Mario Andretti is a national treasure, and anytime you're lucky enough to speak with the most famous race driver in the world you walk away with true gold.
So it was for media and fans who saw Andretti last week at Virginia Tire and Auto in Ashburn, where Andretti made an appearance for Firestone. Firestone supplies tires to the Indycar series, and employs Mario to make personal appearances and drive lucky fans in the two-seater on pace laps at Indycar races.
Born in Italy in 1940, Andretti moved to the United States as a boy and started his racing career in a dirt Modified at Nazareth, Pa. He raced and won in the Modified, and raced in Sprint Cars, Midgets, and dirt Champ Cars. He became a four-time Indycar series champion, won the Indy 500, won the Daytona 500, won the Sebring 12-hour endurance sports car race and was the 1978 Formula One World Driving Champion.
"Open-wheel single-seaters have been my specialty throughout my career," Andretti observed. "I loved to delve into sports prototypes, and I did some NASCAR, and some USAC stock cars. Basically I enjoy most of the disciplines, but my mainstay was open-wheel single-seaters, Indianapolis cars to Formula One."
His era was one of danger. Speed increased a lot in the 1960s and '70s, but safety didn't always keep pace. Except when it comes to tires.
"Tremendous development happened on the tire side," said Andretti. "There was a lot of competition, particularly in Indycar [between brands]. Obviously, when they were competing against one another, competition brought out the best. We were making inroads in developing these tires technically in an amazing way. As a driver it was very fascinating as to how the performance would increase, not just by tire design and construction, but also through compounds. I love the fact that I was part of all of that."
And tire development continues to this day. Andretti said that because racing is so expensive, if tire companies didn't benefit through exposure and development they wouldn't be involved in the sport as much as they are.
"It's a work in progress, they always refine something. I love being involved in it, and I stay current. Even in the two-seater I drive I can tell the difference. ... Versus last year, this year I am quicker, and it's because of the tire. I love that they never sit back and relax, they're never satisfied with the performance."
Andretti cut his teeth on dirt like a few of the top drivers in NASCAR today, such as Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and rookie Kyle Larson.
"I loved the dirt," Andretti said. "I actually had some good success on the dirt."
And racing on the dirt actually made him a better road racer, Andretti believes.
"On the European side, you know, they never really give us [Americans] too much credit for our ability to drive in the wet. They don't know that the best training for driving in the wet is the dirt, as far as car control and adapting to change. On the dirt, the track changes almost every lap. You have to change your line, constantly looking for grip, and it's the same thing on the wet."
Andretti is obviously a fan of many types of motorsport.
"I remember even Kenny Roberts [American MotoGP motorcycle champion]. When he went to Europe they thought he'd never be good in the rain. But he was a former flat-tracker, and when it rained he blew them away."
The versatile drivers may have an edge, Andretti said.
"One thing I found about mixing it up with all the disciplines, is that there's always something you can learn that will help you in them all. Even if the piece of equipment is so different, there's always something to learn. This is why I was always attracted to and curious about driving different types of cars."
Few were as successful as Mario Andretti, called the "Driver of the Century" by the Associated Press.
"I've done enough that I'm very satisfied and have zero regrets," Andretti said.
In a couple of weeks we'll have more nuggets of gold from our national treasure, Mario Andretti.
Veteran motorsports columnist Craig Murto is a Linden resident.