…chance doesn't exist; there's always a cause and a reason for everything – Elahi

Dinner with Mario

It is the fall of 1978.  Mario Andretti has won the World Championship.  We are at Watkins Glen, in upstate New York.  We approach a restaurant from which the lights are glowing in the early-evening mist.  Cars are being valet-parked.  We are ushered to a table in the far corner; magic fills the air.  Mario Andretti is dining with friends.  And Colin Chapman, even then, is laying the foundations of active-ride….

Peter Windsor takes you inside Mario’s world.  One dinner.  One evening. 



Pierce’s is the place to eat in the region of Watkins Glen.  A covered entrance opens to a large reception area that in turn hides the dinner tables from public view.

Mario’s is the long table tucked away in the furthermost corner of the packed restaurant. Mario sits in the centre, in company with his banker, their associates, his wife, Dee Ann, his twin brother, Aldo, Jean-Pierre Jarier, Geoffrey Kent (of Imperial Tobacco) and Colin Chapman.  Mario is dressed Sinatra-style, with big rings on his fingers, leather patches on his corduroy jacket and bright tie against a light-coloured shirt.

Not your James Hunt look, you could say – but then here in upstate New York, in the fall of 1978, Mario has about as much in common with James as a Lotus 79 has with, say, a McLaren M26.   Mario is perhaps a little older and a little wiser than your average F1 driver.  He even stands up when a lady enters the room.

Now, though, Mario is in earnest conversation with the Lotus boss:

“Do you remember those Dunlop Green Spots we used to use in 1964?” asks Colin.  “They were supposed to be the biggest breakthrough of all time.  They were the wet tyres, you know – the really soft ones.  Well, they did two Grand Prix distances before they wore out…  What’s the phrase you use, Mario?  Something about the cat not scratching the marble?”

“Oh, I wouldn’t know about those things,” replies Mario.  “That’s too far back for me.  But, hey, you should see my cat in the lobby.  Have you ever seen my black cat?  It just stands there, wheelspinning on the lino and it gets it right, man – a real late apex.  Just the most beautiful oversteer you’ve ever seen….”

Experience is something of which Mario has plenty.   He has so much of it, indeed, that he reckons he could sit down with any young driver tomorrow and take years off his career in a matter of hours.  It started in Italy, where Mario lived until he was 17, and it has since evolved through USAC dirt and Tarmac oval racing (Mario won two championships in his first two USAC seasons and then the 1969 Indy 500); NASCAR stock car racing (the 1967 Daytona 500); long-distance sports cars (Andretti has won virtually every major sports car race except Le Mans); and now the F1 World Championship.  And you can see his experience at work now, as he runs through the list of red wines.  Every minute or so he puts his hand to his ear and says “What?” – which is testament enough to the hours he’s spent in close proximity with multi-cylinder combustion engines.

“…Let me tell you how that was,” he continues, talking to Colin.  “When I was just starting in USAC, in ’64, I was driving a front-engined roadster for Doug Stearley.  Troy Ruttman had just gotten out of it and in those days, you know, there was no such thing as setting up the cockpit.  I rattled around in that thing just as I’m rattling around in this chair.  Because Troy was a tall guy.  Anyway, it started to rain and I spun to avoid another guy.  Rodger Ward was in a rear-engined car, leading the race, and he hit my rear.  Man, he started chewing me out like you wouldn’t believe.  He unloaded on me.  I was ready to crawl into a hole.

“Next week there was a Firestone tyre test at Trenton and I was invited along as a favour to my new entrant, Clint Brawner.  I was too new to do any serious testing, because for that they had Ward and Parnelli Jones.  But my roadster was really working at Trenton and I was only about half a second slower than they were in rear-engined cars.  Anyway, Parnelli bottomed-out on a bump and he just wrote his car off.  The thing catches fire.  Really big shunt.  And Rodger Ward says,  ‘Hey, Parnelli!  What a dumb thing to do.  You knew the car was bottoming.  Why did you go and wreck it?’  You know what Rodger was like.  He really got at it.  The next thing you know, Rodger gets in his car and he loses it.  I mean, he backs in into the wall.  And he throws down his helmet and starts cursing and swearing.

“So there’s little old me, standing on the other side, and I’m the only one left to do the tyre test.  And that’s the truth!”

(And, as Brawner tells it in his book, Indy 500 Mechanic, that was the making of Mario.  After recalling the first time he saw Andretti – “in 1964 I found myself standing in Rufus Gray’s pit, watching his driver.  I saw him personally select the tyres he wanted to use, then pitch in and help Rufus get the car handling properly,” wrote Brawner.  “When Firestone knew that Andretti had to do the testing, they let him out in my car only on condition that I had Ward a run too. Ward was an expert driver who could sort out a race car, and a tyre, in a hurry.  But the following day, after only eight laps, Ward braked to a stop in the pits and jumped out of my roadster.  ‘Young man,’ says Rodger to Mario,  ‘I rarely blow anybody’s horn.  But I gotta take my hat off to you because, as bad as my car handles, anybody that can even keep this thing going in a straight line is a race driver…’”

“Which was the first test programme I met you at, Mario?” asks Chapman.

“It was at Trenton.  You were there with Jimmy Clark and Roger McCluskey.”

“Yes, that’s right.  Jimmy and McCluskey.  And you turned up, I remember, as the hot kid, and Jimmy said, ‘You must meet this guy.  Andretti’ – and I said ‘Andretti?  Who’s Andretti?”

They both chuckle.  The red is poured.  More stories are poured:

“Ferrari were going to do an Indianapolis car in 1973,” says Mario, “so they sent their top designer over, which was Rocchi, their leading engine man.  He was supposed to stay with me for the entire month of May and I took him to see the Bendix people and the AiResearch people, but he also needed to see some of the existing engines close-up – the chambers on the Offys and so forth.  So the guy’s got about 15 cameras around his neck and I’m taking him into the garages and introducing him as my uncle from Italy.  I’d say, ‘Dan, do you mind if my uncle snoops around for awhile because he’s really interested to see how you do things?  It’s his hobby, you know.’  Dan (Gurney) says, ‘Sure, let him come right in’.  Dan’s got his latest engine all in pieces – bits everywhere.  And after about three hours he says to me, ‘Say, your uncle’s quite an enthusiast, isn’t he?’

“Unfortunately, the last garage we went to was McLaren and they had a mechanic, Roger Bailey, who had worked with Chris Amon’s Ferrari Tasman team.  I did my usual spiel about my uncle and then Roger comes over and says, ‘Hi Rocchi.  How ya doin’?’  Man we had to run out of Gasoline Alley.  But Rocchi went back with a wealth of information, let me tell you…”

Chapman doubles up.  More wine.  The main course- filet steak – arrives.

“That Don Branson was a hell of a driver,” continues Mario, taking a different track.  “On dirt tracks he was incredible.  If he went out to qualify before I did I’d always go and watch him to see which groove to run.  He could just dig his heel into the dirt and he’d know how much bite there was.  And he always had his set-up right.  On the dirt, you’ve got about 60lbs of cross-weighting you can play with during a race, and, within that range, you’ve got to judge how the track conditions are going to change.  Like in the 100-milers at Sacramento I always used to run high.  I loved to run high, right up at the wall.  But then you may have to come down to the inside groove and in my early days that would finish me.  I’d be jacked up wrong and could drop four places in ten laps.”

“Actually, we were just talking about that today,” says Colin. “All you seem to be doing in the pits it playing with your spring platforms.  You’ve got your cockpit-adjustable brake balance and your anti-roll bar adjusters, so we decided that the next thing we’ve got to give you is cockpit-adjustable ride height.  You know, you should be able to play with the springs while you’re out there on the circuit….”

Mario indeed uses asymmetric chassis set-ups on the Lotus 79 – and that alone is enough to separate him from his rivals.  “I’ll put it this way,” he once said to me.  “Everywhere I’ve raced I’ve learned something I’m using right now.  Experience isn’t the best teacher;  it’s the only teacher.  There are things I learned at Indy that some F1 guys don’t know because they’ve never been there.  Compared with an IndyCar, F1 cars are almost simple.  There’s nothing at all to setting a car up equal on all sides, which is the way most drivers do it.  At Indy, though, you’ve got four caster angles, four camber angles, four tow-ins, four rolling circumferences and weight-jacking to play with.  I might set up my car with a certain toe-in on the right, neutral on the left and a bigger tyre on one of the rears.  I won’t tell anyone what it feels like or how to know when it’s wrong.  They just do it for me.  It works or it doesn’t work.  But I’m the one that knows.  There’s no text book in racing – no instruction manual.  You just have to find your way.  And the longer you’ve been finding your way, the better you become.”

Mario spends a standard winter tuning snowmobile two-strokes and running those 100mph machines around his estate in the Pocono mountains.  He’s a racer’s racer – and he admits to waking on occasions from a fitful sleep with pounding heart and sweaty palms.   No surprise that he was one of the American sprint car drivers who resisted the arrival of rollover cages.  “I don’t need a rollcage to pump up my nerves,” he said, a few weeks before they became mandatory.   Contemporary reports describe the young Andretti as totally fearless and abnormally driven.  “Andretti in a sprint car continued to be the most savage of all drivers.  His personality changed.  No-one knew why.  The violent Mario Andretti who raced sprint cars did not seem to be the same smooth, sober-minded Mario who had started to be called a superstar in the low-slung and delicate Championship cars.  Andretti raced sprint cars purely for the hell of it.  He didn’t need the dough.  Yet inside Wally Meskowski’s car he jumped about in the seat, muscled the steering wheel and rammed the booming car through holes in traffic that opened and slammed shut in a hurry.  It was suggested that Mario was taking too many risks, but he denied it….” – this from one of USAC’s grass-roots sprint car books (Stand on the Gas, by Joe Scalzo).

The truth is that Mario can talk all he likes about spring platforms and stagger;  when practice turns to racing the man becomes a driver of incredible aggression.  He got some of his competitive instinct from his father, who was a jockey.  Otherwise, Mario will admit simply that, if he is behind someone, it’s because he can’t overtake them.

How quick is Mario?  For one thing, Jim Clark noticed him early.  For another, Andretti clearly has an enormous capacity to “feel waste” – his phrase.  You see it in his body language – in his neatness, in his orderliness (prior to the fire-resistant gauntlets, Andretti’s skin-backed driving gloves were always specially made for him), in his economy of movement and in his total dislike of excessive slip angles.  Andretti says that he has always had this “feel for waste”.  On the dirt, he was one of the tidier drivers.  In F1, smooth brake pressure release, smooth throttle application and fewer substantial steering wheel movements (recorded as approximately 50 per cent fewer than Ronnie Peterson’s on a lap of Ricard) are his trademarks.  How, then, does he drive a quick lap?  When he does want more, from where does he find it?  “In braking,” he says.  “Maybe you brake a fraction later;  most times you just come off the brakes a little bit sooner.”

And he is self-critical to a tee.  “Oh yeah.  I make mistakes.  Usually they’re small enough for me to be the only one who notices them but you do turn-in a fraction too early, or you do apply a fraction too much mid-corner steering.  The trick is to warn the car before you direct it – to give it, and you, the margin you need to adapt.

“Concentration is also a critical thing.  In the Canadian GP in 1977 James Hunt gave me the hardest race of the season.  No matter what I did he was always there.  And do you know what was happening?  I was trying to adjust my roll-bar and every time I took my hand off the wheel and thought about the bar he was on me.  It’s situations like that that let you know about the importance of concentration.”

At the table now, sitting together, there is evident a further dimension of Andretti’s skill – his relationship with Colin Chapman, with the Lotus team and with every other team with which he has been successful.  In the case of the 1978 World Championship you could say that Andretti was in the right car at the right time.  Why he was in that position goes back to 1976, when he had faith in a team that Ronnie Peterson was leaving.  Andretti’s decision to join Lotus, to have one more go at winning the World Championship, was not luck;  the reasons for it are obvious in the conversation that’s now gathering pace:

“Yeah, from the moment I drove the Lotus 49 I knew it was a car that would pay you back something,” Mario is saying about 1968, when he first drove for Lotus.  “You don’t put any more effort in than normal;  you just get more than usual in return.  It was the same thing with the Lotus 78 and the F5000 Lola.  And do you remember that time we did at the Glen in ’68?”

“Yes, it was a fantastic pole lap,” replies Colin.

“I’ll never forget it.  I did 1min 03.88sec and I knew Jackie Stewart was doing 1min 04.27 – but they refused to give us the time.  I came in and you said to me, ‘You’ll have to go out again because the best they’ve given us is a 1min 04.40sec.  So I did the time again, and I knew I was in the 1min 03s and they still had me in the 1min 04s.  I think I got the pole by two hundredths of a second or something.  And what really annoyed me was that everyone was saying that I lived at The Glen purely because I was American.  They all thought I’d been testing there and brought up there – but I’d never seen the place before.  I never even went around the circuit in my road car.”

“Yes, I know,” says Colin.  “But it still took you a long time time join us, didn’t it?” he adds with a smirk.  “You kept going to all those silly places like March and Ferrari – and then you went to Parnelli, where you thought you could to a Lotus without me!  You stole all my guys (Andrew Ferguson and Dick Scammell) all my designers (Maurice Phillippe), hired a place ten miles down the road and moved Lotus there….”

“Yep, sure did,” says Mario, laughing loudly.  “Paid for it though.  That Parnelli aged me ten years.  Maurice always used to talk about cycles, but as I didn’t understand any of that I asked him to convert to something I did understand, like wheel rates.  He did and we were still lost!”

Although some years apart numerically, Chapman (50) and Andretti (38) are sufficiently close in generation to enjoy the same things.  One suspects, for example, that a Chapman-Villeneuve relationship would be different from the start, if only because the driver would seem to be young enough to be the engineer’s son.  It is not so with Mario – and the team’s stability reflects it.  There are no shouting matches between team members;  there’s no friction there.  Mario’s mechanics – Glenn Waters and Phil Denny – don’t need reprimands if they make mistakes.

“To do the job well you’ve got to be really flowing with the team,” says Mario.  “And that will never happen overnight.”

It is past 10:30pm when Chapman rises to leave.  With him go Jarier and Kent.  Mario instead pulls out a greenback and begins a game of 20-dollar poker – a game for which only he seems to know the rules.  Then, in time, out into the sharp evening air walk the group.  Mario signs autographs, says goodbye to his friends and leads Dee Ann to the car.

And there, in the still-young couple at peace with the world, you see a final reason for Mario’s success:  his sincerity as a human being.  Despite being committed to F1, Andretti has taken the trouble to keep his home in America.  Concorde takes him there after every round of the Championship.  He is a family man, with two sons (Mike and Jeff) and a daughter (Barbi) – and to them he is irretrievably tied.  “Just like I got the feeling early this year that in 1978 the World Championship was meant to be,” he says, “I know my family and my marriage also was meant to be.”

Top:  Mario confers with Colin Chapman prior to his pole lap at Watkins Glen, 1968.  He would become the first driver in history to start his first GP from the pole – a feat only matched subsequently by Carlos Reutemann and Jacques Villeneuve; Middle: Mario at The Glen in 1978.  America’s second World Champion;  Above:  Mario at home in the Lotus 79 – Dutch GP, Zandvoort.  “I knew it was meant to be,” he said of his Championship year.  All pictures by Sutton Images

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3 thoughts on “Dinner with Mario

  1. Fantastic piece, truly magical. Thanks Peter!

  2. Thanks for the lovely story Mssr. Windsor..

    just the kind of behind the scenes I love to hear.


    Tony DI ZINNO
    photo sherpa

  3. A cool story and some cool pants on Mario in that pic. Respect.

    Funny how Lotus 79 doesn’t look outdated compared to the modern F1 cars… Safety-wise it’s not the same thing obviously, those cars were pretty dangerous but still a very beautiful car. From the most recent creations I personally like Renault R27 and Brawn’s 2009 car, they had something about them.

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