It's difficult enough to navigate highways during rush hour, so it's unbelievable to imagine zipping around a race track at speeds of over 150 mph, with cars of equivalent speeds tailing just inches from your bumper.
That incredible scenario is nothing new for world champion racecar driver Mario Andretti, whose 109 career racing titles span across Formula One, IndyCar and NASCAR. And, while many know of him as the Associated Press' 'Driver of the Century,' there is more to Andretti than decades of accolades. In fact, Andretti has voiced cameos on the silver screen in the animated Cars and Turbo movies, and is the proud grandfather of IndyCar driver Marco Andretti.
As Travelzoo's Lifestyle and Entertainment editor I had the rare opportunity to sit down with Andretti to talk about the thrill of getting behind the wheel, his family's incredible racing lineage, and his latest business venture - the Mario Andretti Racing Experience.
The AP named you 'Driver of the Century' in 2000. What do you think makes a great race car driver?
I think, like any sport, it starts with desire and passion. And then dedication and a lot of hard work. It's your ambition that's gonna drive you. How do you do that? Through just a lot of hard work. Nothing comes easy. For some individuals, it's easier than others. I don't know why. The word is, you're a natural. You're a natural with the steering wheel in your hands, those are the lucky ones. And if they have the passion and desire, those are the ones that are gonna be the champions. Those are the ones that are going to be at the top of their game.
What goes on in your mind when you're racing at speeds of 150+ mph?
For us, drivers, we train. This is part of our world. And what goes through your mind? Keep that baby on the road, on the tarmac. Keep it from crashing. Do your job. If you're among other drivers, which you are during the race, you have to be attentive and be aware of your surroundings, who's around you. It's an all-encompassing job as far as getting your concentration to the point that you're just totally immersed in what you're doing. Like I said, if your mind starts wandering, or if you have a lapse moment, it could be a disaster!
For someone who's never driven triple-digit speeds, what's the most important thing to know?
Well, I think it's all about being instructed obviously. If you go to one of these experiences, you have a classroom instructor that will provide you with tips and answers on what to expect. You always have two-way radio communication with an instructor as you're running. To tell you what you're doing, what you're not doing, what you should be doing. They're always on top of you, and, as a driver, when you're trying to reach those speeds, you need to have 100 percent concentration on what's going on. You don't look around; you're totally immersed in what you're about to do because, as safe as we make things, you know there's speed involved and so there's danger. And that's what makes it attractive anyway -- the danger aspect.
Your grandson Marco is third-generation Andretti Racing. When you're watching him on the track do you watch with the mindset of a racer or grandfather?
Both. Having been around this game all my life, I'm still a racer. And I will criticize, and I know what's going on; I can see the good and not so good. I'm on top of it all. And then, on the other side, as a grandfather, I have all the concerns that are natural. Because I know what Marco, my grandson, is facing, potential dangers and so forth. Only when I came out of the cockpit myself, and was able to watch my own kid's race, that's when I realized really what my wife has been going through, you know, throughout my entire career.
You mention the dangers of racing. What is the most dangerous form of racing, and why?
I think perhaps the most dangerous out of the top three: NASCAR, Formula One or IndyCars, is probably IndyCars. They're the same as Formula One as far as open cockpit, single seaters, open wheels. But the speed that IndyCars reach is much greater than Formula One because the IndyCars race on road courses and super speedways. And so that, the element of danger, is greater in IndyCars than any of the other top disciplines.
You developed the Mario Andretti Racing Experience to allow fans hands-on Indy-style race experience at the track, an experience most would be unable to have otherwise. What is the Mario Andretti Racing Experience really like?
In motor racing, you just don't pick up a race car and go racing, you know? With this Mario Andretti experience, you create something that, for fans, you make it affordable. Obviously, it's very costly to build race cars and maintain them. Just renting the racetrack for a day or two that they're there, it's a big cost if you had to do it on your own, by most people, unaffordable. But by doing it with numbers like this, you can make it very affordable and fun!
Otherwise people would just draw their own conclusions and be totally ignorant about our sport. [They'd] say, "Well it doesn't take an athlete to be a race driver." Well, get in one of those things for a few minutes, and you'll start wondering how can these guys do it for two or three hours. So that's what it's all about.
You come away with a new appreciation, I think, for what race drivers go through. That's what I detect. I was just there in Atlanta... we had a group of 10 VIPs from one of the companies we work with, and it's amazing -- the expression of "wow" when they come out of that car. They come away after a couple hours of running, they run speeds up to 160, 170 [mph].
And because we're all about travel at Travelzoo, I have to ask -- where was the last place you traveled?
My last place I traveled was Italy, couple days ago. I was there for the Italian Grand Prix. It's one of the venues that's obviously very dear to me, my home country. I've won there. And it's Formula One. All of those elements are important. And it's wonderful dining as well.
The Mario Andretti Racing Experience can be found in Miami, Charlotte, Chicago, Phoenix, New Hampshire, Kentucky and Los Angeles.