(Note: If you’ve stumbled upon this article without seeing the context of how it came about, you might want to peek at that article here: How I F*cked Up My Interview with Mario Andretti)
This story’s headline is taken out of context. Sort of.
Actually, not really.
You see, on paper, Mario Andretti’s resume is bad ass, but when you speak to him in person, you quickly understand that this man was put on this planet to drive things as fast as possible, even at 78-years old.
During qualifying weekend at the Indianapolis 500, I asked Andretti if he felt like he could still qualify for the race. With more entries on site than starting spots available this year, the pressure was on for all the drivers competing to drive fast enough during time trails to qualify for the event.
Just because you showed up with a car, you were not guaranteed the privilege of starting the race. One of the Verizon IndyCar Series’ most publicly visible drivers, James Hinchcliffe, who also happened to be a former pole-sitter, failed to make the race due to his lack of pace during his qualifying run. He was not among the fastest 33.
Another fan favorite, Pippa Mann, failed to qualify as well.
So, could Andretti qualify if he stepped in a car today?
“Depending on the car,” he said. “The car here is 80 percent. It’s 80 to 85 percent. The driver’s input is only 15 percent.
“The car that’s on the pole, I can guarantee you that I could put it on the pole.”
Though he hasn’t competed regularly since 1994, Andretti would argue that not much has changed with the Indy cars since he last raced in the Indy 500.
“I don’t think that there’s anything that’s been earth-shaking,” he said. “The sport evolves, like life. All sports tweak here and there. Technology, of course, has played a big part.”
Andretti would explain that many of the changes the sport has seen has been due to the technological advancements of the cars, but that the sanctioning body has worked to keep technology controlled.
He said, “The team I was driving for, the Newman/Haas team, we were the first ones that actually would be instrumented with telemetry back in the mid-80s. That was a big step forward in gaining total knowledge and precise data with what’s happening with the car, including immediately being able to send (the information) back to the engineer while you’re still running.
“The sanctioning bodies have to tweak the rules accordingly because you want to keep the thing in the hands of the humans.”
Andretti reminded me that today’s Verizon IndyCar Series machines do not have traction control or power steering.
“You just have a beast under you that could potentially hurt you,” he said. “You’re there to try to be sure that it doesn’t.
“It’s like an animal trainer, as we say. You just got to be able to pet it and do all the right things so the thing does what you want.”
Given his success and accomplishments, Andretti, while 78, is probably still more than qualified to “tame the beast.”
With this in mind, I mentioned to Andretti that next year’s 103rd running of the Indianapolis 500 would be the 50th anniversary of his victory in “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.” Given his confidence in being able to still put a car on the pole, I asked if there were any thoughts about making a one-time comeback to commemorate his victory.
Personally, I never saw Andretti race as I didn’t start following the sport until 1995. Selfishly, a big part of me would like to see how he’d do if he gave it one more shot.
Andretti thought, hesitated, and said, “I think that would be rather crazy.”
However, in his response, I noticed two things. First, the way his face lit up to the idea. I’m sure a big part of him thinks he could still do it.
More importantly, the second thing I noticed, he didn’t exactly say he WOULDN’T do it. While he acknowledged it was a crazy idea, he didn’t say, “No way.”
So, to this year’s pole-sitter and race runner-up, Ed Carpenter, would you be willing to give Andretti a shot in 2019?
If not, Andretti has a pretty decent “in” with another team in the paddock.
In Part 2, we’ll examine how Andretti is actually in decent racing shape to make a comeback a reality at Indy.
In Part 3, you’ll read about how Andretti knew that he had “it” and the ways in which he has benefitted from his talents.
In Part 4, we’ll see what Andretti had to say about how he prepared for life after the cockpit, and we’ll also examine his favorite accomplishment in his life.