15 May 2019 | Jim Ayello | IndyStar
‘Through the grogginess, I reach for my phone, open the recording app and whisper, “It’s 3 in the morning and I’m awake and sweating because I just had a nightmare I got into a car accident with Mario Andretti.”
I was spending the night 15 minutes outside of Nazareth, Pennsylvania, the quaint hometown of racing icon Mario Andretti. As the 50th anniversary of his Indianapolis 500 victory approaches, I have arranged to meet the living legend at his villa and chauffeur him to the first track he ever called home: Nazareth Speedway.
The plan was to walk around the now-defunct 1-1/8-mile race track and reminisce about the Italian immigrant’s auspicious beginnings — the place where the legend began. The original Nazareth Speedway, the half-mile dirt track, was the first place Mario ever heard cars racing in America — the siren song that would eventually lead him down the path to a storied career. After that, we’d pedal around the rest of Nazareth while he awakened memories of the place he and his family have lived for more than 60 years.
With some people, you have nightmares about spending half a day with them for fear of awkward silences. With Mario Andretti, you don’t worry about that. Ask a question, and he could talk for an hour.
No, with Mario Andretti the real nightmare is driving a car with him as a passenger.
Tap the brake too late. Forget to signal. God forbid my dream come true and I hit something.
He wouldn’t call out a minor mistake, I know that. He’s too kind. But he’d know. And I’d know he knew. And that would be enough to rattle me.
Fortunately, I learned later that morning, among Mario’s many skills is the ability to sense dread in those around him. As we leave his house, Mario asks me a seemingly innocuous question.
“Do you know where you’re going?”
“Yeah, I went there this morning,” I say.
We climb into my rented Hyundai Elantra and I take a deep breath and start the car. Just as I am about to throw it in reverse, Mario looks at me and says the four nicest words I could hear in that moment:
“Why don’t I drive?”
Mario Andretti’s recurring nightmare
Andretti is cut from different cloth than the rest of us. A 79-year-old adrenaline junkie who still drives an Indy car two-seater at near 200 mph before every race, he doesn’t fear the same things we fear. Not even death.
While standing in the middle of Nazareth Speedway, he recounts the story of the crash that nearly killed his twin brother Aldo.
It happened during the final race of the 1959 season at a place called Hatsfield Speedway, about an hour south of Nazareth. Racing in a qualifying heat, Aldo put the right front tire into the wall and the now-famous Hudson Hornet that he and Mario had built with the help of some neighborhood friends flipped end over end. The roof collapsed and split open Aldo’s helmet. He was unconscious. Emergency responders rushed him to the hospital where he remained in a coma for four days.
“We asked the doctors, you know, ‘What can we do to help?’ Mario said. “And they said, ‘Talk to him about anything that will stimulate him.’ … So I told Aldo, ‘Don’t worry, I’ve been busy building a new car. We’re going to have a brand new car to race next year.’”
Mario can’t help but get a kick out of their own youthful audacity.
“Here he is lying there motionless, and we’re talking about the next car,” Mario laughs.
Mario’s fortitude was innate, more nature than nurture. Well before Aldo’s crash, their father had tried in vain to discourage the brothers Andretti from putting their lives at risk by jumping inside what their father believed to be moving coffins.
He used to tell them: “There are many more body bags that come back from these races than trophies.”
He wasn’t wrong, Mario says. He remembers hearing about the death of his hero, Alberto Ascari, during at test at Monza in May 1955. Four days later, he saw headlines that back-to-back 500 champion Bill Vukovich had died in a horrifying wreck at IMS.
News like that would be enough to shake anyone. It didn’t faze Mario. He was a natural-born racer without a single worried bone in his lean young body. Nothing would stop him from climbing into a cockpit as long as he was physically able.
“I lost some of my closest friends in the sport,” Mario says. “But did that ever give me a thought that because of that I should get out of it? Never. Never. I mean when Aldo was in a coma, I was building a new car. I was driven so deeply in my passion. What can be a bigger deterrent than (death)?
“My desire was too strong to be overcome by any possible deterrent. It’s as simple and as complicated as that. Do I count my blessings? Every day. For what the sport has given me. For the longevity. And the fact I was able to retire on my own terms. … But I was going to drive come hell or high water, as long as I had a breath in my body.”
So if not death, what does Mario Andretti fear? One recurring dream has haunted him for more than 50 years.
“Did you know,” he begins, “I almost missed the start of the 500 in 1967? And I was on pole.”
On the day of the race, Andretti had arranged to have a helicopter pick him up and fly him to IMS. Except the helicopter didn’t come. Andretti’s co-chief mechanic, Jim McGee, had canceled it the day before after a mixup led him to believe Andretti was going to arrive at IMS via motorcycle.
After learning that Andretti didn’t have his motorcycle, McGee borrowed one, hightailed it to the airport to pick up Andretti and his friend Jimmy Maguire, then raced back to the track, all three of them aboard one bike.
Andretti wasn’t standing alongside his pole-sitting car until halfway through “(Back Home Again in) Indiana.”
“Ever since then, I’ve had nightmares about (missing races),” says Andretti . “I still have this nightmare than I’m late for the two-seater, and now it’s another track. It’s weird. I just can’t get to the gate. And then I don’t have the right (identification). Oh, it’s a nightmare. I arrive late. And someone else is in my car, which (ticks) me off.”
Andretti laughs. He knows how ridiculous that might sound to someone who’s not Mario Andretti — someone whose blood isn’t laced with racing fuel.
But he can’t help it. Not driving. That is Mario Andretti’s nightmare.
“It really (ticks) me off,” Mario laughs. “I do. I wake up angry.”
‘Nazareth Speedway doesn’t exist’
I don’t want to trespass but will if we have to.
I had called the Jaindl family – owners of the speedway since 2016 – a couple of times the previous week, spoke with some assistants, left a couple of messages. They knew Mario and I were visiting their dilapidated property. The night before the scheduled visit, a couple of kids started a fire inside the Nazareth Speedway property – news both dismaying and heartening; barring some sort of arson investigation, I figure we can probably slip inside the same way the kids did.
To ensure we’ll be able to get in, I took a trip to the track before meeting Mario. There is, in fact, a gap in the fence at Gate 3 that is five feet tall and three feet wide, plenty big enough to squeeze through if we must.
But my relief at this discovery is replaced by regret at what the speedway reveals.
Dilapidated doesn’t begin to describe Nazareth Speedway.
I can hardly tell a racing cathedral used to occupy this vacant lot. Beyond a giant puddle in the middle of what I believe is the main entrance road, the landscape consists of nothing more than weeds — some the size of trees — as far as the eye can see. I shouldn’t have been caught off guard by what I saw. I had been warned. When I pitched the idea of taking Mario to the track, his longtime PR representative, Patty Reid, said, “Nazareth Speedway doesn’t exist. … I guess the gates are still there but it’s like an abandoned field.”
I wonder if Andretti has seen it, and what he’ll say when he sees it.
I’ll find out soon enough.
‘One smile on someone’s face puts two on mine’
It seems paradoxical that something as disfigured as the speedway resides so close to Villa Montona, the gorgeous home of Mario Andretti.
As instructed, I pull down the long, winding brick road, past the three-tiered fountain and the front door to the side of the house, where I’ve arranged to meet Andretti in his office.
He is waiting at the door to greet me, as is his personal assistant of 30-plus years, Amy Hollowbush, who has gone to the trouble of preparing some photos and old newspaper clippings.
Along with a tour of the defunct speedway, I had asked Andretti if he wanted to take me along the route of the parade the city threw for him when he returned home victorious from Indianapolis in 1969.
That day, July 12, 1969, was a great day in the life of Andretti. Not only did the town treat him — an Italian immigrant who’d been there just 14 years — like a native son, but he’d also go on to win the USAC race at the speedway that same night. To top it all off his wife, Dee Ann, went into labor earlier than expected and gave birth to their third child, Barbra, the next day.
“I think all the excitement brought Barbie out early,” Andretti says.
Later, as Andretti shows me the house where he used to live, he tells me that about the same time as the parade, the town renamed the street he lived on from Market Street to Victory Lane and rearranged its layout so his address was 53 Victory Lane — in honor of his winning the 53rd Indianapolis 500.
Hollowbush had found some YouTube videos of the parade. They had been watching before I arrived, and Andretti wants to continue watching. As we do, Andretti grows more and more delighted to see that, along with what seemed like the entire population of Nazareth in attendance, Philadelphia had sent their famous Mummers to march in the parade.
Mummers, he delights in telling me, are groups of people who dress in ornate costumes and perform unique choreographed dances. Mummers have been around for centuries and the first official Mummers Parade in Philadelphia took place in 1901 — a full decade before the first Indianapolis 500.
Andretti’s face lights up as we watch the Mummers dance.
It’s not unusual to see Andretti like this — genuinely elated that the Mummers or anyone else would make such a fuss over him. It’s not that Mario Andretti isn’t aware he’s Mario Andretti. He won’t deny the satisfaction he takes in his accomplishments and legacy — that he is the living embodiment of the American Dream. But it fills him with enormous pride when he sees others derive pleasure from his success.
Even after all this time it’s still a thrill for him every time a fan asks for an autograph or a photo or just wants to reminisce about the good old days. That they’re showing an interest in him and his work, Andretti says, is the biggest compliment they can pay.
“It’s like getting a trophy,” he tells me later. “When people express themselves in a positive way, it’s very important to me. It brings so much value to your life. It really does.”
Andretti makes it his mission to repay fans’ kindness — usually by treating them as if they were old friends he hasn’t seen for ages. It’s also part of what motivates him to keep driving the Indy car two-seater.
He loves the idea that he treats the people he meets to the joy ride of their lives and that he might have helped IndyCar secure a new fan. And if not, then at least someone who has a new appreciation for what IndyCar and motorsports are all about.
“It’s important to give back to that (which) has given you so much,” Andretti says. “It’s not any effort to give back either. You still keep receiving.”
He is fond of saying: “If I can put a smile on someone else’s face, it puts two smiles back on mine.”
Unfortunately, the place Andretti and I are about to visit isn’t one that puts a smile on his face. Not anymore.
Different side of Mario Andretti
The Mario Andretti I’ve come to know since I started covering the series a few years ago has largely been genial, generous, open to any topic. But as he peels out of the driveway in my rented Elantra, he’s taking us to a place I’m not sure he’s keen to visit, and I’m curious whether a more melancholy side of Andretti will emerge.
I heard before our trip he doesn’t enjoy talking about the track where he and son MIchael shared victories. I heard it makes him heartsick.
It doesn’t seem like he’s kept up with the speedway much since its final race in 2004. He tells me he’s only been back once, when an NBC crew shot the “Drive Like Andretti” there some months ago. And while we were still at his office, when I mentioned that the Jaindl family had recently proposed plans to build distribution warehouses at the site, he seemed only vaguely familiar with that idea.
The same goes for a petition some locals started to try to preserve the site. He sympathizes with their cause but seems to have little faith anything can be done in that regard.
En route to the defunct speedway, I receive a phone call from David Jaindl. Though he doesn’t seem to know exactly what Mario and I are up to, he kindly tells me he’ll send someone to Gate 1 to let us in.
But Mario isn’t much for dawdling.
He suggests we head toward that hole in the fence at Gate 3, where we’re supposed to meet the photographer who will chronicle our visit. We’ll take a quick peek, he says, then head back over to Gate 1 to meet Jaindl’s gatekeeper.
As we drive, Mario is in good spirits. He delights in sharing the history of his hometown with me. Though still retaining its small-town charm, Nazareth has changed quite a bit since his family arrived in 1955. Rather than showing me what is, he’s pointing out what used to be, as if we’re looking at old photographs.
That auto body shop used to be a Sunoco station, he tells me. His uncle owned it, and that’s where he and his twin brother Aldo used to work after school.
And that building on the corner there, he points through my side of the windshield, that’s where they took their photograph with the first car they ever built, the Hudson Hawk. They took that photo just before the Hawk’s debut, a 1959 race Aldo famously won after winning the coin toss to see which of the two brothers would drive the car first.
“Where did you build that car?” I ask.
Everywhere, Andretti laughs. “We were like gypsies going wherever we could to get that thing built.”
Will it be this easy, I wonder, when I ask him about the speedway later on?
“See that shopping center there,” Mario says pointing out the driver’s side window, “that’s where the original track used to be. The half-mile. Was just a typical dirt track. That’s where it all started.”
That’s not where we’re going, though. Where we’re headed is right next to the shopping center, the 1-1/8 mile track built in 1966, refurbished and paved by then-owner Roger Penske in 1987, sold to the International Speedway Corporation in 2004 and left to die that same year.
For a full minute, Andretti doesn’t realize we’re standing in the pit area, not on the track.
It’s not his fault.
The jungle of overgrowth is so tall where we’re standing, we can’t see the track. We’ll soon discover the actual track is about 20 yards away, through a thicket of tall grass and weeds.
We make our way to the front straight, where the picture isn’t much prettier. The weed-ravaged pavement is in jagged disrepair, strewn with leaves and rocks. Garbage litters the facility along with small pieces of metal you can’t go 20 feet without stepping on. A rusty speaker lying on the track in Turn 4 and a massive pothole on the back stretch are easier to avoid.
We pass a couple of ramshackle buildings. The track’s outer walls are covered in graffiti and grime.
There are signs of this once great oval’s former life. The walls still bear weather-worn displays for Firestone and near the start-finish line, “Nazareth Speedway” is scrawled in faded red, white and blue paint. We walk along the Pit road and make our way to the checkered-flag-painted pavement of Victory Lane. Standing in it, Mario laments that he can’t quite remember how many races he won there before sanctioning bodies started keeping track for him.
It no doubt upsets him that no other racing champion likely will ever stand where he’s standing again.
“It’s a shame what happened here,” Andretti half-whispers early in our visit.
Credit to him, though, he’s trying to be a good sport. He describes what a “tricky track” it was, detailing the difficulties of an oval with significant elevation changes.
“This was a quick, quick mile-and-a-half,” Andretti says. “That kink before Turn 1, that took some (guts) to do flat out.”
Later, he poses in Victory Lane for photos and, unsolicited, drops to his hands and knees to “kiss the bricks” at the start-finish line.
As we walk along the back straightaway near the end of our 90-minute tour, Andretti points out some particularly tall overgrowth and deadpan, says, “Those trees didn’t use to be there. We would have had to dodge them.”
But when I ask about the speedway’s glory days, his mood shifts. It frustrates him to remember the days when this track thrived, when 30,000 fans packed the stands. Those were the days before the political infighting of the IRL/CART split in the mid-1990s. Open-wheel racing in North America lost its momentum during the “civil war,” Andretti says. “It brought us to our knees.” It killed off many a historic track, Nazareth among them.
After he recounts the track’s demise, he has little interest in chatting about what the track once was. His answers to my questions are abbreviated and detached. A few times, he changes the subject halfway through, once pivoting the conversation to his short-lived career as commentator, then to the current state of IndyCar.
Maybe it’s deliberate. Maybe it’s not, but he’s reticent to allow himself to embrace this place. When I suggest he has fond memories, Andrett replies: “The memories are vivid and fond is one way to describe it.”
He gamely poses for a few more photos and a short video interview before we hit the road. Following a few more stops around town and a tour of his home, we sit down inside his office and I finally tell him what I’ve been thinking for the past few hours:
“I feel like I took you there against your will.”
Mario nods, admitting the speedway is a wound he isn’t keen to revisit or reopen.
“It’s not a happy reunion,” he says “It’s something that ended that was so meaningful, and it’s still there (staring at me), dilapidated. … Knowing what it meant to us as a family, right from the very beginning — me and Michael and Jeff and John (Mario’s sons and nephew) drove there. It’s got all of that history. To see it now, for it to vanish into nothing, it’s sad.
“So no, it’s not happy times to go there and walk around. I mean, it was so bad, I didn’t realize we were in the pit area rather than the track. … You just have to be realistic and move on.”
And that’s what Andretti has done. He treats it like a race he’s lost. It’s over. Nothing can be done except move on to the next race.
Quintessential Mario Andretti
“It’s all about winning,” Andretti tells me at the end of our day together. “It’s all about wanting to win. It’s convenient to be mediocre. Very convenient. I despise that. It’s easy. But why do you want to get up in the morning? It’s all whatever motivates you, what drives you.”
There it is. The quintessential Mario Andretti.
The truth is, you don’t need to spend half a day with him in his hometown to understand who he is. He is the same man in hour No. 5 as he is in minute No. 5.
Passionate. Honest. Competitive.
He loves his family, God and racing. In that order? Probably. But it’s damn close. The man loves to race. He lives to race. He recently turned 79 and he’s still chasing speed. Indy car two-seaters, Ultralight aircraft, surfboards with motors attached — you name it, he’ll push it to its limits.
Technically speaking, Andretti retired from competitive auto racing in 1994, but he’s made numerous comebacks in the 25 years since. Even now, he’s still at it, occasionally testing cars for Michael and piloting that two-seater for the Indy Racing Experience. Ask the guys who run that program if Andretti is retired from competitive racing and you’ll be laughed out of the room.
It’d be an exaggeration to say Andretti’s two-seater is a mirror replica of a true blue Indy car, but it’s not that big an exaggeration. Andretti uses Firestone’s grippier red tires on street and road course, so that he can squeeze every tenth of a second out of the car. He still goes to sleep thinking about how to make the car faster and radios in the setup changes the next morning.
He even harbors dreams of getting his hands on one of the few machines he’s never piloted.
This one he plays a little closer to the vest, but when I push — “There has to be something you want to drive,” I say — he can’t help but smile.
“I want to drive a current Formula One car,” he almost whispers, for fear of jinxing the dream. The 1978 F1 World Champion says he came close not that long ago. He still thinks it could happen.
“I’m not going to give up on the idea,” he says, chuckling. “Hey, you gotta have a bucket list, right?”
That’s Mario Andretti, 79 years old and still hankering for the next ride, the next adventure, the next adrenaline rush.
He’s a natural-born racer. He’s never wanted to do anything else.
“There was no Plan B,” he says. “I’ve never had any other interests.”
The first time he summoned the racing gods he was 14 years old at the 1954 Italian Grand Prix at Monza watching his idol Alberto Ascari fight for a win. He begged them to one day let him do that, be that.
The first time he knew fulfilling the dream was possible: A Sunday, less than a year later, a 15-year-old kid with stars in his eyes watching local legends rip up the dirt at Nazareth Speedway.
In his soul, he’s still that boy. He still has those stars in his eyes.
“If something were to happen,” I asked, “to one of Michael’s drivers and he asked you to fill in at the 500, how would you do?”
His eyes twinkle and a grin comes over his wrinkled but still handsome face. I know what he’s about to say.
“I wouldn’t finish last, I’ll tell you that much.”
He pauses for a second as if watching 500 miles unfold in his mind.
“Yeah, I wouldn’t finish last.”
Follow IndyStar Motor Sports Insider Jim Ayello on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram: @jimayello.