Brant James
Tuesday January 18th, 2011

Mario Andretti, at 70, still remains one of the true icons in American motorsports. The statistical value of his exploits -- Indianapolis 500 and Daytona 500 wins and a Formula One title, among other accolades-- are contorted by their weight.

Still halfway in the cockpit as a high-profile two-seater driver in IndyCar, and a member of a Goodwill tour of U.S. troops installations, Andretti still takes every opportunity to espouse the grandeur of the old pastime, what open wheel racing is and should be again, and his still-smoldering dislike for what he feels Tony George perpetrated upon the regimen by forming the Indy Racing League. What keeps you busy these days besides Goodwill tours?

Mario Andretti: My fear, always, when I came out of the cockpit [in 1994] was this life-changing experience, how it was going to be. I find there is life after the cockpit after all. Things are good for me. I need to stay busy to feel satisfied, and that's what I'm doing. Even getting in the [IndyCar] two-seater car. I have the driving school of my own, but doing the IndyCar two-seater, we're on the actual track on the actual weekend. And I'll be doing quite a bit of that next year. I would suppose the transition to 'civilian' life was even more abrupt considering the high level at which you raced?

MA: There was tremendous satisfaction coming my way over the years, and obviously that's what kept me going. I had no problems staying motivated. I was there because the rewards were there. I am so fortunate. I count my blessings every day because of that. It was a huge life-changing event for me to step out of the cockpit. I'm happy the way things are now, and the fact I still have my foot in the cockpit, in a way, is very good for me. How healthy is motorsports and IndyCar?

MA: I think the IndyCar series, as we know it, is definitely on the upswing, because it was brought to its knees and I don't need to mention by whom. I think now that it's unified, it has definitely taken off into the direction it needs to go and that it deserves. Izod is doing a tremendous job of promoting into mainstream America, and that's where we belong. It's not something new. It's something that needs to be brought to the attention of the fans properly and without having two series competing to do the same thing. How does IndyCar reconnect with all those lost fans?

MA: I think it'll take time for fans to really follow some of the drivers. There have been some odd names because the series is very international. But I really think the series is picking up. It's beginning to resonate. I think the fans will begin to look forward. Now, it's a matter of time to rebuild something that was lost. How do you assess CEO Randy Bernard's job performance so far?

MA: Randy Bernard, too me, is doing a phenomenal job on so many fronts. He has learned tremendously over this past year. He is a very calculated individual. He's patient in some ways but also very energetic in some others. He's careful with his moves. The conversation I had with him in the beginning, I told him the worst thing he could do was try to reinvent the wheel. I think that resonated. I said 'this is not a startup series. You've just got to remember to look back and learn from the formula that worked.' That's what we need to reinstate. We abandoned the product. I think he truly gets it. We're fortunate he's at the helm of this thing right now.

I think he knows where it needs to go. He needs to know where we have to appeal. He is a very good business man. He made a statement to me at the beginning when everyone was trying to give advice because there were many areas of self-interest. He said he was just trying to sort everything out, that it was like trying to drink from a fire hose. I think he's been able to select the kind of advice he's getting and put it in the right direction. I had my doubts because he seemed to be so foreign to the sport, but he's been patient. I know he's intelligent enough to see what is necessary. He certainly has my vote. Is his willingness to pitch big ideas something the series needs? He's made no secret of wanting to break Indianapolis 500 qualifying records, race with NASCAR, etc.

MA: It is refreshing. He's always looking at something that will bring back the interest. He would like to do two or three events with NASCAR and their stars and that would be a very healthy exchange for everyone involved. Jimmie Johnson's name comes to mind. I think he's looking in the right direction. I think a lot of people who appreciate that kind of thought are behind him.

I derived quite a bit of satisfaction from NASCAR because we used to move around and NASCAR drivers would come to Indianapolis. I was one of the NASCAR drivers who actually encouraged them, the Cale Yarboroughs of the world. Whenever that exchange happened, it was wonderful. A.J. Foyt going and winning in NASCAR, Parnelli Jones, Dan Gurney, all those exchanges were just golden for the sport in general. We're catering for the racing fan in general across the board. What should Danica Patrick do: stay in IndyCar or go to NASCAR full time in a year?

MA: She's the only one who can really say, but I think I would find it very hard to believe she would leave the Indy series altogether. She's very proficient there [currently racing for Andretti Autosport, owned by Michael Andretti, Mario's son], she has so much experience. Again, though, she's the only one who can answer that. Does racing need barnstormers again?

MA: When I was doing it, I was able to do it with an affiliation with Ford. I was able to go with a top Ford team, which was Holman Moody in NASCAR. They were winning. If I could say, 'Marco [his grandson and IndyCar driver], OK, Mr. Hendrick is inviting you to do a couple races in NASCAR. Go.' But if a weaker team were to make the same offer, I'd say no. You need to be with a team that can win, and that's the opportunity we had.

Now most of those teams don't take a one-off driver anymore, so that's different. Also, it's more commercial now and you have sponsors that want to lock you up and put you in a box. Some drivers don't have the power to remain independent, so there are a lot of factors. Ultimately, however, it's up to the individual. There was no team or sponsor that ever bought me and bought my career and prevented me running what I wanted to. I came from that position of strength, quite honestly, and it worked for me.

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