Mario Andretti Interview

Dec 29, 2011 2 Comments by

Grazie, Mario: The legendary Mario Andretti shares his home—and his collection—with DCX 

The November drive north into Nazareth was colorful. Working off bellies full of hotel lobby waffles and taking to the hills outside of Easton, we watched as the strip malls and roadside attractions were replaced with rolling country. Pennsylvania hadn’t yet lost her leaves, and the panorama was vibrant; green giving way to a final, lingering burst of foliage that draped the barns and farmhouses before the gray and white slumber of winter. Through the gates; up the driveway; the blue eyes that greeted us that crisp northeast morning belonged to the personal assistant and majordomo to Mario Andretti, who smiled as she ushered us inside.

The next set of eyes we saw belonged to the man himself. Rising up from behind a desk, at 71, Mario Andretti is compact, trim and still possessed of a sharp gaze, a firm grip and an open smile. Despite the accomplishments of his life and the splendor of the surroundings, there is no pretense with Andretti, nor is any needed. This is a confident man whose path started amid the ashes of a world war, who survived a childhood spent in a refugee camp, and who escaped communism to find opportunity here in America amid the grit and danger of open wheel racing.

A few minutes after shaking hands, we were invited into Mario’s inner office and then, deeper into Villa Montona, his estate named after the Italian village in which he and his twin brother Aldo were born. As we went from room to room, the conversation shifted from his six-decade career to his love of racing history, and, of course, his passion for collecting diecast and scale models.

By his own count, Mario Andretti has driven 166 different race cars. His ability to remember the details and articulate his experiences have made him legendary not only as a driver, but also as a witness to history. As such, he’s been involved in literally dozens of model car projects, as a consultant, as a historian, and as a licensor of the Andretti name. He also collects models from outside his own domain and frequently receives scale model homages, hand-built or otherwise, from devoted fans and associates—all of which, he says, bring him great personal joy. Some of these, as we saw during our time in his beautiful home, have become a part of the decor of his everyday life. The number of pieces in the overall collection isn’t known; in addition to the thousands of framed newspaper and magazine clips, meticulously mounted bits of race cars and trophies, and the pieces of art that cover the walls of Montona, Andretti Enterprises keeps a well-managed warehouse for the storage and safe keeping of the greater bulk and balance of Mario’s models and memorabilia.

Before we set up to record the interview, we were taken on a tour of sorts; first to the trophy cases in an upstairs foyer, then to his home garage, where, alongside the Andretti family cars, we were treated to the sight of the last Indy Car Andretti drove—the Newman-Haas Texaco/Havoline Lola T94/00 #6 he’d piloted until the engine failed at Laguna Seca in 1994.

“It’s the only car I ever asked for,” Mario said, “and I would have been happy to have it just as it was, after the race—dirty, tires worn out, covered in oil. But they rebuilt it before they gave it to me. It’s completely race-prepped.” Asked why he didn’t collect more cars over the course of his career, Mario smiled. “The cars were all owned by the teams—I was just a driver. And besides, where would I put them all?”

Like most collectors, Mario’s figured out a viable alternative to amassing a lineup of full-sized cars: scale models. “I love the details of these things,” he said, “and I can tell when the manufacturer has really worked to get everything right.” One choice piece from Mario’s inner office is a 1:18 diecast Carousel 1 Watson Roadster, the Offy-powered #12 “Dean Van Lines Special” from 1961, as driven by the late Eddie Sachs. When Mario and his son Michael took part in the IMAX film Super Speedway, the senior Andretti drove a similar car just before the end credits—the #12 1964 Eddie Kuzma roadster, a race car he’d not seen since that season, now a lovingly restored piece at which Andretti still marvels. “When they rolled it out of the trailer, I couldn’t believe it,” he said. “They even got the upholstery right. What a great job they did on that car!”

The roadster model, as well as Exoto’s 1:10 replica of the Holman & Moody-prepped Ford GT40 MkIV that he and Lucien Bianchi shared at Le Mans in 1967, are among his favorites; in addition to the hand-built (and too heavy and valuable to safely move) one-off presentation pieces that flank his desk, Mario takes no small delight in the mass-manufactured replicas that he keeps close by, in his office and in his home—some of which were brought into his recreation room for the video shoot. As we ran the cameras and lights, Mario spoke of his life, his friendships and all that he’s seen, with an angle on how it all relates to his work with, and appreciation of, scale models. Gracious, genteel, and as enthusiastic as ever, Mario Andretti is a man who appreciates his past.

And so do we. As we wound down the session and put away our gear, we took a last look around at the thousands of pieces of memorabilia, and the models and bits of real cars contained in cases and hung on the walls. The collection and its history is staggering. The opportunity to see it and the joy of a life well lived reflected in Mario Andretti’s own eyes, is one we’ll not soon forget.

Ciao, Mario…and thanks.

From the Magazine

About the author

I was always crazy about toy cars and car-themed play sets, but I got hooked on car models when my cousin sent me a pair of built-up AMT kits - a '61 Continental and a '57 Thunderbird. I was six or seven years old when another cousin - Carl - showed me how to build and paint, and by the time I was nine, I had a pretty good collection and a great "spares box" on hand. The original Auto World catalogs were my dream books; my allowance was spent before it was ever earned, and I knew every hobby store and model retailer on Long Island. Then came slot cars, Cox .049-engined Baja Buggies and airplanes, and, ultimately, the real things. I still have some of those old models, and when time allows, I still build or detail scale cars. But it's the ready-to-display replicas and scale racing models that have really had me jazzed for the past fifteen years or so. The "mint" diecasts and the 1:18 American Muscle cars that I cut my serious collecting (and writing) teeth on back then led straight to the current crop of offerings from high-end makers and models in every scale. I also love scale model photography, and shooting, scoring, and producing videos of the models I love. I'm a proud member of the DiecastSpace Diecast Hall of Fame, as well as the Diecast Car Collectors' Club Diecast Scale Model Hall of Fame. I'm also proud to be a part of the Die Cast X Team, and as Editor-in-Chief, I'm looking forward to years of growing the publication and showing new collectors how much fun this hobby can be. And, yeah - I still have that spares box.

2 Responses to “Mario Andretti Interview”

  1. carl jackson says:

    I’ve been a long time fan of Mario Andretti and have a lot of the diecast versions of cars that he raced. I’m waiting for Minichamps or TrueScale Miniatures to make a really good version of Andretti’s 1978 F-1 champion winning Lotus 79. I really enjoy your Die Cast-X mag and it’s the first thing I check out when it comes in the mail. It keeps me up on all the news in the world of diecast cars. Keep up the good work. Thanks! (P.S. an Exoto version of that Lotus 79 would be cool to…..expensive but cool)

  2. Jeff Stalling says:

    Great job Joe…it had to be a blast to hang with Mario

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