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You could say Mario Andretti's reputation precedes him. Driving down the highway, a young trooper pulls him over. So, maye he was speeding just a little. "Who do you think you are?" the trooper asks. "Mario Andretti?" The answer of course is, "Yeah," when you really are Mario Andretti, a professional race car driver like no other, a man officially clocked driving 234.275 miles an hour, a man who saw 111 checkered flags in a career spanning five decades.
Not only is Andretti considered the most successful race driver ever, but also the most versatile, winning the Indianapolis 500, Daytona 500, Formula One World Championship and the Pike’s Peak International Hill Climb.
Retired from racing since the mid-1990s, Andretti, 69, has pursued other passions in business, with ventures including the Mario Andretti Racing School in Las Vegas, the Andretti Indoor Karting and Games facility near Atlanta and the Andretti Winery in Napa Valley.
Yet his name remains synonymous with speed. A dozen books have been written about him, and he’s mentioned by name in more than that many songs by artists as varied as Gwen Stefani, the Charlie Daniels Band and the Beastie Boys. Andretti sums up his mass name recognition modestly: “A lot of it is that I’ve been around so long. I’ve been fortunate.”
RICHES EVEN IN POVERTY
Fortune didn’t always smile on Mario Andretti, though. Born in 1940 in Montona, Italy, his father was a prosperous farm manager. But at the end of World War II, surrender terms required Italy to cede the Istrian Peninsula, where the Andrettis lived, to neighboring Yugoslavia. After three years trying to adapt to the communist country, they decided to flee. For the next seven years, the family of five lived in a refugee camp northwest of Florence, Italy, sharing a single room, partitioned with blankets, with several other families.
In 1955, the Andretti family immigrated to the United States. They had only $125 when they settled in Nazareth, Pa., where Andretti still lives with wife, Dee Ann, his former English tutor whom he married in 1961.
Andretti feels no bitterness about those camp years. He was a child and he didn’t know to want anything more, he says. In many ways, he was infl uenced more by the rich experiences he enjoyed than the poverty and hardships of his youth. He’s maintained that glass-half-full attitude throughout his life.
It was during those early years that he developed a passion for opera and, of course, racing. His exposure to opera came with free tickets given to his father, who worked as an extra. Today, music by Verdi (“the most dramatic expression of human emotion,” Andretti says) plays on his Web site.
Andretti’s love of cars also stems from childhood. He remembers frightening old ladies as he and twin brother Aldo raced wooden buggy carts down Montona’s hilly streets when they were 7. His passion deepened as an adolescent during Italy’s racing heyday, with its gleaming, sexy Ferraris, Maseratis and Alfa Romeos. He remembers watching pro races with his brother, particularly Formula One and the Mille Miglia, a 1,000-mile lap of Italy.
A WINNING BUSINESS PLAN
Andretti stepped away from his racing career in the mid-1990s, at age 54. He had seen some of his colleagues overstay their welcome and didn’t want to continue to compete if he couldn’t do it well. “I’ve always said I didn’t have a Plan B in life. I was in pursuit of my dream from the very beginning. It’s all about desire and passion. At all costs.”
So it wasn’t a Plan B, but more like Act II when Andretti launched his post-racing career. He translated his winning racing plan to business: Surround yourself with the top people in the field, make sure they have the necessary tools to do their jobs, go out there to win each time and don’t fear failure. He was never a conservative driver and he goes pedal-to-the-metal in business as well. “If everything is under control, you’re not going fast enough,” Andretti says.
He’s the first to admit he doesn’t know everything about making wine, but he has a 53-acre vineyard in California’s Napa Valley. And he knows fine wine after sampling some of the best in the world through his racing career.
“I’ve seen that too many times: people who feel threatened by subordinates who know more than they do. I think it’s counterproductive in many ways to pretend to know things you don’t. You surround yourself with people who are the real experts. At Andretti Winery, I’m not the winemaker. I have a hell of a winemaker, Bob Pepi. He’s my engineer. I’m the one who enjoys the wine and approves the finished product.”
COMPETE TO WIN
That Andretti is fearless of failure or of much else comes as no surprise. “When you stick your nose out there, you’re going to get it bitten sometimes. I’ve had crashes. If it’s a mistake you made, just don’t repeat it. We’re not infallible. If you’re so afraid of failure you will never succeed. You have to take chances. I didn’t win races because I was conservative.”
Andretti never went into a race thinking he would just be good enough to make a respectable showing. “My mindset was always to win. Entering every race, you don’t always have all the tools at your disposal. Still, your attitude should be the same. If you go in there and think ‘I have no chance today,’ you damn well will not have any chance because you’re not going to fight for it. You never go in there with a mindset of failure or you will never win.”
Beyond attitude, Andretti says success requires seeing and seizing opportunities, as well as a strong work ethic.
In his early years, a driver for a top team was injured. Andretti was called to test a car, and his performance was impressive enough to replace the unfortunate driver on the team. “I was a young guy coming up and I showed promise; I got in my licks. It was career changing and propelled me to the next level,” he says. “But the key is to not just recognize the opportunity when it comes to you. When you’re given that opportunity, you have to really step up. It’s up to you to earn the position.”
THE PRICE OF SUCCESS
All the work and adversity makes the triumph that much sweeter, Andretti says. “For every negative, there’s a positive. It’s in everything. How you deal with life, outlook, how much energy you put into achieving something. That’s why I detest entitlement. Anything that’s worthwhile is going to call for some sacrifice. Nothing worthwhile will come to you without a price. People think in sports, you have different rules. You really don’t. It’s whatever motivates you,” he says.
Andretti doesn’t want to hear excuses for not pursuing your passions, either. He meets guys all the time who tell him they also could have been race drivers but their wives wouldn’t let them or some other excuse. Nonsense, Andretti says: “They didn’t really want it.”
Andretti did want it and he got it many times over. He and his brother Aldo lied about their age to race at a track near their house—they were 19 but had to be 21 to be legal. Converting a 1948 Hudson Hornet Sportsman into a stock car, they took turns racing and winning in secret their first season. They lied to their fearful father, who only found out when Aldo was seriously hurt the last race of the season. “We didn’t do it to defy him. We did it in spite of him,” Andretti says.
Aldo suffered a skull fracture, but recovered, took a year off and raced another 10 years. Another serious crash in which he suffered major facial injuries caused Aldo Andretti to leave racing for good. But he recovered, and passed on his love of racing to his son, who continued the family tradition.
TAKING NOTHING FOR GRANTEDMario Andretti says he and his brother shared the same dreams, the same passion, yet Aldo wasn’t as lucky. “The question to me is, ‘Why am I so fortunate and why is he racing with a cloud over his head?’ That’s why I don’t take anything for granted. I’ve dodged quite a few bullets and sometimes, that’s how it goes. It’s hard to make sense,” he says.
His sons, grandson and nephew have had successful racing careers of their own. But their motivations aren’t the same because they grew up in a different world than his. Son Michael Andretti is “brilliant” and is now a team owner, Andretti says. “He has a career to be proud of—42 wins. His work ethic for sure was at least the same as mine, total commitment. But his motivation was different. His upbringing, his world was different than mine. His was, ‘My dad showed me the path and I want to do that.’ I made that point at a very early age with him. You have to do it for yourself.”
Andretti says he and Michael have different attitudes toward winning and losing. “If he wasn’t successful, he was totally miserable. I always looked at the brighter side. Whenever there is rain, there is sunshine.”
Although the checkered flag is “the ultimate definition of winning, of success,” Andretti has found satisfaction in his family successes and in his business pursuits. Although there are no pole positions or checkered fl ags in business, he says, “you have the sense, the feeling, you know what you’ve accomplished. You know whether you’ve been successful.”