Exploring the car history of a motorsport great: Mario Andretti
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His name is synonymous with speed.
During a career spanning five decades he won the Formula One world championship, the CART title, the Indy 500 - the 2017 edition takes place this weekend - and the Daytona 500.
Traffic cops are always pulling over cars and saying to the driver “Who do you think you are, Mario Andretti?” If it’s an orange Lamborghini Aventador, it just might be.
Tell us about your first car…
My family settled in Nazareth, Pennsylvania in 1955, when my twin brother Aldo and I were 15. We were born in Montona [Italy, now Motovun in Croatia] and arrived in the US with $125 to our name. My dad had never owned a car up to this point, and he got a 1946 Ford which was fine, but we wanted him to buy something faster.
After a couple of years, he was in a position to buy a new car and we lobbied him to get a ’57 Chevy Bel-Air, one of the all-time classics. He bought it, but it wasn’t his kind of car at all. He was upset it only had two doors, but I told him “No, this is the way to go”. We put a trick exhaust on it which he thought was too loud. I told him it would improve the fuel economy. A total lie.
Photo / Getty Images
Finally, he decided he wanted a car with softer suspension and got a ’51 Buick, but by this time Aldo and I needed a car of our own and we inherited the Chevy. It was red with a white hardtop and that all important ‘Golden Vee’ on the hood, signifying it was the V8. We had the 283 cubic-inch version, with power raised from 150 to 220 horsepower thanks to a hotter camshaft and four-barrel carburettor. We did normal things kids do; hung out at burger joints, chased girls and raced each other. We won every race. With this car, we were the kings of the block.
How old were you when you started getting interested in cars?
Three, maybe younger. In Montona there was only one car in town, it belonged to the doctor, but I remember visiting my grandparents’ house and seeing an American car for the first time; a ’46 Ford which, ironically, was exactly what my dad bought when we emigrated. I’d never seen anything like it, it was so big and shiny and I was impressed. Later, while we were living in a refugee camp [during the Istrian Exodus], someone heard Aldo and I were into cars and gave us tickets to the 1954 Italian Grand Prix at Monza. I was already hooked, and this just confirmed it.
Mario and his twin brother persuaded their father to buy a 1957 Chevrolet Bel-Air. Photo / Getty Images
What was your first crash – if you’ve ever had one?
I had three crashes in the ’57 Chevy. American cars are big and heavy and they have very small brakes. The first accident happened because the rear tyres were pretty thin and it was a long curve. I nearly saved it, but went off. It wasn’t a bad one. Another time I got thrown from the car, because there were no seatbelts in those days - oh my gosh! It was no big deal, though, the injury was more to the car. I had to lie like hell about what happened though.
Which car do you own now?
I have a Lamborghini Aventador and just ordered a new one, the S, which has a bunch of great improvements including four-wheel steer and 730bhp. I’ve had a lot of Lamborghinis and Ferraris.
I’ve always treated myself with sports cars, and I always keep a Corvette for a rainy day. I have a beautiful Z06 at the moment, which is very tricky to drive when you really get on with it. I always buy new cars because I want the latest and greatest. I don’t have nostalgia for classics, I love the new car smell.
Although he's not a fan of classic cars, Mario just loved the Daytona he bought direct from Ferrari in the Seventies. Photo / Getty Images
Which car do you most regret selling?
My ’72 Ferrari Daytona, 100% [above]. That was a real sweetheart. Mine was actually the first one to come with alloy wheels, rather than spokes, and Enzo [Ferrari] sold it to me for a cut price $10,000 (in the US it retailed at $29,000 at that time). My wife, Dee Ann, usually sees a car as just a car, but she loved the Daytona, it had something about it – and a great stereo too!
I took it to the garage in Connecticut to fix the air-conditioning, and I had our daughter Barbie with me. She was crazy about the colour purple, and there was a brand new purple Dino there. She wanted it so bad I traded in the Daytona. My wife was absolutely furious!
What’s the dream car, money no object?
I think I have it, to be honest. The Aventador is a terrific supercar. Once you get into hypercars they get really complicated and unpractical, and just not as enjoyable as my Lamborghini. If you bought a Bugatti I bet you’d need a mechanic alongside you at all times. I like to put the mileage on my cars, drive them and just enjoy them.
Photo / Getty Images
What’s your biggest pet peeve when you’re driving?
The complacency of other drivers. Road etiquette in America is missing, and that creates accidents. There’s no common courtesy. Let the police worry about the speeders and get out of the fast lane!
What’s your most memorable experience in a car?
I was testing for [my son] Michael at Indianapolis in 2003 when I ran over some debris at 200mph and the car launched into the air like it was an F-16 fighter jet. I somersaulted twice in the air and landed back on four wheels!
I really thought that might be the end, but I was absolutely fine. My first instinct was to get straight back in the car, but after I slept on it I decided it was a sign. I was 63, and it was time to call it a day.
Photo / Getty Images
CAR HISTORY [ABRIDGED]
1957 – Chevrolet Bel-Air
1965 - Austin-Healey 3000
1972 – Ferrari Daytona
1974 – Ferrari Dino
1984 – Ferrari 512BB
1985 – Lamborghini Countach
1991 – Lamborghini Diablo
2009 – Lamborghini Murcielago
2014 – Lamborghini Aventador
- Adam Hay-Nicholls, Telegraph UK