If you know anything at all about me, or have visited this blog site more than a time or two, you know that the legendary Mario Andretti is both my hero and friend. Mr. Versatile, as he’s often been dubbed, is the very definition of “Been There, Won That” as he’s raced all manner of cars and won in most of them. Even though retired from professional competition for more than a decade now, his accomplishments still rank him high on any sort of “all time” list you wish to compile. F1 champion, multi time CART/USAC champ, Indy and Daytona 500 winner, blah blah, blah. Like Ali, he’s the Greatest.
Just because he doesn’t race any longer doesn’t mean he doesn’t drive race cars. You’ve likely seen him on those clever Honda commercials at the wheel of his tandem twin cockpit IndyCar giving rides to some hapless dork who pretends to be scared. I was lucky enough to earn that ride one day not so very long ago. We were at Auto Club “California Speedway” in Fontana a few years ago, and my daughter Mel (www.melstonephoto.com) was on hand to snap.
The twin cockpit IndyCar is a real Indy racer in every sense other than the tandem style cockpit, putting the driver in the front seat and the passenger just behind. This car was powered by a naturally aspirated Honda Indy V-8 used a few seasons back, likely good for around 750-800 horsepower.
The car rolled out of the garage with brand new “sticker” tires, they fired the engine, and Mario took the car out to warm it up and scrub in the fresh rubber a bit. Then it was into the pit, and I was the pit stop. Time to hop into the rear cockpit and “get it, sit down, hold on and shut up.” Once tightly strapped into the seat, they refired the Honda and gave Mario the thumbs up to roll. He took of in a small blaze of tire smoke, with a mini burnout just like you see on TV as the car’s leave the pits during a real IndyCar race.
The engine was just aft of my head by a few inches, the howling open intakes serving as an aural tach in my hears. Mario rode first gear through much of the rest of the pit lane, then quickly dumped into second. Then up to third before we hit Turn 1, then I lost track of the gears from there. He barreled us through Turn 1 still accelerating through the short shute into Turn 2, with yet more gear shifting. He had a pretty serious head of steam built up by the apex of Turn 2, wanting to hit the back straight at speed. Out of Turn 2 we were cooking down the back straight pretty good, but I could tell Mario wasn’t giving it everything yet.
We negotiated Tuns 3 and 4 of Fontana’s two-mile oval pretty darn quick still, and then he let it all out down the front straight. At the end of the front straight, he let off the throttle only a little, and I could feel the car’s aerodynamic downforce slow the car without so much as a brush of the brakes. It only makes sense that they’d be running a car like this with a fair amount of downforce to keep it really pinned down in the corners, as an extra measure of safety given that the the whole deal of this two-seater IndyCar program is to give rides to sponsors, assorted VIPs, thrill-seekers and friends. Even though the rear bulkhead of Mario’s cockpit was directly in my line of sight, I could lean my head right or left a little and see easily over either of his shoulders, and it was great fun to watch the front wheels arcing left as he turned the wheel. Once up to speed on track, he never shifted up or down.
His line through the corners was different than I would have expected, but who am I to question Andretti? By lap two he was really cooking, my guess that we were hitting 175+ on the straights, perhaps closer to 200, as the grandstand seats and the posts of the safety fences were flipping by in a blur now. The ride was incredibly smooth, the engine howling like crazy back there. Fontana is a relatively smooth surface, but the car also had a modicum of suspension travel that kept any bumpiness out of the cockpit. The car has tons of grip, both mechanical and aerodynamic. Mario is so well calibrated to these cars and attuned to their habits and chassis set up that he said he could feel my weight in the car behind him. I asked how much I weighed and he guessed it to the pound.
I never, for even an instant, felt scared. The car was completely pinned down and stable, and of course one of the world’s very best ever drivers was at the controls. But there’s no question I felt the sensation of the speed, and I’m sure my breath hitched a time or two coming off of either of the really high speed straights barely slowing to enter Turns 1 and 3. I later asked Mario why he still travels around the country to give rides in the two-seater IndyCar. His response was typically Mario, smart, logical and passionate: “It keeps me sharp, and it keeps me fit. I still love my driving.” He rarely says it out loud, but he retired a few years earlier than he could have, no doubt with a few wins still left in him. But he and his Newman-Haas teammate, the capable but prima dona Nigel Mansell, weren’t exactly getting along at the time, so discretion being the better part of valor, Mario hung up his IndyCar helmet at age 55 after the 1984 season.
It’s clear that he really loved to race, but this little demonstration crystalized for me, even more than I already knew, how much he loves to drive. He has absolutely nothing to prove to anyone, underscoring how much he was in it as they say in baseball “For the Love of the Game.”
Thanks for the ride, my man, and you can just drive me anywhere, any time. Please.