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Mario Andretti is a well-to-do young man. Last year he won more than $350,000 in prize money at the racetrack, and it is conservatively estimated that he made at least that much again through various racing contracts, endorsements, public appearances and investments. Both on the scoreboard and at the bank, this is the age of Andretti in American racing. Over the last three years especially he has developed into very nearly the complete race driver, and he gets around. Next Sunday he will be on the starting grid for the Monaco Grand Prix. Then will come the long hours of May leading up to the Memorial Day Indianapolis 500, in which Andretti will be favored to become the first back-to-back winner in 15 years. Success and wealth have only fortified a basic simplicity in his character. He says, "One of the few things I want to be able to do is buy my father a new car every year for the rest of his life."
A brief glance at his family history helps to explain Mario's thinking. He was born in 1940, the son of a prosperous landowner whose farms near Trieste were just on the Italian side of the Yugoslav border. At the end of World War II, however, Trieste and the land around it remained in dispute and the troubles that ended in 1948 put the Andrettis on the wrong side of the new border. They spent seven years in a displaced persons' camp. In 1955 Andretti senior brought his family to the United States; he was no longer a rich man but just another immigrant with $125 in his pocket. Fifty dollars of that went to a relative who met them in New York, and Mario's father could find work only as a laborer in a cement-block factory in Nazareth, Pa. Now Mario is the breadwinner, not only for his wife and three children but for his parents and various in-laws and godparents, both in the United States and Italy.
Reflecting on past struggles, Mario says, "Sometimes a person has to leave his pride home. Not just put it in his back pocket, but leave it home. I went through that. Now my family depends on me and I'm glad to be able to provide for them."
Andretti has done as well as any sports celebrity has ever done, short of entering a monastery, to protect his family—and himself—from the entrapments of sudden wealth, fame and success. Away from the racetrack, in fact, Andretti is a very private person. Whenever possible he avoids the social functions that accompany every race—with grace and courtesy, but with a firmness that is often mistaken for aloofness.
Jacque Passino, Ford's director of racing, says, "He's just a nice guy. He doesn't call collect; he doesn't send bills, and he doesn't bug you."
The beautiful thing about Mario, in the eyes of some Indy men who have not been too happy about the recent impact of Europeans on the Brickyard, is that he can bug the foreigners on their own turf. A gauntlet of sorts was thrown down by Grand Prix stars like Jimmy Clark, Graham Hill and Jackie Stewart, and it was not picked up by a true-blue, track-racing, Indy-oriented driver until October 1968.
That was when Andretti fastened himself into a Colin Chapman Lotus and, late on a cold, blustery afternoon in Watkins Glen, N.Y., qualified on the pole for the United States Grand Prix. The Europeans were stunned, not so much because Andretti had been the fastest qualifier but because he had done it in his very first Grand Prix. Some drivers flatly would not believe it. Others thought it a fluke. Jackie Stewart said, "I knew he was good, but I'm surprised he showed himself so quickly."
Andretti did not finish that race, or any of the three Grands Prix he started last year, but he was a solid third in the Spanish Grand Prix last month, and it will be acutely interesting to see how he fares on the streets of Monte Carlo.
Eoin Young, a New Zealander who writes on European racing for several publications and is a former business partner of Driver Bruce McLaren, says, "Generally, Europeans feel that Mario is the only American who is capable of coming over and winning immediately, the only one who can challenge Jackie Stewart and Jochen Rindt for the No. 1 spot in Formula I. But on the other hand there is a European tradition of bringing just one car to a particular race and not bashing it up, and Andretti has the reputation of being a guy who crashes cars wherever he goes."
Yes, Andretti has been hard on cars. He points out that he drives a much heavier schedule than the majority of European racers: besides 20 U.S. Auto Club championship races, he plans to drive in at least several more Grand Prix events this year, three more long-distance sports-car races for Ferrari (he has already raced at Daytona and Sebring), most of the Canadian-American Challenge Cup series, a few stock and midget events, and will continue a demanding program of testing tires and chassis. "Perhaps I try harder,' he says.