, there's no interest whatsoever in that. My dispute is with the IRL. I will not support the IRL because I think that's what has disrupted open-wheel racing in America for us. I mean, we are pulling in different directions and that doesn't make sense. We should all be pulling in the same direction, so that's where my problem is, but I will always support the Speedway.

Q: Mario, there's a lot of theories about why, considering this was the year that a lot of CART teams were supposed to come back. A lot of people thought there would be a lot of teams here and now we only have Ganassi and Walker here. Why do you believe that more CART teams didn't come this year?

Andretti: I don't know. I'm, again, I think there could be some underlying pressure, either from some sponsors or whatever, you know, that prevented some teams from coming. It's quite a burden to be able to field one or two cars just for one race, you know, since the equipment is so totally different. So, again, you know, those are the logistical problems that you face and not too many teams have that capability. What is in favor of Chip Ganassi is several things. One is his team is based right here in Indianapolis, which is huge. The other is he's riding the crest, he's riding four years of championship-making, so he can do whatever he wants. The sponsors will go along with it and not everybody's in that position, so again, I think when it comes down to really trying to put it all together, maybe a lot of people said, well, we only need a couple more 2 1/2, 3 million to make it happen and maybe that 2 1/2, 3 million is harder to come by than you think, so that's really what . . . these are all factors that I think played into this. Again, it's an enormous undertaking when you have another series already in place and all those commitments, so it's a shame and again, you know, I would love to have seen some of the top drivers, at least, compete here because they deserve to be here.

Q: Mario, we have another question from an Internet viewer, mjroscoe@hotmail.com. How did you learn of the Speedway and can you tell us of your first visit to the Speedway?

Andretti: Well, I first heard of the Speedway when I was still living in Italy. In fact, what really impressed me more than anything, I remember Bill Vukovich, back in 1954, I was 14 years old and I clearly remember because my background, where I was born and raised, is part Yugoslavia, and that's a Slavic name, Vukovich and that somehow rang to me, but then he wins the race and he has . . . it was over 120 miles an hour, which in kilometers, it's over 200 kilometers per hour. I remember his average speed was 207 kilometers an hour. As a kid, I said, "Oh, average 207 kilometers an hour" back in the 50s and I was so impressed about that and that's when I first became aware of Indianapolis and when I came to the States in '55, it wasn't until 1958 when I was brought here by my uncle. My brother and I were brought here and we watched the race and we watched Sam Hanks win and we were in the fourth turn and we had, I guess the peanut gallery was really low in those days because all I could see was the helmets go by. We were so low, but I remember that race and then the next time I was here was when I was competing, so that was my Indy saga before I became a competitor.

Q: Hey racer, talk about when you came here and just how you were received by the fans and maybe a little bit of the friction and jealousy that guys like Foyt might have had for you then, because I think he might have been the four-time winner that led one more lap than you, if my record book is correct.

Andretti: You mean when I first came here in '65? Well, you know, as a rookie I had actually had some real problems that I thought, "Here we go." I arrived here and in those days, we had two full weeks of practice before qualifying and my car did not arrive, was not on the track until Wednesday of the second week, which only had one day to get my driver's test in and up to then I had only driven roadsters. I never drove a rear-engine car, so the rear-engine car. . . you know, I was hearing people say, "Oh gee, poor Montoya, he's a rookie and he's flying," but you know he was here testing, he tested a couple hundred miles before practice even started. You know, when we here, never sat in a doggoned car and we went out there and we were thrown to the wolves and luckily, luckily, the car was really a lot better than what we expected. We didn't know what to really expect, but we were right on pace right away and that surprised the hell out of me, quite honestly, because I didn't know what it was going to be and again, from there we just cultivated a situation. We were very much in unknown and uncharted waters for us because the car was something that certainly that Clint Brawner did not understand. Jim McGee understood a little bit and I understood a little bit, but very little bit, but it worked. It worked for us. The fans have always been, you know, incredibly supportive right from the very beginning. That's the beauty about events like this, you get people so emotionally behind and you feel that, you just really feel that you're being rewarded by just them showing that emotion always, just every single day out here practicing, you known, they're there, you know somehow you're doing something for somebody and it's a big payoff when you do that. I think deep down there's no stronger force to keep you motivated than that.

Q: Mario, getting back to the politics, do you see any cracks in the wall at all? Are you encouraged by anything at all about coming back together?

Andretti: I don't know. I wish that I would, like today, I had breakfast with Tony and we talked about everything, but the pertinent things and, I don't know. If I could sacrifice myself, and be hung somewhere and beaten for awhile, to put this thing together, I'd do even that. That's how I feel about it, but I don't know what else to do, you know, I wouldn't know what to do, except that maybe we could get a general consensus out there and so people writing in and expressing their wishes and maybe that could change things, I don't know.

Q: Mario, Rick Mears was here yesterday and he continues to express surprise over the fact that you were unable to coast into the pits in '91 when he and Michael were engaged in that dual. He wanted us to ask you about it.

Andretti: Well, Rick Mears should thank me for that because if the race would have not gone yellow, he would not have finished with fuel, and that's an absolute fact. I remember that some certain individual from USA Today came to me and cussed me to death for having created that yellow because he felt that Rick Mears would have probably not finished and Michael would have won. So, tell Rick to just be thankful that that's what happened.

Q: Mario, you were here in '76 and '77 when Janet Guthrie came in and today we have two women drivers attempting and one, a young one, who has a lot of potential. What was it like back then when the first woman showed up and what are your views of today?

Andretti: Well, my views are the same. They have the freedom to be here and it's up to them to perform to the level that they need to perform to be able to be a factor, so if they go out there and blow your doors off, you know, touché. It's all power to them, but they haven't done that yet. We've seen that happen before and I don't know what the reason is, I don't know if . . . maybe it's a sport just like tennis or golf, you don't have tennis pros or golf pros. Why do you have the separate gender, because the women, there's a physical aspect there that is different. The women cannot drive the ball as far, they cannot hit the ball as hard and I think there's a certain, not necessarily at Indianapolis, but on road courses, physical aspect in the race car that probably a woman does not possess. I mean, thank God, their anatomy is different. Again, they're testing themselves in what is determined as a man's sport and they've carved a little bit of a place for them, but not yet. They've never proven that they can be competitive yet. I mean, competitive, I'm talking about winning. I'm not talking about second or third -- winning and until they win, they're not a factor. It's that simple.

Q: Little Al, when he won in Vegas, one of the biggest things that he was most pleased about was that Michael called him on the cell phone in Victory Lane and said that you and Michael both watched him win the race, you felt so happy for him. Just talk a little bit about seeing Little Al being able to get a little bit back of what he's lost.

Andretti: Well, you know, these two families have raced, competed against one another for decades and decades, you know, and we have very warm feelings toward one another and you know, no matter where it happens, you're happy of the success that comes your way. We know how tough things can be. We've all been on different sides of that well and I sure as hell have and I've seen Little Al being in somewhat of a slump for whatever reason in the last couple of years, and to be able to see him come around, no matter how it happened. It's a big "W," it's a win and you feel good, so that's probably the momentum that he needs to carry on and come back and get him as focused back, whatever it takes to come back to the winning form. Yeah, it's wonderful to see. It's good for the sport and it's good for us to see that.

Q: This will be our last question. Mario, what made the Indianapolis 500 a great race? A lot of people, you know, during the split, the word was Indianapolis made the stars and CART's side was they had the stars and I'm just wondering, what did make this race great in your opinion, and how much was it diminished by losing some of that star power over the last several years?

Andretti: Well, I like to think that what made this race so great was the strong tradition that it enjoyed over the years and you know, you cannot put importance to the rich heritage of our sport. I say this, look at the LaScala as a theater in Milan and even LaScala is only LaScala if you get the Pavarotti's and the Caruso's and people like that singing there. If I go sing there, you know, it's not going to be so good, so Indianapolis is also great because they've had great drivers here, you know, and when you look back you look at the greatest in the history of the sport having competed here and that's what this place deserves, but also, one goes with the other. Indianapolis would not be Indianapolis if you didn't have the greatest drivers in the past that competed here. To say that the facility itself is the only thing that will create stars, I think is ludicrous. I think it goes hand-in-hand. Jimmy Clark was not created by Indianapolis, but when he came to Indianapolis, I think he brought something to Indianapolis. I think he elevated Indianapolis also a step or two, so it goes hand-in-hand. I think credit where credit is due. The greatest theater, the greatest track, needs the greatest singers, the greatest drivers. Period. Otherwise, something will always be missing.

Q: Mario Andretti, thanks for being with us today. One of the legends of the Brickyard and certainly one of the legends of all motorsports. You have squid and rice tonight somewhere here in town.

Andretti: Well, I wish.

Q: We want to remind you that at 6:15 this evening, the Target/Chip Ganassi Racing Team will be in here to talk about their return to the Speedway and where they stand a couple of days before Pole Day. I'm not sure, we'll have to check with Ron in terms of Mario's status with one-on-ones, because I know they have to move him to the next stop here in just a couple of minutes. To our Internet audience, thanks for being with us and Mario, thank you once again.

-IRLNS/IMS-

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About this article
Series IndyCar
Drivers Mario Andretti , Rick Mears , Janet Guthrie , Chip Ganassi , Bill Vukovich
Teams Chip Ganassi Racing