Mario Andretti has had a good month and a half, an extension of what has been a great life. So much to be thankful for on and off the track.
Of course, it’s more than the accomplishments that made him one of the most decorated drivers in motorsports history. It’s the nearly 57 years married to his late wife, Dee Ann, their three children and seven grandchildren along with the work he still gets to do as he approaches his 83rd birthday.
On this Thanksgiving Day, much of the family is gathered with him at the Florida condo that Dee Ann, who died in July 2018, held dear. It became their annual place of holiday celebration.
“She started that a few years back, and she loved it,” Andretti said. “We’re keeping that tradition going.”
Andretti, a four-time INDYCAR SERIES champion who won Formula One’s world title in 1978, is only a few weeks removed from getting the opportunity to drive a modern-day F1 car – a McLaren MP4/28, which he motored around WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca, which has its first turn named in his honor. It didn’t matter that the pedals hadn’t been adjusted to his diminutive frame or that the steering wheel was nearly pressed against his chest. He was pedaling as only a young at heart can.
“Yeah, it was a rush,” he said, beaming.
Nine days earlier, Andretti was at the National Air and Space Museum for the unveiling of the new Nation of Speed exhibit. The Brawner Hawk he drove to victory in the 1969 Indianapolis 500 had been loaned from the Smithsonian’s Museum of American History, dusted off and shined, and man, did it shine.
There, alongside Richard Petty’s 200th NASCAR Cup Series victory car, was a remembrance of one of Andretti’s signature moments in a race car, sparkling for all the world to see. Andretti admitted getting emotional seeing the car for the only the second time since that famous weekend at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the first time in years.
“Never in my wildest dreams,” he wrote on Twitter.
“That was really spectacular what they’ve done,” he said of the museum’s effort. “That car was donated to them by (car owner) Andy (Granatelli) right after we won Indy, and it was on display on the top floor for 27 years. It ran its course, and they put it down on the bottom.
“They did a really good job revitalizing it and polishing it up, and the display is really fantastic -- I’m really proud of it. It’s something that’s so good for us, to be in that element. They were giving us numbers of visitors to the museum, and that and the Louvre (Museum) in Paris are neck and neck in terms of attendance from around the world. So, that’s where we want to be, obviously. It’s really an honor.”
In the garage at home in Nazareth, Pennsylvania, Andretti owns one of his race cars, the No. 6 Lola/Ford of Newman/Haas Racing that he drove in his final INDYCAR SERIES race, at Laguna Seca. He admitted he has tried on occasion to get the Brawner Hawk there, too, but the Smithsonian wouldn’t let it go. That was probably for the best, he conceded with a hearty laugh.
“I tried to borrow it a couple of times and I felt once it’s in my hands I’d never return it, but I think they knew what I was trying to do,” he said. “The bottom line is, they have this new museum now, and that’s where we are. It’s going to be there for at least 15 years.”
After Thanksgiving, Andretti will resume his busy schedule. He routinely sits in his home office to field calls from racing friends across the globe. He remains the biggest cheerleader for the F1 program his son Michael is trying to organize, and there is no shortage of effort placed there. Next week, Andretti will fly to Nashville to attend NASCAR’s season-ending awards ceremony.
“Guess who is presenting Joey Logano with the (Cup champion’s) trophy?” he said. “Me! I guess Joey said he wanted Mario to present him the trophy, so I’m going to do it. Isn’t that crazy?”
Crazy is that Andretti hasn’t slowed down and doesn’t plan to. Not in the McLaren at Laguna Seca, not as a driver of one of the INDYCAR Experience’s two-seaters at many NTT INDYCAR SERIES races, not in giving back to the sport that has given him so much.
In the days ahead, Andretti will return to a workout routine to have his body ready for the demands of driving the two-seater that gives thousands of people a year, including a host of A-list celebrities, the thrill ride of a lifetime. Andretti doesn’t confirm the speed he often reaches at tracks, but his promise is always to provide a realistic feel. Remember, he only knows one speed, even in these “slowing down” years. His 83rd birthday is Feb. 28.
“Eighty-three?” he said defiantly. “Hey, give me a break! Don’t rush it.”
It’s simply a fact, one Andretti reluctantly takes into account when it comes to keeping himself fit to be the sport’s unquestioned shining ambassador.
“I’m really paying attention to a lot of things, like my exercise, and my daughter (Barbie) is really on me about my diet,” Andretti said. “She’s one of those who believes in a wholistic (approach), and she reads about it and practices a lot of that. If I go to a restaurant, mess up and eat some bread, I have to go to confession.”
Again, his laugh bellows through the phone.
“Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, I’ll always be around (motorsports),” he said. “That’s my life, that’s my life. Nothing can substitute for that.
“I’ll stay active until they put me in a box, and the box better have wheels.”