Before the slavic partisans came, fighting the Germans and the troops of Il Duce, Montona was a village of carts and donkeys and horses. "Even after the war start, we have only one—what you call?—taxi," says Nonna Rina in English broken but lovely. The cobblestones were scrubbed and polished by hand, the town traffic-free, so there was no clear inspiration for the vocal sounds her twin sons began to make in the summer of 1942.
"When they were two, they begin to run," Nonna Rina says. "They were going into the cabinet in the kitchen and taking the lids from the pots and running around the table [she gestures as if with a steering wheel], saying, 'Roooom, roooom.' And when they are going to sleep, they are pretending they are little cars. Into the pillowcase they are saying, 'Roooom, roooom,' until I was yelling at them: 'Va a dormire!"
" 'Go to sleep!' I said. Still, roooom, roooom. Si."
Where did they get such notions?
Nonna Rina, who is now 79, throws up her hands. "I think they have on their blood."
One of her twins, Mario Andretti—the most famous racing driver in the world and, at 52, head of the most famous and prolific racing family ever—stares out across his backyard pool at dusk in Nazareth, Pa. His gaze is across the Atlantic, and across the years. "It seems so remote from today," he says. "Like a life that didn't happen, almost."
On a table beside him is a book about his beloved Istrian Peninsula. Once a gleaming finger of northeastern Italy jutting into the Adriatic, once a sanctuary of Roman architecture unspoiled other than by millennia of gentle rain, it is now just another province of the devastated country that was Yugoslavia.
Nonna Rina—"Grandma Rina" to the new generation of Andretti drivers, Mario's two sons and his nephew—refers to the region as "this Istria," as if she has adapted Shakespeare's exaltation over England: This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this Istria. And on this Istria basked Montona, about 25 miles from Trieste. "The town was so beautiful," says Mario. "In the '40s, when we still lived there, everything was so spick-and-span. All the hardware on the doorways was polished. The cobblestones were all polished. It's not like that now."
It is not even Montona now. For more than 40 years it has been called Motovun, Croatia. And in that time the very name Andretti has become virtually synonymous with motor racing. A poll taken in 1989 revealed the name Andretti to be as well known in the U.S. as Foyt and Petty together. And of all the drivers in the world, only Mario Andretti, from experience, knows this: One cannot fathom fame by merely winning the Indianapolis 500 and the Daytona 500, which he has done. One must also win the world driving championship of Formula One, and then, he says, "walk into some drugstore in some obscure section of Paris or Madrid or S‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¬£o Paulo...."
Mario gazes into the gathering dusk of the day, across the pool and across the Atlantic. "What a chain of events," he says. "What a chain of events."
Some children are precocious at ballet or karate or with the violin. Marco Andretti's gift is more chilling in its beauty. Here he comes—"he flies; he just flies," says his mother—across his backyard, 140 acres of high ground with an idyllic view of the steepled village of Nazareth. His little legs barely span the scat of the adult-sized four-wheel all-terrain vehicle. A tiny hand with a master's touch on the throttle makes the engine cry out.
Marco is five years old. His stature makes him seem younger, his brow older. It is the hewn brow of his grandfather, his Nonno Mario.
Marco's father, Michael, is heir apparent to Mario's world renown. At age 29, Michael is the defending Indy Car champion, with eight victories in 1991 and 22 in his career. Such success, and yet the Andretti blood is rising, ready for the next tidal stage.
Last year Michael conducted tests for McLaren, one of the top teams in Formula One. He will drive Indy Cars for at least one more year, 1992, for the team owned by Carl Haas and Paul Newman. But it is very likely that next year Michael will try to become the first son of a world driving champion to win that title, probably earning for himself one of the most lucrative contracts in the sport.
Rising behind Michael in the Indy Car ranks are his brother, Jeff, 28, the 1991 Rookie of the Year at the Indianapolis 500, and cousin John, 29, who won the first Indy Car race of the 1991 season, at Surfer's Paradise, Australia. Every time an Indy Car field rolled off the grid last season, four Andrettis were in it. When all four qualified for last year's Indy 500, they made history. No other family—not the Unsers, the Vukoviches or the Bettenhausens—had placed four members in one Indy 500 field. When this year's Indy qualifying begins on May 9, Mario, Michael and John are virtual locks to make the field. Jeff, who lost his ride with Bay-side Indy Car after last season, will try to qualify in one of Foyt's cars.
In a motor racing world overflowing with family dynasties—Pettys, Allisons, Brabhams and Fangios—the Andrettis are the most successful. Aldo, Mario's twin brother and John's father, would undoubtedly have been the fifth Andretti on the starting grid had not two severe injuries suffered in crashes, in 1959 and 1969, blunted his racing career. Aldo's youngest son, Adam, 13, gazes at big brother John's Indy Car and says, "Yeah, I want to do this."
"I never thought it would come to this," says Mario. "This wasn't planned. These kids didn't grow up with me mapping their careers. I think it was just a matter of their being exposed to it."
That, and the toys. Mario and Aldo didn't have the toys. Some fathers, having been deprived of expensive playthings while growing up, give their children electric train sets. The Andretti Santa Claus bore go-karts, motorcycles, snowmobiles, jet-skis, high-powered boats. "I thought, Now, when I was a kid, wouldn't I have gone googly over that?" says Mario. "Of that, I'm guilty."
"Dad never pushed us one way or the other," says Michael. "We had a place in the Pocono Mountains, and we'd spend our weekends up there all summer. That's where I learned to ride the motorcycles and the jet-skis and the snowmobiles—all that stuff."
In most kids, eye-hand coordination is honed for hitting baseballs or shooting baskets. The Andretti kids developed co-ordination for steering, clutching, shifting and braking. Some kids steel themselves to be fearless hitters in football; the Andretti kids learned to be calm at high speed.
"We didn't take the time to do the ball sports," Michael says, then smiles. "I'm not the height for basketball, anyway." At 5'8" he is the tallest Andretti driver. John is the shortest at 5'5", and the others are 5'6"—perfect for the tiny cockpits of modern Formula One and Indy Cars.
Out in Indianapolis, where Aldo moved his family in 1964, his children made early efforts at baseball, basketball and football. But, says John, "My dad didn't know any of the rules of baseball, basketball or football, so we didn't go to games. We started looking for something we could do together, and Michael was already racing go-karts, so Dad and I started doing that together."
So here they are—and here comes Marco. But his mother's fear of the moment has given way to flash premonitions of her son in Indy or Formula One cars. "When he flies by on the four-wheeler, I get, like, 'Oh, my gosh,' " says Sandra Andretti. Both of Marco's custom-made helmets, an open-faced one for go-karts and ATVs, a full-faced one for snowmobiles and jet-skis, are in the traditional family colors, red on silver.
Marco is something of a veteran. At age 3½ he made a mistake—gunned the throttle before he realized the vehicle was in reverse. The ATV shot backward into some woods. Ice-nerved, Marco changed gears and roared out of the woods, unhurt. "I was lucky," he says, in the way his father and grandfather speak of avoidance of disaster.
"Who knows?" says his Nonno Mario. "He could turn out to be in politics. Or a doctor. And we'll be equally proud of him as long as he's in an honorable profession." Mario smiles. "Chances are, however, that he's going to make his mom's heart beat faster and faster...."
When Michael began giving-his son motorized vehicles, Sandra became ill with fear. "I said, 'Michael, what are you doing? Mike said, 'What's the big deal?' I said, 'He's my baby.' Mike said, 'This is life.' I said, 'No! This is life for you Andrettis. This is not life for me.' And Mike said, 'No, you don't understand. This is life.' Then Mike explained to me, 'Can't you see he's using the brake? Can't you see he's not driving over his head?'
"And it was true. Marco was driving pretty good when he was 2½. I thought, I can't fight the Andretti name, the Andretti that's in the blood."
More likely it has been the Benvegnú blood—"from my side," says Nonna Rina—merely doing business as Andretti blood all these years. The Andretti side has manifested itself in "this great fear of losing," says Michael. It is a family that once lost everything but one another.
"Before, in this Istria," says Nonna Rina, "we were very—how you say?—in good shape. Pretty rich. Because we have a lot of land...and we have the winery."
And then nothing. Her eyes dance and mist at the same time as she remembers the last of the good times in this Istria.
"Was wartime. There were no toys. Nothing to eat, either. So when Mario and Aldo are five, my mother's brother build them this little car, made of wood." She describes something along the lines of a soapbox-derby car. "The wheels are going fast, very fast. Montona is on a hill, and all the streets were like this." Her hands sweep downward. "And we have a street coming where all the benches and the people were sitting—oh, yes, a park—and this is their 'track.' "
And now her voice grows progressively higher and more gleeful. "One time, one lady she was coming up from the street, up the hill, and she see them coming, and she was yelling, 'Oh! My God!' because she thought they would be killed. They said, 'Go 'way! Go 'way! Let us run, 'cause we know where we have to go! We no wanna kill you!' "
Nothing could stop the little car from tearing down the streets. Not even the soldiers who came to the streets of Montona, or the partisans who fought them.
"And then they fight for 40 days, and the Communists take over," says Nonna Rina. "After the war the Communists take all this peninsula, this Istria. They take everything from you, and they no can pay with the money, but with the coupon. And until 1948 we have to live under Communist regime....
"Every night somebody disappear. They were coming, knock the door; you can talk nothing, because you was afraid. And they were killing all these young people coming home from the army.
"My brother, he was the one who have a motorcycle," says Nonna Rina. "And he race, and oh, he drive my mother crazy!" But when the Andretti twins were toddlers, their uncle was living elsewhere. So his exploits could not have directly sparked their "roooom, roooom"—it could only have been "on their blood."
The family Andretti has often discussed the possible reasons why they were not killed by the Communists in Istria. Aldo has a theory. "At one point the whole town of Montona, about 3,500 people, had worked for my father," he says. "They got all the worst people of Montona to join the Communist party and gave them power. But they never had the nerve to abuse this power against my father, because he'd fed all those people at one time or another. We like to think that's the reason they spared our family."
"In 1948," says Nonna Rina, "they decided to give the Italian people the option to leave this peninsula and go to the motherland, Italy. Three hundred and fifty thousand people, they left this Istria, 1948."
Gigi and Rina Andretti and their children (Aldo and Mario were eight by then, and Annamaria was 14) were sent to a refugee camp in Lucca, Italy, about 45 miles from Florence. "And we were there," says Nonna Rina, "for seven years and a half." In Lucca the twins' love of racing billowed into a consuming passion. In the family's one room—actually a space defined by blankets hung to separate the Andrettis from other refugee families—Mario and Aldo hid magazines and sporting papers telling of Grand Prix racing in its postwar form, which was newly designated as "Formula One."
"Every time the old man would see us with the magazines, he always would say, 'Crazy kids!' " says Mario.
The old man. Alvise Luigi Andretti. He goes by Gigi. He is a proud man who at age 82 still has great difficulty understanding English and is sensitive about it. He grew up speaking German—when he was born, Istria was a possession of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He also speaks Slavic, Croatian and Serbian, as well as Italian. Perhaps there just wasn't enough room in his head for English.
"He was orphan, my husband," says Nonna Rina. "His father die from pneumonia in 1912. His mother die from pneumonia 1914. He was raised by his uncle from his mother's side, a priest."
All his life Gigi had worked to build something in Istria. And now all was shattered, and there was no time for his kids to be idolizing this fellow Alberto Ascari, the Italian-born star of corse—"racing." What foolishness, dreaming about this realm of barons and dukes, and of needless death, when Gigi couldn't even find a job for hourly wages.
"A guy in his position, who didn't follow the sport, only heard about it whenever there was a fatality," says Mario.
Gigi had no idea that the matter was far past the magazine and hero-worship stage. On weekends, claiming they were off to Boy Scout camp, the twins were racing. At age 13 they were driving Formula Junior cars, with 1,100-cc engines and no seat belts or roll bars. The Andretti twins were living on the edge—in the cars, which were owned by friends, and with the old man.
Then, says Aldo, came "quite a jolt." Nonna Rina had an uncle who had emigrated to Nazareth, Pa., and he offered to bring one family, that of Nonna Rina's brother, over to America. But, says Nonna Rina, "my sister-in-law, she don't want to leave her parents, and she say she don't want to come in this country. And so I have the opportunity for my family.
"Really, I didn't want to come in this country because I don't like to leave my parents and all my relatives there, but I was forced, because I have three children, and we have to think for their future."
The twins were sick at the thought. "As kids, we had all our dreams in place," says Mario. "And all of a sudden we're displacing to a new world, where we only knew of one race happening—Indianapolis. And so it didn't seem like we were going to be able to fulfill our dreams. But in fact it was probably just the opposite. We probably never would have fulfilled our dreams if we had stayed there."
At just after 6 a.m. on the morning of June 16, 1955, the Italian ocean liner Conte Biancamano steamed past the Statue of Liberty and into New York Harbor.
"I can see my children now," Nonna Rina says, beaming. "They were so happy. You could see in their faces. And they were singing."
That is not how Mario and Aldo recall it. They whispered to each other, "No corse in America." No racing in America. The five Andrettis joined their American relatives in Nazareth, 70 miles from New York. The twins seemed destined to a secure but uninspiring future of steel mills or desk jobs.
Three days later Aldo was lying in his bed with a migraine headache when Mario came thundering up the stairs of their great-uncle's house, shouting, "Eh, Aldo! Nazareth ha una pista per le corse!"
Aldo sprang from the bed, forgetting his headache. Nazareth had a racetrack. And so the Andretti twins saw for the first time the strangest pista they had ever encountered, an oval track with a dirt surface, not at all like the winding, paved road circuits of Europe. In Europe racing was done with expensive sports cars or with pure race cars. Here it was done with stock cars, huge American passenger cars modified for racing.
"That," says Mario, "was probably the happiest moment of my life. Instead of looking at racing as something that was way down the road for us, this was something we could begin working on right away!"
They promised each other that they would somehow build one of these stock cars. They had no idea how, but they decided: "Let's stumble through it," Mario recalls. "We were possessed."
Ci sono molte corse in America! Indeed, much racing in America.
It took Mario and Aldo three years of learning the workings of American cars, and of raising funds at the rate of $5 apiece from school chums—"investors" in the racing team—to get a race car ready. It was a 1948 Hudson Hornet. As the 1959 season opened at little Nazareth Speedway, a half-mile oval, the twins realized they still had a problem. "One car, two of us," says Aldo. "We decided to flip a coin for who would drive the first race, and we would take turns after that."
Neither twin had ever driven on an oval, let alone on dirt, but the Andretti blood must have risen. "I got to drive first, and I won," says Aldo. "Then Mario won. We won a stretch of about nine or 10 races in a row. It got to be a spectacular for the promoters to start the Andretti boys in the rear and let us charge through the field."
If not for Gigi's difficulty with English, Mario's and Aldo's racing dreams would indeed have drowned during the Atlantic crossing. And Aldo wouldn't have been injured so badly. And Mario wouldn't be world famous. And Michael, Jeff and John would be sitting behind desks rather than in cockpits. And Adam might be obsessed with Little League. And Marco would be on a tricycle. And all would have been restless for life, vaguely longing, but unfulfilled.
But, says Aldo, "my father is a proud man, and it was embarrassing for him to let people know he didn't understand the language so well. He never figured out why, when he'd go to work at Bethlehem Steel on Monday mornings, there'd be a bunch of people around the time clock, waiting to congratulate him on how well we had done. He was too proud to ask them what they were talking about. He'd say, 'Yeah, yeah, good boys. I know they're good boys.' He knew we worked at the filling station after school. He thought we must be doing an excellent job of cleaning windshields or something."
But Rina "had to know," says Mario. "It was never said, because we didn't want to put her in the position of being in the middle."
"I know they race—pretty soon it is in the newspaper," recalls Nonna Rina. "My husband doesn't know. I was afraid that he'd be upset. But I thought children should be able to choose what they do."
On Sundays, when Gigi would drive Rina into Nazareth, she would make up excuses to have him take a route other than the road by Nazareth Speedway. "Because I knew they were announcing over the microphone the name Andretti pretty often," she says, "and I was afraid Gigi would hear."
Then Aldo crashed.
Of the wild-driving Andretti twins, Aldo was the wilder, the more daring, the one "with a little less brains," he says now. He might have been greater than Mario on the Grand Prix tour, at Indy, at Daytona—might have thrilled the world more.
The '59 season-ending race at Hatfield, Pa., would pay the winner $1,500. Both brothers went after the prize. Aldo drove their own car, and Mario secured a ride in another. To make the big race, each Andretti had to qualify in a separate heat. Mario made it through the first heat. The second featured more local hot dogs, and Aldo had a fight on his hands going in.
"I was running third, well enough to make the feature, but I didn't know it, because the two leaders were just gone," Aldo says. "I was driving way over my head. I remember Mario standing out by the track, waving, trying to slow me down. Then I hooked the fence."
End over end the Hudson Hornet flew, disintegrating, forever separating the paths of the twins.
Mario stalled for time, phoned his mother and said, "Aldo was watching me race. He was standing on top of a truck. He fell off and got the wind knocked out of him."
In fact, says Nonna Rina, "Aldo was in a coma."
"I told her, 'We'll be home later,' " says Mario. "I knew damn well we weren't going to be home that night. I went to the hospital, and they'd just given him his last rites. My biggest fear was to tell the old man." Mario was 19, but when he got home, he might as well have been nine. Gigi "chased me around," and "I got a few."
Aldo says that he was unconscious for "three or four days."
"Weeks," says Nonna Rina. "Around two weeks. Every night we were going to see him. It was a terrible thing for us."
"When he was lying in bed there, you know what the hell I was whispering to him?" says Mario. "I was whispering, 'I'm building a new car.' The doctors had said to just tell him something that would get his attention. The only thing I knew that would do that was to talk about a race car again. I knew that whether he was hearing or not, his subconscious was absorbing something. I knew he was excited about it."
"I recall a nice, bright hospital room," Aldo says of the moment he awoke. "The first person I saw was my father. Right away, my wheels turned. I asked, 'Where am I?' I started acting stupid. He told me I was in the hospital, that I got hurt at Hatfield. My poor dad had tears in his eyes—and I've never been so happy to be in a hospital bed as I was at that moment, because he couldn't touch me. Otherwise he'd have beat the living you-know-what out of me."
After Gigi left the room, says Mario, "I knew Aldo was all right, because the first thing he said to me was, 'I'm glad you're the one who had to face the old man.' I knew immediately that all of Aldo's marbles were in place.
"My old man was going to disown us. If he had known his way around better, known the language better, I guarantee you he would have done something drastic," says Mario. "But as it was, we just got the silent treatment for about a year and a half."
Aldo was ready to drive again by the '60 season, but that same year he married Carolyn (Corky) Stofflet, went to work at a gas station and cut back on his racing. In 1961 Mario married Corky's best friend, Dee Ann Hoch, who had tutored him in English. Mario took Dee Ann with him, headlong toward the big time, through midget cars, sprint cars, championship dirt cars. Ci sono molte corse. "There is much racing in America!"
"Dee Ann sort of grew into this with me," Mario says of his wife of 31 years. Early on, says Dec Ann, "I knew that racing was going to come first, and I'd better make up my mind to that, if I expected to stay with him." She was there when Aldo was hurt, and says of the danger, "You got used to that." Death was commonplace on the rugged sprint car circuit in the early '60s. "We lost a lot of friends there. That was a very hard thing. After a while you just didn't even make friends with the wives anymore, because it hurt too much."
In 1964 Aldo moved to Indianapolis to work and to race sprint cars part-time. Meanwhile Mario's career flowered, and he grabbed the attention of two master mechanics, Clint Brawner and Jim McGee.
"The guy really looked good," says McGee. "Wild, but good. People were sending him Christmas cards in July. Said he'd never live to see December. When a race started, everybody just looked out, because he was coming. A little like Michael now—a lot like Michael now."
Brawner and McGee hired him to drive their Indy Car late in the 1964 season. Mario would have won the last Indy Car race that year, at Phoenix, but for a spin-out caused by another driver while he was running in the lead near the end of the race. "Riding in the back of the truck, on the way out of the track," says McGee, "Mario said to mc, 'You know, I can beat these guys.' "
Mario stayed in Phoenix that winter, working at Brawner and McGee's shop. Dee Ann was home in Pennsylvania, looking after two-year-old Michael and newborn Jeff.
The next spring Brawner and McGee took Mario to the Indy 500, and he qualified in the fourth position and finished third in the race, behind two-time Formula One champion Jimmy Clark and '63 Indy winner Parnelli Jones. Mario was a shoo-in for rookie of the year at the Brickyard. As the United States Auto Club Championship Trail moved from Indy to the heartland dirt tracks, Mario took on the titan of the time, A.J. Foyt, in a cross-country feud.
"Mario was young, aggressive," says McGee. "That was the only way he could make a living. Foyt was intimidating in those days. He was the king, and he didn't want anybody to knock him off his throne, and Mario was the only one capable of it. He and Foyt really got into it. They had a lot of incidents—really banging on each other. Finally, at a dirt track in DuQuoin, Illinois, Mario kind of took on Foyt and said, 'Well, A.J., if you want to just beat on each other and you want to just pitch each other over the fence, this is a good place to do it. We'll do it today.' They went wheel-on-wheel. Helluva race. After that they settled down and got along."
In 1965 Firestone, then the most powerful tire company in U.S. auto racing, signed Mario to a multiyear contract. And so the dynasty was funded. Mario could explore the whole world of motor racing and know that Dee Ann and the children would be secure. While the kids were growing up, he could give them expensive toys. They would have toys with real wheels and engines that went roooom, roooom. Even Barbra Dee, the daughter, the baby, would be a terror on the motorized toys, especially dirt bikes, though she would grow up to be not a racer but a singer and songwriter.
"I never exposed myself to it at all," says Barbra Dee, 22, "because I knew I could have gotten the bug very easily. I knew I would. And it's not something I can see putting my family through, when I have a family."
As for Mario, he would venture south, into NASCAR, to win the Daytona 500 in 1967. He would win Indy in 1969. But he was not tied to the dirt and asphalt of America. He went abroad with Ford Motor Co.'s world sports car racing team, honing his roadracing skills at places like Le Mans. Yet, says Mario, "my mind was always taking me to Formula One," back to his childhood dreams.
The other American drivers couldn't have cared less about what they perceived as the prissy, aristocratic Europeans with their road races in which fenders never touched. Never mind that Formula One was the deadliest game in the world. At the same time the Europeans and South Americans looked disdainfully upon the huge American cars driven by rough-mannered, greasy-nailed drivers going around in monotonous circles.
The world's various forms of auto racing require vastly different skills. Yet Mario has won the Indianapolis 500 in one type of car, the Daytona 500 in quite another and the Formula One world championship, in 1978, in one of the most exotic cars of all. And he has loved them all and defended them all, one to another.
"Probably none of the other Formula One world champions has ever seen a dirt track, let alone raced on one," he says. And yet his greatest point of pride, in the decades-old debate over whether he or Foyt stands as America's best all-around driver, is that Mario has driven 128 Formula One races to none for Foyt.
If Mario's rise through American racing was haunted by dreams of Formula One, his rise through Formula One was haunted by thoughts of Aldo. In '69, the year Mario won the Indy 500 and then seriously entered Formula One, Aldo crashed terribly again. In a sprint car at Des Moines, Aldo smashed into a fence, suffering 14 fractures in his facial bones—"just a pain-in-the-neck of an injury," says Aldo, though his smile is still distorted from the injury. It was much more than a pain. It was the end of racing for Aldo.
"It finally came to him that the sport was just not going to be kind to him," says Mario. "He said to me, 'I'm tired of watering against the wind. I just keep getting all wet.' "
Mario would fulfill the dreams of both of them by becoming world driving champion. He would walk into those little shops in those obscure sections of Madrid and S‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¬£o Paulo and Tokyo and find his face recognized, and in his mind he would see the face that until that crash in Des Moines had looked almost exactly like his. He would see the childhood face that was precisely as smug as his was when he and Aldo strode into the candy shops of Montona and then Lucca, pretending they were renowned Formula One drivers.
"We used to have our dreams together," Mario says. "All our early planning was together. We were really twins. Really close. And I felt he'd been slighted. But at the same time I knew that Aldo is a very strong character.... He wasn't going to dwell on that, because I'm sure he knew that life could be unbearable otherwise. I think he was happy for me."
Aldo now owns his own manufacturing firm, Aldo Andretti Machine and Engineering Co. in Indianapolis—with the emphasis on Aldo.
"Everything else I've ever been involved in," Aldo says, "people have said, 'Well, does Mario own this?' or 'You doing this for Mario?' Well, I'm on my own. I couldn't be prouder of his achievements. I'm his number one fan. But you don't want to take a backseat in life. To me he's the best there is—but he's no better than I am just because I'm not racing."
Aldo did his share of nurturing the dynasty. While Mario raced and made the name famous, Aldo briefly served as chief mechanic for the go-kart racing team of his son John and Michael—who were not only cousins, but also best friends. And he makes it to nearly all of his son's Indy Car practices and races. "I think he's reliving his life through John," says Mario. "And I think he's quite satisfied with that."
Michael was the natural with the noisy toys Mario provided. The Benvegnú blood surged in him from the start.
"Little as Michael was, not even being able to reach pedals, he'd get on something—a high-powered boat, a motorcycle, anything—and just go for it," says Mario. "When he first started driving go-karts, bang! He was a winner right off. Everything came so natural. Then he went to several driving schools, first in Belgium and a couple here. His gauge was always how fast he was against the other students. And he was always fastest."
Michael is the current star of the family. Since Mario's last win, in 1988, Michael has won 15 Indy Car races.
"Comparing me with Michael is fair enough," says Mario, "and he's done a lot better than I have since he joined the [Newman-Haas] team. But I've never driven against anybody like him, either. So I'm not ashamed to finish second to him.... He's an honest measure to go up against, whether I'm young or old. I don't know whether I'd have been able to beat him when I was 25 or 30."
Michael was six when Mario won Indy, and he doesn't remember much about it. He has also seen the heartbreaking run of luck his father has had at the Brickyard since then and therefore doesn't lust after Indy wins the way Al Unser Jr.—whose father won Indy four times—does. But as a teenager Michael traveled extensively around the world with his father to the Formula One races." He saw Mario win six Grand Prix and the world driving championship, and, says Mario, "he was exposed to the positive results I had." Thus Michael's fixation is on Formula One.
Michael's success has made it even more difficult for his brother Jeff to emerge from the long shadow cast by the Andretti name. Early in his career Jeff hesitated, to make sure he wasn't entering racing just to go through the motions of following in footsteps. By the time he took the plunge, the sponsorship market was already glutted with the Andretti name.
"Jeff didn't feel like he should race just because Mike and John were doing it," says Mario. "He thought maybe he had to assess it further." And Mario wanted to make sure too. He'd seen sons and younger brothers of other drivers force themselves into the sport. "Believe me, if you're forcing yourself," he says, "it's probably the most miserable thing you ever want to do."
Ronnie Peterson of Sweden was boyish of face and spirit till the day he died. In a race car he was fearless, usually on the edge of control and often over it, much as Aldo might have been in Formula One. Peterson had begun by driving go-karts as a child and therefore was quite a natural sort of big brother to 15-year-old Michael, the son of his Lotus teammate, Mario.
At Monza, at the start of the 1978 Grand Prix of Italy—the race in which Mario clinched that year's world driving championship—there was a wild, multi-car crash in which both Mario and Peterson were absent of fault. Mario cleared it; Peterson was caught up in it. He was badly hurt, but his injuries—mainly multiple leg fractures—did not seem life-threatening. That night, in the hospital, complications sent Peterson into a coma, and he died the following morning.
"You need time to grieve over it," says Michael, his tone making it unclear whether, to this day, he is over it. "I was really upset. I was pretty close to Ronnie." Anguish again had intruded on his father's success. "That should have been the happiest moment of Dad's life. He didn't deserve to have to win like that." But was he traumatized by the danger of racing? No. "I've always known it was there," says Michael.
Sandra Spinozzi, the daughter of Andretti family friends and a babysitter for Barbra Dee, didn't realize how frightening the Andrettis' trade could be. "I never looked at the Andrettis as any different," she says. "They were always normal people to me."
Not until she and Michael were engaged in 1984 did Sandra begin going to races. Then, she recalls, "Michael crashed right in front of me at the Meadowlands. I went into shock. I ran to the scene. I didn't even know where I was going, but I was running. Everything got quiet...everything was silence to me...except that I could hear myself breathing, running, my heart pounding....
"It's been very hard, but over the years I've learned to adjust. It's Michael's life and his first love, and I just had to adjust. And now I like racing. You could even say I love it, I guess.... No, I can't say that. Can't say that. Because it's hard on the family life. We have two children now."
Here comes Marco—roooooooooom, rooooooooom!—and it is not a pretend noise, it is a real engine's song. And the helmet is red on silver.
"I can't even think of him in Indy Cars—you know?" says the boy's mother.
Should Marco indeed grow up to be a driver, says Mario, "I think, deep down, I'd love to see it. I'd love to see this dynasty, this name, carry on in the sport. It's a relatively young sport. I'm almost old enough to be part of the pioneering group after the war. To see him continue that into the 21st century, I think I'd like that. If he chooses that, I think he'll have a happy and proud Nonno."
Mario smiles, remembering how Dee Ann used to fret over Michael. "How many times did I hear 'What's the matter with you? You crazy? Why does he have to drive that boat with you? That's 700 horsepower!' But I'd just watch him operate that kind of horsepower, no problem. Constantly, I was putting myself in his shoes: 'Gosh, if I'd had that when I was a kid....' "