Mario Andretti: Nearly 20 years later, IndyCar Series still suffering effects of CART-IRL split in attracting fans

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The fallout from the 1996 split between the now-defunct CART open-wheel series and the then-upstart Indy Racing League continues to hamper IndyCar’s efforts to further build the sport, according to legendary driver Mario Andretti.

Even though the two series reunited in 2008, IndyCar still struggles when it comes to attracting new fans, Andretti told John Bombatch of FairbornDailyHerald.com.

“I was hoping that by now, since it’s one series again, it would have regained more popularity,” Andretti said. “But I think the split was for too long, and we lost a lot of our fan base. We almost have another generation coming now.

“Sure, we have hardcore fans. But even still, the newer fan base has to be re-educated to appreciate what the IndyCar Series is all about. Right now, I think the product is really good. I think the races are the best I’ve ever seen, with the nature the cars are and the way it is regulated.”

With eight different winners in the series’ first 11 races of this season coming into Saturday’s race at Iowa Speedway, parity has become synonymous with IndyCar – and the sanctioning body has to promote that type of close racing, said Andretti, a four-time open-wheel champ and winner of the 1969 Indianapolis 500.

“Once you’ve got the product, you’ve got to feel pretty positive about the series,” Andretti, 74, told Bombatch. “It’s just good racing, that’s all there is to it. The talent in the field is deep, it’s good. There’s a strong international contingent, which is fine. Golf has that. There’s nothing wrong with that. We’ve gotta keep hammering, that’s all.”

Even though Andretti has technically been retired from IndyCar racing for 20 years now, he’s still behind the wheel at most events, driving a specially-built two-seat race car in which he gives fans rides in during race weekends.

Andretti, the only driver to have ever won the Indy 500, Daytona 500, as well as USAC, CART and Formula One championships, is still mischievous in his new role as he was when he was a full-time racer.

“We’ve had a few people who just lose it,” Andretti told Bombatch with a laugh. “I’ve had a half dozen or so of those over the years, which makes it a special day. A bit embarrassing for them, but fun for me.

“There’s a panic button for the passenger to hit, which shows a red light on my steering wheel to tell me that they’re worried … and I ignore it. Once you’re in the cockpit, you’ve gotta go with me. Sometimes people get a little nervous, which is good. I like that actually. That’s the whole idea.”

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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).