Racing legend Mario Andretti discusses his joining the Indy 500 Centennial Tour in January. During the tour, Indianapolis 500 veteran drivers and those with ties to the greatest spectacle in racing and the IZOD IndyCar Series will visit American military personnel stationed in Europe and southwest Asia. Other confirmed participants include Al Unser, Jr., Johnny Rutherford, Graham Rahal, Davey Hamilton, Larry Foyt, Martin Plowman, Jack Arute, IZOD Trophy Girl Cameron Haven, and IndyCar executive Terry Angstadt.
Q. Mario, coud you talk about your involvement with the Indy 500 Centennial Tour, joining the tour to go over and salute U.S. forces in Europe and southwest Asia?
MARIO ANDRETTI: Well, I'm quite happy that I was invited to this tour. The invitation came while I was visiting the last race at Homestead. I happened to be taking a general from the National Guard for a ride in the two-seater car. He mentioned something about it. Of course, Tom Lee mentioned it to me. One thing led to another.
The fact they said, Well, maybe we'll have the two-seater car shipped over there, and you can give some rides there. I said, You know what, this sounds good, sounds like an incredibly good idea.
I've had the opportunity to visit bases around the world before, and I always welcome that opportunity. I think it always gives you just a great feeling to visit with the military around the world, these young individuals that obviously are out there and serving our country and sacrificing in many different ways. If we can bring a smile to their face for whatever reason, I think it's a great feeling.
So I'm definitely looking forward to this. It's going to be a great experience, I'm sure. Like I said, I hope that it's well-received. I think it should be. I'm sure we have a lot of race fans in the military and we'll see what kind of response we get.
Q. Mario, some say one of NASCAR's troubles in the last year or so has been they're not developing younger fans. How do you feel the IndyCar folks are doing with that? We all know who you and A.J. and all those guys are. I'm wondering if there are people in their 20s and 30s who are really into the IndyCar Series now.
MARIO ANDRETTI: That is a good question. I think the sanctioning bodies in general recognize this.
It's cyclical. It's life. There is a cycle of life for drivers. You've got drivers that obviously have been around a long time. Sooner or later they're going to retire. They almost start all over. The same thing with fans.
But I think the job of the organizing bodies, such as IndyCar, NASCAR and so forth, is to always try to find ways to connect the fans, such as making maybe the drivers more available to the fans, opening up sometimes the pit area to allow the fans to come closer to the racecars and visit. Anything to become fan-friendly, if you will. All these things have a way of really working in a positive way.
I remember myself as a kid just one instant when I was able to get next to a driver, like Eddie Sachs in Trenton. I was shaking in my boots. He actually talked to me. I asked him a question about how he enjoyed the race in Monza, in Italy, when they went there to run on the high banks. He actually answered it to me.
I know how those things work. Us as drivers, when we're out there, I think we have to think in those terms. There could be a day that would impress somebody, and that person could become a fan for life. Those are all the things that are important to remember also to create the fan base.
Q. Throughout the recent election campaigns, we heard a lot of negativity about the American dream is dying. I'm wondering what your sense is of this, as someone who came over from Italy and built a great career and a great life.
MARIO ANDRETTI: Well, I can tell you, I'm a perfect example of living the American dream, because I'm an immigrant. I was able to realize, again, what I was still dreaming about when I left Italy.
I arrived in the States, and motor racing was the only thing in my mind – besides school, of course – at the age of 15. I started driving here at 19. I would have never had the opportunity if I would have stayed in Italy, for instance. So, I did fully realize it because of what this country can provide for you.
If you work hard enough, if you really believe in yourself, those opportunities are out there. I don't think in any way the American dream is dying. Of course, it all depends which side of the aisle you sit on. At the same time, I don't think we can give up on that in any way. I think that's something that we need to keep fighting for, because that's made America the greatest country in the world. We can't give that up. If we do, it's shame on us.
Q. Mario, you talked about the American dream. The fact that you were born in Italy during the war, came over here to America, does that make you appreciate the freedom provided by America and also the service personnel who protect that freedom even more because you weren't born in this country and you came here for the freedom?
MARIO ANDRETTI: I think so. I think I have a different appreciation for that aspect of it. If I would have been born here, obviously there are a lot of things that I would have taken for granted, which is natural.
So having been displaced from my native land, even though at a young age, but old enough to certainly be aware of what's going on, seeing my parents, my dad, giving up everything he worked for all his life through no fault of his own, but looking and being concerned about the future of us, my twin brother Aldo, my sister Anna Maria. That's why at this stage of his life he made the decision to come to America, all of that.
Then again, coming over, realizing what America could provide as far as opportunities for us gives us a clear appreciation of what's here. I think maybe I have different values, and all of it is what you're saying. It gives me just a different viewpoint, for sure.