At 71, Mario Andretti is anything but retired

Some things never change. As you walk around the hospitality and pit areas at an IZOD IndyCar race you can still find Mario Andretti signing autographs more than five decades since he drove his first racecar in competitive open wheel racing.

Andretti, the most versatile American racecar driver in history, is at age 71, theoretically, long retired. But that's hard to prove.

Over four decades beginning in the 1960s he won four Indy Car championships and became the only driver in motorsports history to win the Indianapolis 500 (1969), the Daytona 500 (1967) and the Formula One World Drivers' Championship (1978).

He won 52 Indy Car races (second on the all-time list) and set numerous Indy Car records that still stand — including pole positions won (67), race-laps led (7,595) and most career Top-3 finishes (144).

And now he's excited to return to Baltimore — a city he has long visited to quench his love for crabs — for next weekend's first Baltimore Grand Prix.

We caught up with Andretti to discuss his career, his "retirement," and his return here.

So, how is retired life?

I have no retired life. I came out of the cockpit in 1994, but I am so active. I'm working with Blue Chip companies (Firestone, Magnaflow, Texaco/Havoline), I have my winery (Andretti Winery in Napa Valley, Calif.), a driving school in Charlotte and I drive the two-seater car, giving fans a taste of the IZOD IndyCar Series at the races. My plate is full, and I like it that way. I don't think I'll ever, ever retire until they put me in a box. I'm still very ambitious. I only came out of the cockpit for the obvious — I was getting too old.

With all you have to do, can you say you're content on the sidelines?

I was competitive. I have good memories, but I feared overstaying it.

Dee Ann (his wife) reminds me, quite often, that I didn't talk about it with her. She says, 'I know you. You'll be antsy.' It was the hardest decision I ever made. But looking back, I'm counting my blessings. At age 59 in 2000 I was able to compete in my last competitive race at Le Mans. In 2003, I was upside down at Indy. I know I'm out of it. Now, I watch my grandson do it. I'm full of criticism, obviously (he laughs). All I want is to see him do well."

Your son Michael said you came in from one of those two-seater runs recently and asked for softer tires so you could go faster. Is that right?

I'm always looking for an edge. I like to maximize the situation and not leave too much on the table. If I'm going to drive the two-seater car, I'm going to drive it 100 percent. Otherwise, let someone else do it. The objective is to give the passenger the best ride possible.

Mario, one of my questions was, 'How do you spend your free time?', but it doesn't sound like you have any.

"I have no free time. It's the same as it always was. In between time, I do my own thing — tennis, water skiing. I haven't given anything up. It's fun for me. It's better than walking on a treading machine. I like the outdoor activities. They keep me tuned up somewhat physically and I enjoy it.

Didn't Dee Ann have some plans for your retirement?

Poor Dee Ann. She's been solid, an angel throughout my career. If anyone really sacrificed so I could achieve the satisfaction I really did from my career, it was her. She supported me by sacrificing the things that she liked. Vacations. Time together. She'd like to travel for fun, not for business. I don't know any other woman who would have stood by me like she did. Our 50th wedding anniversary is coming up in November. I think we'll go somewhere to celebrate that.

Do you remember what your first dream was in racing?

I fell in love with racing in Italy watching Formula One. I was 10 or 11 when my dream began. But there was so much uncertainty, because of our family being displaced with communism and so forth. We had no idea where and how we would wind up. But God allowed me to put the plan together.

We came to the States in mid-week in June. That next Sunday, Aldo (his brother) and I found out there was a race track. We could hear the noise. Boom. We went down there. It wasn't F1, but it looked very doable, and I thought, "This is heaven. We can get started."

Did your dream change when you came to the United States?

My dream was very clear. I had very ambitious goals to the point where I didn't dare express myself to anyone. It's what helped me push myself to certain limits. My desire was so strong. I loved it. There was nothing else in life I really wanted. I wanted to be a race car driver. I wanted to reach Indy Cars. I came up through the ranks – sprint cars, midgets. When I got to the Indy Cars, then that gave me the ultimate dream. Once I had a couple championships in Indy Cars and won several races I knew I could go to the very top teams in Formula I – Ferrari, Lotus. I was very lucky. My strategy worked very well.

What was the secret to your success?

I dodged so many bullets — injuries, setbacks. I fulfilled a really complete career. Not many drivers retire at 54. Most of them go a lot sooner. But I always had excellent equipment. In Indy Cars, and when I ventured into stock cars, I was with a Ford Factory Team. I wasn't with a privateer. I was always with teams that had the potential of winning. I always realized that, unless you had the equipment, I don't care how good you think you are, you're not going to get the results. Top equipment is the key.

Did you ever have any idea you were starting a family dynasty?

You can only hope. You cannot design something like this. Now here we are looking at a third generation. I had no idea my kids would want to follow me. But look at all the races Michael and I started 1-2 — and finished 1-2. Talk about a dream.

The sport has given the family so much. Michael had a wonderful career — third all-time in Indy Car wins. His ambition became to own and run his own race team. I never had that ambition. But he fits the mold of team owner perfectly, and he's probably happier than he's ever been. I'm proud of all of it.

While you're in Baltimore for the Grand Prix, the street/ road racing title for the IndyCar Series will be decided. The trophy is named for you based on the vote of fans. Does that matter to you?

It's quite an accomplishment to achieve that recognition. That's the only way I can put it. To me, the fans will never know how important their solid support has been to me. And still today, fans still matter. Their loyalty. They bring the momentum.

I thought I'd be forgotten, but young ones are coming. Parents are bringing their children to meet me. Little kids think I'm "Super Mario." I was in Greenville, S.C., and this father says to me, "Johnny has a question for you." And his son says, "Do you know Lightning McQueen?" Oh, wow! Sure I do. That's from "Cars 2" I was in it. My new claim to fame. I was a cameo. My person was the '67 Daytona winner. Wow!

When you're driving down the road and a country song comes on with your name in it, what's that like?

Back in the 70s, I was driving a rental car by myself to a test session in Riverside (Calif.) and a Charlie Daniels song comes on and I hear my name. It was really a shocker. Oh, Man! But it's all very flattering.

What is your best career memory and your worst?

They almost come into one. Winning, claiming my World Championship at Monza, where I saw my first race. That day I also lost my teammate Ronnie Peterson. I can't think of anything else. It was a double-edged sword. And there was irony there. Phil Hill was the only other American to win a Formula 1 title and the day he won his title, he also lost his teammate in the same race.

Besides the actual racing, what did you enjoy about your four decades in the sport?

What I feel was very precious from the beginning to today was experiencing the things that we were developing in the cars. In the 1980s, we were one of the first teams to have computers on board our cars and be able to read it in the car. That part is very rich. Toward the end of the 60s, aerodynamic aspects developed … the ground effects cars of the later 70s, then turbo charged engines.

All those developments were in unchartered waters, and all of them were so fascinating. Every year there were new trinkets, new things to look forward to. Waiting for a new car was like being a father waiting for a new kid — now and then a kid came out cross-eyed.

What was the biggest surprise you've had?

Martini. He lived to be 17 years and 10 months. We grew up together. He was a pig. I didn't want a pig. But my daughter Barbie calls Mother. There was a homeless pig. I said no. "No pig." And she called back to say they'd found it a home. But my daughter has it in her mind now, and three months later I open the door to a delivery man and he's delivering a pig. Martini was so smart. We did everything together. I was devastated when we lost him.

Baltimore isn't that far from your home in Nazareth, Pa. Didn't you used to come to Baltimore to celebrate after some race wins? And what do you think of the IndyCar Series actually coming to race in the city?

I remember we used to come there for crabs. Dee Ann loves them, and so do I. And it's the only place we used to get them. It's been so many years ago, now. I still should be able to remember the restaurant, but I can't. I do know Dee Ann will be very happy about us coming back.

Everybody is looking forward to coming to Baltimore. The city is going to be a great host. And it's the perfect location, too. It's like Long Beach and Toronto. It benefits the teams when you have a venue like that. You want to entertain your sponsors, and the economy of the city benefits as well with the influx of teams, sponsors and fans in the hotels. I'm so happy to see that event happening there.