Mario Andretti honored by national motorsports press group

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CONCORD, N.C. – Even though the national and local motorsports media has been decimated by layoffs and beat eliminations over the last several years, Saturday’s National Motorsports Press Association Hall of Fame induction ceremonies proved that there still is power of the press.

The NMPA inducted three heavyweights of their respective areas, honoring the legendary Mario Andretti, NASCAR crew chief/team owner Ray Evernham and noted journalist Steve Waid.

Andretti was honored for a lifetime of achievement across several forms of motorsports, including being a past Formula One and four-time Indy car champion, as well as Daytona 500 and Indianapolis 500 winner.

Voted “Driver of the Century” by several media entities over the years including the Associated Press and Racer magazine, Andretti, who turns 74 on Feb. 28, looked like he could still climb into a modern-day Indy car and give today’s stars a run for their money.

Being voted into the NMPA Hall of Fame was one of the highlights of his career, Andretti said.

“You get that beautiful call and then it gives you a chance to pause and look back at everything that has happened to you, to count your blessings,” he said. “The greatest compliment is your work has been acknowledged, and this (his induction) is what it’s all about.”

In typical gentlemanly fashion, Andretti was humbled by the honor, while at the same time stressing that even while the media ranks have greatly decreased in recent years, there is still a significant need for the media.

“I feel almost like an intruder because it’s motorsports press. I’ve never written a column in my life,” Andretti said with a smile.

He added in a more serious vein, “I don’t think anyone appreciates the value of the press more than I do, because we all need to realize that no matter how exciting the sport can be, the talent involved and so forth.

“But unless there is somebody out there to tell the story, there’s no value and nobody knows. It’s because of the press that the sport of motor racing is enjoying the popularity that it’s enjoying today, no question about it.”

Andretti reminisced about his storied career, giving particular credit to his wife of 54 years, Dee Ann, as well as reflecting upon some of the downsides of his four-decade racing career.

“(Dee Ann’s) not a race fan, either. But somehow, she got sucked into it,” he said with a laugh. “All along, she held everything solid behind. God knows I was selfish, I just wanted to race, there were no picnics on weekends for us. (My daughter Barbie) reminded me, ‘Dad, you were not even at my graduation.’ I know, and I’m so sorry, but I had to work.”

And work Andretti did, becoming one of the greatest and most successful drivers in all motorsports, particularly with his versatility and willingness to drive pretty much anything that had four wheels on it.

He drew a huge round of laughs from the approximately 250 attendees at the induction banquet when he related a story involving eldest son Michael, who is now the principal owner of the Andretti Autosport car on the Izod IndyCar Series.

“Michael was in school at six or seven years old, and the teacher asked the kids what their fathers did,” Mario said. “She got to Michael and Michael said, ‘He goes to the airport and makes bread.’ The reason he said that is he’d always see me pack my suitcase and my helmet bag and he’d ask, ‘Dad, where are you going?’ I’d tell him, ‘I’m going to the airport. Got to make the bread.’ ”

Andretti was presented for induction into the NMPA Hall of Fame by NBC Sports’ Leigh Diffey, who observed that even in retirement, Andretti is still a man in demand, particularly by members of the media.

“You were so appealing to the media,” Diffey said of Andretti. “You were always available. … I don’t think you’ve ever had a bad soundbite. You’re always guaranteed to give a good quote. It’s still happening today – Mario gets asked 20 to 30 times a month to be interviewed by various publications because Mario has a legitimate choice and a legitimate opinion.”

Andretti was awarded the traditional grey NMPA jacket and a plaque as symbols of his induction.

“I count my blessings every day because I’ve been so, so fortunate to have a long career and be able to meet so many incredible people along the way – and some of them are in this room,” he said. “I look back (on his storied career) with no regrets whatsoever. … To be able to have a long career like I have … it allowed me to retire on my own terms.”

Mario Andretti says Colton Herta could be next American star in F1

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Mario Andretti’s last Formula One victory is also the last by an American driver in more than 42 years on the international open-wheel road racing series.

If you had told Andretti that while he was celebrating on the Grand Prix of the Netherlands podium on Aug. 27, 1978 at the Vandzoort circuit, he wouldn’t have believed it.

“Absolutely not,” Andretti told Kyle Petty during the most recent “Coffee With Kyle” episode (video above). “It’s a shame. Somehow we have so much talent here, and either there’s no invitation or something there. But I think it’s time to give some of this young talent that, in my opinion, is absolutely capable.”

The Dutch GP was the last of Andretti’s 12 victories in F1 and came during his championship season. No one since has come close to matching his success in F1.

Mario Andretti drives his Lotus-Ford to victory in the 1978 Grand Prix of the Netherlands (Bernard Cahier/Getty Images).

Andretti’s son, Michael, took a full-time ride with McLaren in 1993 but left with three races remaining in a season marred by crashes and mechanical problems.

Scott Speed was the last American to run a full F1 season in 2006, and Alexander Rossi made the most recent F1 start by a U.S. driver in 2015. Rossi has said he has no desire to return to racing in Europe after winning the 2016 Indianapolis 500 and becoming an IndyCar championship contender.

But Mario Andretti believes Andretti Autosport has another rising star with F1-caliber ability.

“Colton Herta is one that comes to mind,” Mario Andretti said. “As a young lad, his dad sent him to Europe, he was doing Formula 3, and he knows most of the circuits there. He’s trained. He’s showed in his rookie season and won some premium races at COTA (and Laguna Seca), beat two of the very best Indy has to offer (in) Will Power and Scott Dixon.

“This is one kid I’d love to see him get a break over there to fly the U.S. colors again.”

Herta, 20, seems interested in exploring an F1 leap over the next few years. After winning Sept. 13 at Mid-Ohio from the pole position (his third career victory in the NTT IndyCar Series), the No. 88 Dallara-Honda driver is ranked fourth in the standings in his sophomore year and regarded as one of the series’ top prospects.

Herta recently told RACER.com “I’d love to give Formula 1 a crack” but said he also would be happy driving in IndyCar and IMSA.

A naturalized U.S. citizen who told Petty about spending several years with his family in an Italian refugee camp before coming to America, Mario Andretti said F1 brought an enormous sense of patriotic pride.

“Formula One is like the Olympics in a sense,” he said. “You’re in a different country, a different continent. When you earn that highest step of the podium, they play your national anthem. That’s when you take nothing for granted. You feel like I’m representing my country, and the proudest moments are those.

“I’d just like to see some other American drivers experience that. It’s time.”

Mario Andretti with four-time NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon and six-time Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton before the Nov. 22, 2015 season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway (Jared C. Tilton/NASCAR via Getty Images).

During the “Coffee With Kyle” conversation, Andretti also discussed:

–His versatility as a winner in IndyCar, sports cars, NASCAR and Formula One;

–His 1967 Daytona 500 victory and how he enjoyed racing with crew chief Jake Elder at the famed Holman-Moody team;

Mario Andretti Colton Herta
Mario Andretti and Kyle Petty saluted “The King” by wearing their Richard Petty-style hats during the latest “Coffee With Kyle” (NBCSN).

–Why he delayed his entry to F1 for a few years because of his earnings power in IndyCar. “I always say I’d race for free, but at the same time, you’re thinking of family and the future,” he said. “It was in the back of your mind that you can’t give up the earning power of IndyCar. That kept me from going full time in Formula One, but I always said that sometime in my career, I’d have to devote a period to Formula One.”

–On what it was like racing in an era when driver deaths were more prevalent. “If you’re going to do this, you’re not going to dwell on those negatives,” Andretti said. “There’s no way. You knew it was present. Especially in the ‘60s at the beginning of the season at the drivers meetings, you couldn’t help but look around and say, ‘I wonder who is not going to be here at the end of the season.’ We’d lose four to five guys. In ’64, we lost six guys.

“It’s something if you dwell on that, you’re going to take on a different profession. It’s a desire and love to want to drive that overcame all that and then the confidence it’s not going to happen to me. And then you pray.”

Watch the full “Coffee With Kyle” episode in the video above or by clicking here.

Mario Andretti looks on before the 103rd Indianapolis 500 on May 26, 2019 (Chris Graythen/Getty Images).