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'I'm My Own Status Symbol,' Boasts Mario Andretti, Racing Toward His First Grand Prix Title

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‘People who are happy in their work don’t need hobbies,’ Andretti maintains

The longest race is coming to an end. It began last January in the midsummer heat of Argentina with the first of the 16 Grand Prix Formula One auto races and continues through a tortuous 2,800 overland miles on four continents. Its participants and their spidery, space-age racing machines are flown another quarter-million miles around the Western world to compete in such distant places as Brazil, South Africa, Monaco, Britain, the United States. The final checkered flag will come down at the Canadian Grand Prix in October, and it now seems likely that the 1978 winner will be a rugged, 5’6½” Italian-born American named Mario Andretti. For Andretti, the international Grand Prix will mean a million dollars in earnings and will be the capstone—”the last peak,” as he puts it—of a career that has brought him every honor in every form of auto racing, from dirt-road drag races in rural Pennsylvania to the Indianapolis 500.

Andretti knows as well as anyone the tricks fate plays in his hazardous occupation. In July, after roaring off to a seemingly unassailable lead in the British Grand Prix, his sleek Lotus 79 was first stalled by a puncture and then eliminated altogether by engine failure before he reached the halfway mark. “Talk about character-building,” Andretti muttered as he walked back to the pits with his helmet under his arm. “You want to kill something.”

In racing circles the 38-year-old Andretti is considered an old man. “Two years ago people said I was a has-been,” he recalls. His answer is to let the international Formula One pack eat his dust this summer. With Argentine, Spanish, French, Belgian and German Grand Prix victories adding up to 54 points, he maintains a nine-point lead in the competition. Still trying to close the gap are Sweden’s Ronnie Peterson, 34, winner of last week’s Austrian Grand Prix (45 points), and defending champion Niki Lauda, 29, the aloof Austrian (31 points). Final victory would make Andretti only the second American (Phil Hill was the other, in 1961) to win the most prestigious title in world road racing.

“Physically I can give as much as I ever could, even more since I know how to pace myself,” says Andretti, who has been burning rubber for 21 years. “I’ve learned where my priorities are.” After winning two United States Auto Club national championships (’65 and ’66) and the Indy 500 (’69), Andretti belatedly got around to Grand Prix racing. In 1971 he won his first event in South Africa and took eighth place overall. “My goal has been to win in every category of racing,” he says matter-of-factly. “To smoke them all where they least expect me to. I have won on 127 different kinds of track, clockwise and counterclockwise. I have experienced the passing of the engine from front to back. I have raced with the greats who have since retired, and in places that are now parking lots. So I’m an old fogy, but how many guys have done all that?”

Although he is acknowledged as the world’s most versatile driver, Andretti has paid a price for his success. In 1966, in a bleak 1 a.m. crash in the 24-hour Le Mans, he suffered six broken ribs and painful burns when his brakes failed. Again in ’69, practicing for the Indy 500, his face was scorched when a wheel flew off. “The danger I was imposing on myself at the early stages of my career is over,” he says. “Back then, I had goals to achieve and didn’t give a damn how I achieved them. I’ve outgrown that. There is none of this bullshit of a death wish. I know now that with my experience I could never make a fatal mistake—little ones, perhaps, but not a big one. The risks I take are calculated.” His primary concern is mechanical failure. “You have a feel of the car, a feel where the edge is. If you don’t disregard it, then you’re okay,” he says.

Winning the major races in Europe means coming full circle for Andretti, an auto-racing enthusiast from boyhood who arrived in the U.S. at 15 with an English vocabulary consisting of yes and no. Naturalized in 1965, he confesses he still gets goose bumps when The Star-Spangled Banner is played after each race he wins.

The son of a farmer, Mario was born in Montona, a city that was ceded by Austria to Italy after the First World War and became part of Yugoslavia after the second. In 1948 the Andrettis fled to Lucca, Italy. For seven years they lived with 26 other displaced families in an old college hall where blankets were hung as walls. “Like a long-lost distant nightmare,” Andretti remembers those times. “You always remember when your parents cry.” The family survived by clinging to the hope that they would eventually return to their homestead in Montona. “Even when we were going to the U.S. there was the notion that we’d pick money off the trees, put it in a bag and come back.”

They never did. Two years after joining an uncle in Nazareth, Pa., the Andrettis owned a new house and a red Chevy and, Mario says, “We were kings of the block.” Meanwhile he and his identical twin brother, Aldo, discovered local dirt tracks and “compared to the Grand Prix scene in Europe, we found that stock car racing looked pretty damn accessible.” Working in a gas station and a factory, Mario saved enough to build a stock car from a 10-year-old Hudson. He and Aldo falsified their ages for racing permits, and at 18 entered local competition. Mario’s first victory, on a 25-lap, half-mile track, brought in $135 prize money—”big bucks,” he recalls. Aldo, however, crashed at season’s end (he was given last rites and remained in a coma for three weeks) and finally abandoned the sport in ’69 after another accident. Against the wishes of his father, who thought racing “disgraceful,” Mario continued alone.

In 1961 he married his high school sweetheart, the daughter of a Bethlehem Steel superintendent. “I was a punk,” Andretti says. “Just an average guy—not like the Fonz.” But to Dee Ann Hoch, then 19, Mario was a dashing older man with a car “who looked neat even when greasy and oily. He was a little wild, which was sort of thrilling. Drag racing on back roads was quite the thing at the time,” she says. The arrival of his first child spared him the draft. “They were taking husbands but not fathers,” he says. “So I got very busy becoming a father.”

In the early years of their marriage Dee Ann, with babies in tow, accompanied Mario on the circuit. “We lived like gypsies,” she remembers, “but then the charm wore off.” Now a stay-at-home, she is confident their marriage is sound because of “a certain love we’ve had and an understanding of one another’s problems.” Mario praises his wife’s complete control of her emotions: “I don’t know how much it hurts, because she keeps it inside. The same affection is there no matter what the result of the race.”

In Continental fashion, Mario and Dee Ann have an unspoken understanding about his socializing on the road. “I have no fear of losing him, so there is no need for questions,” she says. For Mario, “Each place you go has its own atmosphere, its own color and its own women. I’m not an altar boy anymore. I just like beautiful women. When do you need a good sleep more than before a race, and when do you sleep better than after sex? I don’t say it’s mandatory, but it’s not a bad thing.”

Off the circuit, Andretti comes home to a $100,000 split-level in Nazareth and a vacation house at Open Woods, a 630-acre onetime resort near Honesdale, Pa. Relatives, friends and business associates gather in a 22-room guest lodge. They can fish for bass, play tennis with Andretti’s two sons, Michael, 15, Jeffrey, 14, and daughter Barbra Dee, 9, or gamble with Mario at $1-a-point backgammon. A motor pool fills the drive: Ferrari, Cadillac, Ford van, converted VW dune buggy, Jeep, dump truck and, appropriately, a Lotus.

Besides waterskiing, sailing, snowmobiling and tennis, Andretti keeps physically fit simply by racing. “It involves a tenseness that works you out. It’s like holding your breath and not realizing it until you let go,” he explains. “The wrists have to be strong and shockproof to withstand all the little bumps you go over on the track. I test myself all the time. I never want to say I lost a race because I was tired.” He admits he suffers most right after his three-week annual layoff for Christmas, when two laps behind the wheel seem like the equivalent of running miles. “I’m so numb I can’t even talk.”

Andretti is a master of nonchalance; he saunters in to dinner at deluxe European hotels in leather jacket and open shirt, noting that “my status symbol is me.” Yet his racing income totals more than $800,000 annually. Pushing those earnings beyond the million mark are investments like an office building in Oakland, an Indianapolis tire business that Aldo manages, a limited partnership in a Wall Street brokerage firm and a company that franchises a miniature Grand Prix amusement ride. Andretti is flown to U.S. races in his own Piper twin-engine, but doesn’t take the controls himself because, at 250 mph, “it doesn’t excite me. If I could afford a jet, I’d probably fly myself.”

Before a race Andretti is a study of steely composure. Gone is the boyish grin and affable banter. “It is difficult when you’re interrupted. If people see you looking pensive they come over and start the small talk. That’s when I can lose my cool and become rude.” Sliding into the cockpit, his feeling of command is nurtured by a prayer—”My own private thing, it just comes.” Although the cockpit becomes a 140° inferno when he is racing at full throttle, even the heat, he believes, works to his competitive advantage. He sips cold Gatorade and sweats very little. “I guarantee I’ll outlast anybody.”

Andretti becomes irritated when his age is brought up. “The consensus was that in Formula One you had to be a young lion in your 20s,” he explains. “What happened was that Jackie Stewart, Jack Brabham and others retired over a short span and their places had to be taken. Young drivers moved in, and that was the scene. Earlier, Formula One was dominated by men in their 30s and 40s.”

As far as Andretti is concerned, those days are here again. “The Grand Prix championship has been in the back of my mind since I was a child,” he says. “I’m aware of the deterioration we all experience. After middle age, every year counts. I have seen people push it by one, two or three years and tarnish some of the luster they’d accumulated. I don’t think I’m there yet.”