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Passion, dedication, responsibility: Racing legend tells how military, motor racing share mindset

  • Published
  • By Karen Abeyasekere
  • 100th Air Refueling Wing Public Affairs
Often described as the greatest racing driver in the world, and a racing legend, Mario Andretti - former Formula 1 and IndyCar champion - visited RAF Mildenhall Jan. 21, with of a team of past and present racing drivers visiting troops around Europe and the Middle East, as part of the Indy 500 Centennial Tour.

Despite a very hectic schedule, Mario made time for an interview with public affairs, and shared his thoughts on his racing career, the troops he's met on the centennial tour, and the Formula 1 and IndyCar racing of today.

An Italian by blood - he was born in a small town near Trieste in 1940 - his father took his family to Pennsylvania, United States, in 1955, when Mario was just 15, where he eventually became an American citizen.

"A passport does not change the blood," Mr. Andretti said. "I'm one of those who actually lived the American dream; America is my home."

Throughout his racing career, he's competed in both Formula 1 (winning 12 F1 Grand Prixs between 1968 and 1981, racing in 128 during that time and taking 18 pole positions) and IndyCar, where he held second place in all-time wins. He won four national championships and 52 victories, and he's the all-time pole position winner.

"My first love is primarily single-seaters; I've had the opportunity to do other disciplines, such as sports prototypes, stock cars and NASCAR, and I've had some success there - but my main focus was always single-seaters, whether Formula 1 or IndyCars."

Mr. Andretti attends events in the states where he drives a two-seater racing car, which has been brought along on this tour. The owner of the company which owns the car suggested he join the upcoming tour, which would be visiting troops in the Middle East and around the world.

He was then approached by the Morale Entertainment Group to do the tour, though at first there were some logistical problems because of other commitments he had at the time.

"Somehow we were able to postpone some of my commitments so I was able to come here," he said. "It's been a very rich experience for me, and I wouldn't have wanted to be anywhere else except here on this tour."

The racing driver said throughout the tour, the reaction to the team has been overwhelming in every way.

"Everything has been what I was hoping for and much, much more. We all feel we've had a meaningful experience - you can't get any better than that," said Mr. Andretti. "The troops in general were thanking us for coming to visit, but the main objective was for us to come here and thank them.

"I've always had a sincere appreciation for the military because of the contacts I've had over the years. All of what we've done over the last 10 or 11 days has just reinforced that."

While in England, the team visited British troops at RAF Honington, near Thetford, and American troops at RAFs Mildenhall and Lakenheath.

They also went out to meet deployed troops.

"I was surprised how much time they actually gave us, as I'm sure they had more important things to do," he said. "They showed us the inner workings of so many things, to help us better understand the logistics and everything that goes into operations there. That's where our appreciation for the troops comes in - I know things I didn't know before. I assumed certain things - but gosh, I can't explain it and do it justice. You have to be there to see it."

At one point during the tour, the team was on an aircraft carrier.

"It seemed like chaos, but it was totally organized chaos. There were so many things going on. You're on deck and they have fighters coming up to launch and they're missing their wings by an inch (or so it seems) - but everything is orchestrated, just like a well-oiled machine."

Mr. Andretti said that one of the many things that impressed him was how hard the Soldiers, Sailors and Airmen work.

"Some of them would say, 'If it takes 24 hours to get the job done, we're there,'" said Mr. Andretti. 

"That seems to be the mindset of everyone I've spoken to; they have a certain passion that comes across and the sense of responsibility is clear. I love that sort of discipline, and that's what parallels the world that I know in motor racing over the years. That's our mindset - there's no time limit as to the amount of hours you're going to dedicate to your job. All you know is, the objective is to get the job done and to spend whatever time is necessary, and that's what I see here. So I recognize that, and I have a special appreciation for it."

With so many racing championships under his belt, surely there must have been one that was hardest to win?

"The hardest ones were those I didn't win but should have," he joked. "Every one of them was hard - nothing ever comes easy, and you're always up against incredible competition. Some wins are better than others, but no matter how many races you win, you never really win enough! Each one is extra special - that's the only way I can describe it."

Even a racing legend has a hero, and Mario Andretti is no exception.

"My idol was Alberto Ascari, an Italian who was unfortunately killed about the time we left Italy to come to the United States," Mr. Andretti recollected. "He just captured my imagination as a young lad, and he had all of the qualities that impressed me.

"One of the great satisfactions that I've had in my life is to have been the presenter to induct him into the International Motor Sports Hall of Fame posthumously; it's a hall of fame that I'm in as well, so you just feel that when events like this happen, your dream has been achieved."

On the subject of great Formula 1 and IndyCar drivers of today, Mario kept his thoughts to himself.

"This is one thing I won't divulge because it's very difficult to assess, and it could be unfair. I have my own ideas, but they will remain my own. The depth of talent in both areas is enviable, so any champion in either of these areas is a very worthy champion," he said.

Mr. Andretti started racing back in 1968, more than 40 years ago, and during that time has seen many changes. But what does he feel is the biggest change to the sport?

"It's obviously what you have in life in general," he said. "The sport has become more commercial and more sophisticated, as you would expect. But all of this has evolved over time; that's really the only change I see.

"The desire and spirit for competition and what really moves you, is the same. Drivers today have different tools to work with, which elevates the knowledge, but that's to be expected. There are challenges thrown at you every day. The biggest challenge that you have is to be able to cope with is the diversity you have to deal with - things are never the same. It comes at you from different directions and you always have to react to something different.

"I raced from 1959 and did my last race in 2000. I was learning something new right up until that last race. You never really reach the point where you can say, 'Now I pretty much know it all.' It would be a terrible mistake to think in those terms. You're always learning and it's a complex world, but when you come away with a result, that's the reward that you're after."