Mario Andretti is one of the most revered drivers in racing history. He’s one of two drivers to have won races in Formula One, IndyCar, World Sportscar Championship, and NASCAR. He’s done it all, while establishing the Andretti name as one of the most recognizable in sports.
Andretti has also done it all off the track. He has a series of ventures that include go karts, wine, pizza, and a new six-part digital video series launched by Firestone that profiles the three generations of the Andretti family called The Driven. And what better time to talk to Andretti than right before Sunday’s Indy 500 (ABC, 12:20 p.m. ET).
The legend took the time to speak with SB Nation on his career, pop culture references of himself, milk, wine, go-karts, and whether or not he ever had to go to the bathroom during a race. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Obviously you have one of the most accomplished careers in racing history, but what’s the one thing from your career that sticks out the most that other people might not think about?
MA: Obviously there are things that people see and things that you feel yourself, you know? Whenever you embark in this journey you have your specific goals and ambitious goals. For me, it was obviously winning the big ones, you know? Indy, and then going and doing some Formula One in my career, and then I come away with a world championship and this is because Formula One was important. Because that’s when I fell in love with the sport, when I was still living in Italy. It’s a lot of moments like that, they’re very special and that only I can appreciate.
Winning the Italian Grand Prix is a big feather in your cap as a Formula One driver to win your own country. But then I won the U.S. Grand Prix as well [laughs] at Long Beach so how sweet is that? That happened the same year. And this country obviously delving into NASCAR and coming away with their biggest race was something that I cherish a great deal for sure. I won that on Firestone tires too. I’ve been blessed, that’s all I can tell you. I’ve been able to dodge so many bullets throughout my career, and have a long career. It’s a dream come true.
Going back to your career, you were one of the best to ever do it, but who was the one driver who gave you the most fits? Not in the sense that you didn’t like him, but that you just said to yourself “man, that guy is good.”
MA: Well, honestly there were many that I looked up to. It wasn’t just one, I wish it was just one. [laughs] The way I look at it, when I broke into Indy cars, A.J. Foyt was a standout at the time. Of course he had five years on me so he was already quite the veteran, and he was the measure that we had to go up to. If you were going to win any race, you had to go through the likes of him.
Over the decades, I’ve said this many times, there’s always somebody up there that sets a standard and elevates your game, because of course you don’t want to play second fiddle. That’s what inspires you, and I’ve had many icons of our sport that have been the ones I’ve been able to have the opportunity to race against and elevate my game.
I’m sure there’s pieces of memorabilia you have kept from the course of your career, whether that’s from a victory you had, or even something else another driver gave you. What’s the strangest or more interesting ones you kept, and why?
MA: Well, I mean I have, as you can see, we have trophies where I finished first or second. And then you have other trophies to commemorate a Hall of Fame and all that sort of thing. But the one that I always, whenever people are in my house and they look at my trophies, the one that I show them is the one after my very first season in single-seater cars where I didn’t do very well because the cars were not capable. But I got a trophy and it says, “Mario Andretti, for ability under adverse conditions.” [laughs] So that’s the one that stands out.
Were those adverse conditions just strictly because of the race car or were there other elements to that?
MA: Yeah, because the race car was a piece of crap. [laughs]
The drinking of milk at the Indy 500 is a tradition. First question, do you like milk as a beverage in general?
MA: Oh absolutely, I love milk. I have it in my cereal everyday. Two percent, however I’ll have whole milk. If I were to drive in victory lane here I would suck up whole milk all day.
So is that what you had in your Indy 500 victory?
MA: Whole milk, yeah. Indeed. Absolutely.
If the Indy 500 changed tradition, and you could celebrate with any beverage, what would your preferred choice have been?
MA: Ah, after a race, probably just a nice beer, [laughs] to cool down.
Do you have a particular kind of beer in mind that you’d like to drink and be showered with after winning a race?
MA: [laughs] Well I like Moretti beer, Italian beer. But Bud Light would have been just fine.
Racing for many years, a lot of folks whether they are fans of racing are not, are curious in general about what happens when drivers need to use the restroom during a race. Have you ever been in that position, and how do you handle that if you were?
MA: You know, it’s interesting, no. Because actually you perspire all the liquids just go out of your skin. I never, never, never in all my years — I think it was 896 races in my life — I never had that need.
MA: Not once.
That’s... honestly that’s one of your more impressive accomplishments throughout your career. Not to take anything away from your wins, but...
MA: [laughs] Yep, yep.
Going outside of your racing career, you have your own winery in Napa Valley, what’s your favorite kind of wine?
MA: Oh, I mean depending on what the meal’s going to be and so forth. I just — my palette just enjoys varietals. And so I go obviously for the mainstream, you know like the Cabs and so forth, which is like Bordeaux blends. Merlots, and I love our Sangiovese, I love our Chard, I love our Sauvignon Blanc, I love our Pinot Grigio, I love our Barbera, I love our Tocheto... [laughs] You know, so, any given day it’s like my kids. I always love one more than the other so that’s how the wines are.
When you’re a legend such as yourself, you get referenced in pop culture. Are you aware of A Tribe Called Quest?
MA: Yes, yes.
So then you know about Q-Tip’s lyric about you where he says, “See, lyrically I’m Mario Andretti on the MOMO / Ludicrously speedy, or infectious with the slow-mo”?
MA: [laughs] I could not recite it, but I know all about that. [laughs]
So you are aware, I just had to make sure. It’s a classic!
MA: I am aware. Charlie Daniels actually had the very first one. It was back in the 70s actually when I was driving from the LA airport to Riverside. I’m in a rental car, and I hear, “Mario Andretti woulda sure been proud!” and I was all “What the hell?” [laughs] and that was Charlie Daniels. It was the first song I noticed that. So, “Easy Rider” is the title of the song.
Is that your favorite reference of you in pop culture, or is there something else that was in a show or a movie that sticks out to you?
MA: I think it’s quite the compliment, don’t you think? I really look at it that way, quite honestly, yes.
Obviously you don’t go into sports to have those kinds of things happen to you, but I’m sure it’s a pleasant and humbling surprise.
MA: Yes it’s wonderful, one of the perks I guess. [laughs]
How involved are you with the Andretti’s go kart locations in metro Atlanta and Orlando?
MA: Well you know I’m obviously part of it, but as far as the management, I just go there and enjoy it. [laughs]
Have you gone out there and raced yourself?
MA: Oh yeah, they don’t like it when we come there because we’re just pretty brutal to one another around there. Sometime we do a little damage to the cars so, our managers, they’d prefer that we’d stay away.
Are you the type to get overly competitive? Have you ever bet somebody money and taken their money in an Andretti’s location?
MA: Well, you know I don’t do that because I think it would be unfair. Because I would pick probably the kart that I know that would be better. [laughs] I would have that opportunity, so I don’t do that sort of thing.
OK, well I’m challenging you. Next time you’re in the metro Atlanta area, I want to challenge you to a race.
MA: Come to either Roswell or Marietta, and I’ll meet you there.
I will meet you out there, no problem.
MA: And we’ll have a pizza after that, from my pizza oven.
Pizza and some wine!
MA: There you go, perfect.