Grand Prix of St. Petersburg: Q&A with Mario Andretti

Published March 11 2017
Updated March 12 2017

ST. PETERSBURG — Racing legend Mario Andretti is still immersed in the sport, 23 years after driving his last IndyCar event. His son Michael, himself an all-time great driver, owns the successful Andretti Autosport team and Marco Andretti, Mario's grandson, is a two-time race winner entering his 12th season with Michael's team.

And Mario still drives the IndyCar two-seater car on race weekends — on Thursday he took Times photographer Eve Edelheit for a ride at speeds topping out around 140 mph for a ride at speeds topping out around 140 mph . .

Mario Andretti spoke to the Times regarding the state of the sport and St. Petersburg's appeal as a venue.

Q: IndyCar just announced that Chevrolet, Honda, Firestone and Dallara have signed multi-year contract extensions. What's your take on what that means for the stability for the series?

A: That's what you need. A series at the top level without manufacturers' involvement just doesn't exist. There's no question that the series has been gaining momentum. They had a lot of ground to make up since the mistakes that were made in the '90s. A lot of ground that NASCAR had gained. For me any time you see any positive aspect I go, "Yay!" I think they're talking about extending the season as well, which is something I personally have been fighting about.

Starting even earlier here (in St. Petersburg) is good. … The level of talent in this series right now is unprecedented. My wife says, "Look at all these drivers, they're all young." Yes! That's wonderful. These are guys that have been around a long time and they're still young. We really have some good, interesting characters. So the series has life, real life.

Q: It's interesting that you bring up expanding the schedule. What former IndyCar or even Champ Car track would you like to see back on the schedule?

A: Laguna Seca is one. That was a good, traditional event. … Why is this (St. Petersburg) a good venue? Because people like to be here. It's got the weather, you've all these snowbirds coming down (laughs). Back home (in Pennsylvania) there was five inches of snow this morning. Again, (we need) venues that have not just the track. The venue is what makes a great event. Great restaurants, hotels where you want to be. That's where you bring the CEOs, you bring people that are important. That's why these events are successful. It's more than just a race-day attraction. That's important.

Q: Are there any venues where IndyCar has never gone that you think, hmm, that would be an interesting place to race?

A: Probably COTA (Circuit of the Americas, the site of the Formula One U.S. Grand Prix) in Austin, Texas. It's a fabulous facility. There's always someplace where you'd like to be, I suppose.

Q: What are your thoughts on the stability of the schedule? The series has seen the likes of Baltimore and New Orleans come and go as venues.

A: We had to stop (the season on) Labor Day, which I fought and fought and cursed. We lost a couple of venues because of that. … We had too many outsiders coming in, trying to reinvent the wheel. But I think all that is hopefully behind us. It doesn't take much to make things better.