Mario tries to explain, and in a mixture of inexactitude and paradox, he comes closer to conveying something than the glib expounders do. There is pride, of course. And glory. And money. Mario admits to having run for the glory of it, but that was when he was 13. Now he speaks feelingly of the money. "Anybody who can drive and doesn't come out of this a rich man is a fool."
As for pride, a subtler point, he says, "I don't have any feeling of accomplishment about something unless there's a lot of risk to it. I mean, I don't want to go out there and do something 3,000 other people can do." But while Mario says he finds no satisfaction in doing something that lacks risk, he also goes on to say that if he allowed himself to think in terms of the risk, he would have to quit—a seeming paradox but a thoroughly sound statement emotionally. "It doesn't make sense, but that's the way I feel about it, and that makes sense," Mario said. "If you start thinking you may get hurt, you may as well get out of racing."
TO WRITE MORE THAN THE FACTS ABOUT MARIO ANDRETTI IS TO hack one's way through thickets of superlatives. His cousin, Louis Messenlehner, who runs a service station in Nazareth where both of the Andretti boys were employed, says that they were the best workers he ever had, that there was nothing they would not do for anybody and that never, never would they have sat while he stood. "They would jump up and stand like they were in the Italian army," he recalls.
Al Dean, the owner of Mario's car, says, "He is the most exciting driver I have ever watched." His chief mechanic has called him "the finest driver ever to come to the Speedway." Mario's manager finds him so businesslike, mature and self-possessed that he says, "He almost scares me that way. And the young ladies think he is the greatest thing since sliced bread, and—ah—this could cause trouble." Mario, who is married to a pretty girl from Nazareth and is the father of two little boys, does not allow the young ladies to cause trouble.
All of which adds up to a lot of splendidness, and it was somehow reassuring to hear Andretti say last month in Ohio that he frequently felt like putting a wrench through reporters' skulls. He also said, with that obligingness to which everyone refers, that actually he is moody, strange, negligent in certain respects and infinitely stubborn. Mousing around after him for a while one does hear some cheeringly vivid and unprintable language. Nevertheless these few humanizing imperfections are minor, and the fact is that Andretti is precisely as good a man as he is said to be. Racing is one of those endeavors in which it is not how you play the game but whether you win or lose. When you do lose, Mario says, "for three days it's just pure hell. Man, you feel like killing yourself, hanging yourself, quitting. It's just not worth it. Until about Wednesday, and then you start worrying about the next race."
If Mario's self-control is immense, it is probably because he has a thoroughly uncompromising nature. As he says, "If you can't show it to me in black and white, forget it."
There is a good deal of hypothetical violence in Mario that keeps turning up in the modesty, the dry wit and interesting lucidity of his random observations. You cannot goad him into saying anything against anyone, for whatever good reason, but he will say, suddenly and harshly, at the sight of a sloppy, long-haired teenager trying to cross a street, "Run him down. I hate that hair." Mario is not about to run anybody down. It is just that all that self-control is too much for anyone to manage 24 hours a day, and it results in impersonal explosions when he would not permit himself personal ones and in a private nervous weariness.
There is every likelihood that Andretti is going to be one of the ultimately great race drivers. He is a brilliant, beautiful driver. He is also methodical, stubborn and monomaniacal. And he is short, which is to say competitive. Few phenomena in nature compare in tenacity with the short man's insistence on being best. Plants growing through rock are not even contenders. But what would he have done if he had been born 100 years earlier?
"I would have been a knight," he says promptly.