By Dan Rankin
One of the most famous racecar drivers of all time, Mario Andretti, was in St. Marys at Ashton Tire on Tuesday as part of a promotion put on by Firestone. Andretti has been a test driver for Firestone for many years, helping develop the race tires that led to many of his notable driving achievements including victories in the 1969 Indianapolis 500 and the 1967 Daytona 500.
But, as Andretti told the Independent, he has a long history of racing here in Canada as well, from Vancouver, to “MoSport” in Bowmanville, to Montreal and Mont-Tremblant. “I have raced from coast to coast here,” he said, noting that the first time he raced in Canada was way back in 1963.
“I won at just about every one of those venues,” said the 76-year-old legend, noting that his son Michael Andretti also did very well over the years at the Molson Indy in Toronto; Michael was a seven-time Champ Car winner at Toronto’s Molson Indy (now the Honda Indy) between 1989 and 2001.
“Canada has been great to us,” he said.
Andretti was born in the village of Montona, then a part of Italy, in 1940. But, following the end of the Second World War, the Istrian peninsula became a part of Yugoslavia. “It was a choice to remain and succumb to Communism or to just move on,” Andretti said. “About 95 percent of the population, about 350,000 people in that area, Istria, left because of Communism’s takeover. They were spread all over.”
So, he and his twin brother Aldo grew up with around 3,000 other Istrian refugees in the city of Lucca in Tuscany, where, he adds with a smile, he was made an honorary citizen earlier this year. At 15, his family emigrated to the United States.
“For us, it provided a new future and opportunities,” he said. “I probably could not have accomplished what I was able to accomplish if I stayed in Italy. I’ve found in my life that many negatives turn out to be positives. You always have to keep that positive outlook.”
It’s this experience, which few might know about the famous racecar driver, that gives him a unique perspective about the current refugee crisis in Europe. “It’s a tragedy, no question about it,” he said, noting that, for his family back then, it was a very different situation.
“We arrived in America with a visa,” he said. “We waited three years for our visa to be approved to come. So, we were not just coming through the borders. It was a different situation. But, all of it is tragic, quite honestly.”
Perhaps it was growing up how and when he did that made Andretti such a unique personality in the history of auto racing. He is one of only two drivers to have recorded wins in the Formula One, Indy Car, World Sports Championship and NASCAR racing circuits. He remains the only driver to have won the Indianapolis 500, the Daytona 500 and the Formula One World Championship.
“My basic speciality was open-wheeled single seaters, but the sports prototypes, stock cars, they all fascinated me,” he said. “I found that I got so much satisfaction, not just to race, but to win in ‘somebody else’s backyard’ if you will. I got such a kick out of that.”
And there’s no doubt about it – he also got a kick out of the speed, but he is under no delusions over how lucky he’s been to have such a long career in auto racing. “I take nothing for granted,” he said. “I know the bullets that I dodged, and I’m thankful for all of that. I count my blessings, believe me.”
Since Andretti won the 1978 Dutch Grand Prix, no other American driver has ever won a Formula One race. But, according to Andretti, another one is coming. “It’s out there somewhere for sure,” he said. “There are some youngsters that have some goals in that direction. I hope it happens sooner than later.”
Having a home-born champion would be huge for the sport in the U.S.A. he said, particularly now that there is a world-class Formula One track in use in Austin, Texas: the Circuit of the Americas, or COTA.
“Events have been very successful there,” he said. “If you would have an American part of the United States Grand Prix there [taking place Oct. 21-23], it would be something.”
Could the next American Formula One champion be another Andretti? His grandson Marco, perhaps?
“I would love that,” laughs Andretti. “I would love that more than anything.”