In the House with Mario Andretti

September 7, 2023

Mario Andretti epitomizes auto racing excellence.

He is the only driver in history to win the Indianapolis 500, the Daytona 500, and the Formula One World Championship in a career that set the platinum standard.

At 83 years of age, Andretti is as revered walking through the NASCAR Cup Series garage area before the Daytona 500 as he is walking through Gasoline Alley at the famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway – home of the Indianapolis 500.

Andretti’s excellence came from his innate ability to look ahead. He was always looking for something new and innovative.

Andretti sees the same characteristics in Trackhouse owner Justin Marks and his creative thinking with his racing team and his entertainment company.

“Justin Marks is obviously doing the right things,” Andretti said. “People are taking notice.

“Usually, when a new team comes on the scene, you don’t hear much about it for a long, long time. Sometimes, from the outside looking in, he has some ideas.

“It’s like looking over the shoulder of somebody playing Poker, you can make a better move than whoever is holding the cards.

“It’s that kind of a thing.”

Trackhouse began NASCAR Cup Series competition in 2021. Midway through that first season, Marks purchased Chip Ganassi Racing and its charters from the famed team owner.

In 2022, both drivers including Ross Chastain and Daniel Suarez made the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs. Chastain made it all the way to the Championship Four and finished second in the championship behind Team Penske’s Joey Logano.

In 2023, Trackhouse has been a storyline in nearly every race. Chastain qualified for the NASCAR Playoffs with a win at Nashville Superspeedway in June. 

Trackhouse and its PROJECT91 effort shocked the motorsports world when Australian Supercars champion Shane van Gisbergen of New Zealand scored a win in the first NASCAR Cup Series street race in history. 

It came in the Grant Park 220 Chicago Street Race on July 2.

Van Gisbergen became the first driver to win in his NASCAR Cup Series debut since Johnny Rutherford in 1963.

Andretti and Rutherford were longtime competitors in IndyCar, CART and USAC Sprints and Midgets.

Van Gisbergen scored another top-10 finish in the August 13 Verizon 200 at the Brickyard at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway as he took the next step in a potential full-time NASCAR career.

“Hiring Shane van Gisbergen has really worked out well for him,” Andretti said. “It looks like he wants to come to the United States and race in NASCAR. He took advantage of the opportunity in Chicago.

“The fact is Trackhouse is always there, and they are competitive and that speaks volumes. There are teams that have been there forever and when you can come in and elevate yourself above them, it is quite an accomplishment.

“In business, you never really have arrived. There is always something better you can do. Sometimes, when you are in it for a very long time, you hit a wall and become stale after a while. But there is always a better way to skin a cat in some ways, there is always a different approach.”

Looking for a different approach was always important to Andretti. He grew up in a displaced persons camp in Italy during World War, II and attended the Italian Grand Prix as a 14-year-old in 1954.

He was amazed at the spectacle and was hooked on racing from that point forward.

In 1955, he emigrated to the United States along with his family and settled in Nazareth, Pennsylvania.

Along with his twin brother, Aldo, Andretti began racing Jalopies at a local track in Nazareth. 

He would quickly climb the ranks of racing, becoming a star in USAC Midgets and Sprints before earning the famed Dean Van Lines ride in USAC Champ Car, the series that competed at the Indianapolis 500, in 1964.

He was the 1965 Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year after starting fourth and finishing third in the Ford-powered Hawk. He would go on to win the 1965 USAC IndyCar National Championship.

In 1966, Andretti competed in four of the 49 races that made up the NASCAR Cup Series schedule that season, making his debut for Bondy Long at Riverside, California in the Motor Trend 500 on January 25, 1966.

His second start was in the 1966 Daytona 500 driving for Smokey Yunick.

“When I first went there as a rookie, the first time I was there was the 24 Hours of Daytona,” Andretti recalled. “When I came back to drive the Daytona 500, he called me into the office and I thought, ‘Man, oh, man. I’m going to get scolded.’ He was the principal, and I was the pupil.

“He was so nice to me. He said, ‘Mario, you will always be welcome with us.’ That was so nice. He didn’t have to do that. That has been the case throughout.”

Warmly welcomed by NASCAR owner and president Bill France, Andretti felt like a “Lab Rat” with Yunick.

“I don’t care if it is then or now, you had to have that one specific guy that really understood the basics of the setups,” Andretti explained. “For me, that was golden because I didn’t have any experience at NASCAR. The first race I did at Daytona was with Smokey Yunick and he wouldn’t even let me look under the hood.

“Why did he hire me? Because I knew nothing about it, and he wanted to experiment with me and experiment crazy things.

“I thought, ‘Man, these guys have to be the heroes of all-time. How the hell can they drive these things if all the cars drive the same as mine?’

“Then, I got into the Holman & Moody cars and, ‘Oh, I can drive this one.’”

In 1966, Andretti crashed after 31 laps in the Daytona 500 and finished 31st in Yunick’s Chevrolet.

He returned in 1967 with the famed Holman-Moody Racing factory-backed Ford team. He opened the season with a ninth-place finish at Riverside, finished sixth in his Daytona 500 qualifying race and drove to an impressive victory in the Daytona 500.

He led a race-high 112 laps and defeated one of NASCAR’s biggest stars of that era, his Holman-Moody teammate Fred Lorenzen. Earlier in the race, Andretti dueled with another big-name NASCAR star, David Pearson.

Andretti’s key to victory was having a car that fit his aggressive racing style.

“It’s all about the proper setup,” Andretti admitted. “Jake Elder – ‘Suitcase Jake’ – he was a good crew chief. He knew about setups. He got me in the ballpark right away and all I had to do was zero in and make some small changes. Almost everything we did; we went back to the original setup. That’s it. 

“It worked for me, and I took advantage of that and got the best out of it.”

Although Andretti may be better known for his victory in the 1969 Indianapolis 500 and his 1978 Formula One World Championship, his Daytona 500 win in 1967 was the first of his “Crown Jewel” accomplishments that remain unmatched in racing.

That makes Mario Andretti a true part of NASCAR’s 75-year history.

In recent years, when Andretti attends the Daytona 500, he feels welcome.

He feels at home.

“That’s the beauty about our sport,” he said. “I don’t care where I go, I feel very much at home. That’s the beautiful part about it. NASCAR has always been very, very kind to me starting with Bill France.

“I have friends there. I can walk the garage up and down and see somebody that I have worked with. Same with Le Mans and Formula One. All of my boys that have been with me throughout my career in Formula One, whether it’s the Italians or the Brits, we still communicate.

“It’s still a very close-knit family and I feel a part of that family no matter where I go.”

Although that 1967 Daytona 500 win was his only NASCAR Cup Series victory, it was a key achievement in his extraordinary career.

“You could see I love the sport, every aspect of it,” the legend said. “My specialty was open-wheel, single-seaters whether it was Champ Cars, Midgets, Sprint Cars, Formula One, whatever. I loved Sports Cars.

“I did some USAC Stock Cars, too. I won at Mosport in USAC Stock Cars, which were exactly the same as NASCAR. I wanted to do whatever and get a taste of it all.

“Why? I wanted to do with the challenge of it and make sure I would somehow figure it out. In some ways, I think I did. That was the ultimate satisfaction for a driver. That is what I was getting out of the sport, that satisfaction to feel good, to feel proud, to feel confident.”

Andretti sees similar characteristics in Justin Marks.

The man who owns and manages Trackhouse and serves as the inspiration for its racing and entertainment divisions is a true racer himself.

He began as a sports car racer before moving to NASCAR’s Craftsman Truck Series in 2007, the Xfinity Series in 2008 and the NASCAR Cup Series in 2013.

Marks continues to race in Trans Am in and around his busy schedule guiding Trackhouse into the future.

“I look at someone like that like myself in the sense that we just love the sport and more than anything loves driving, but at the same time you can’t drive forever,” Andretti said of Marks. “He has other ambitions and that is being a team owner. That is one ambition I never had, never will, but I love to watch what Michael does as part of the family.

“That way I don’t have any responsibility. I’m happy when they win and when they lose, I don’t want to know.

“I have the best of both worlds, here.”

Andretti gained fame as an international celebrity. That aspect of celebrity and racing has always been one of the appeals of the sport.

Marks is trying to merge the worlds of racing and celebrity at Trackhouse. His partner in the company is entertainer “Pitbull.”

“That’s huge,” Andretti said. “He is opening up other possibilities. The sport is going in that direction any way, to create more events and be more resourceful and think outside the box.

“The team is proving that.”

On the track, Andretti assessed the rising stardom of Chastain.

“I admire some of his style,” Andretti said of Chastain. “What he did last year at Martinsville by going flat-out on the last lap, I give him kudos for thinking of that. I don’t fault anybody for being aggressive, as long as they know what is too aggressive.

“I give him credit for that move at Martinsville. That was fun in a sense because he wasn’t thinking about that the night before. He realized that was his only chance and he pulled it off.

“I give him credit for that.”

The Italian American also believes Daniel Suarez and his continued improvement in racing has created interest in NASCAR in his native Mexico.

“I think he is carrying the Mexican colors quite well,” Andretti said of Suarez. “I’m sure he has brought a lot of fans from below the border who are paying attention to NASCAR and that is a good thing. 

“He is improving very steadily, very nicely and a force to be reckoned with on the road courses, which was expected, but he is also doing well on the ovals now. He has the hang of things. I think he has the respect of his competitors and peers. That’s a good thing. I know the kid can get the job done.

“I’m happy to see somebody like that in the sport and doing as well as he is doing.”

Andretti’s final Indianapolis 500 as a driver was in 1994. One year later, Justin Marks attended the Indianapolis 500 with his father and was hooked on racing.

It sparked an interest and a career in racing that continues to this day at Trackhouse.

“That’s amazing and that is what keeps us going,” Andretti said. “How did I become enamored with the sport? I was impressed by seeing a world class event at age 14, the Italian Grand Prix.

“From then on, I would do anything in my power to be part of the sport. That was my impossible dream at the time. Did I ever give up? No. Did I have a Plan B? No.

“If you are impressed with something, you pursue it with vigor and that is it. That is what you do. Every day and every race there is someone like that. 

“That’s what keeps the sport going.”

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