Gears to grapes – Andrew Shirley interviews racing car legend Mario Andretti

Mario Andretti may be one of the world’s most successful racing car drivers, but these days you’re more likely to find him sipping a glass of fine wine than behind the wheel of a classic car

Formula 1, IndyCar, dirt track, 24-hour endurance racing. You name it, if it’s got four wheels Mario Andretti has probably been there and won the race. In the eyes of many he’s the finest driver of all time, so I’m feeling pretty excited about interviewing him.

With classic cars growing in popularity, I start off by wondering why he doesn’t have a garage full of them himself. “When I was driving I was so immersed in my work I couldn’t find the time to get into anything else,” Mr Andretti explains.

“Do I regret not having paid more attention – indeed I do,” he adds candidly. “I could very easily have had the Ferrari I won my first Formula 1 race in (South Africa, 1971), or the Lotus 79 I won the 1978 World Championship with, if I’d just asked for them.”

He does, however, have one special car in his collection of memorabilia. “The only car I asked for was the Lola I drove in my last IndyCar race in 1994. The mechanics also presented me with a table made from the original engine, which I have in my bar and is a great memory of my career.”

But was he not tempted to invest in a few more classics once he’d finished racing, I ask? It turns out that when it comes to cars Mr Andretti has something in common with my eight-year-old son – it’s the gadgets that really excite him.

“It was always trying the latest and greatest in technology that motivated me for forty years when I was racing. It’s the same now. I’ll keep a car in my garage for three or four years and then I’ll replace it with a new model.”

But, he’s definitely not growing old gracefully – we’re talking about supercars, not comfortable limousines.

Need for Speed

Mr Andretti says this need for speed explains why he tends to stay away from racing the classics, even though he has lots of opportunities. “You have individuals who love vintage racing, but every time I get into an old car I just really want to push it like I did when I raced them, which perhaps isn’t that smart. I had an incident driving a Lotus 49 at Donnington (an historic racetrack in the UK), which was a bit scary.”

Before moving from gears to grapes, we talk about some of his most memorable cars and races. There are too many for him to pick a favourite, but he says driving open-wheel single seaters gave him the biggest buzz. “It’s the purest form of the sport. They are like fighter jets – built for just one purpose.”

When it comes to wine, Mr Andretti’s cellar, stocked with around 2,500 bottles of some of the most iconic wines produced in France, Italy and America, is as diverse as the cars he’s raced, but again one form does stand out for him. “Overall, French wines are my favourite. Ultimately to me they have just a little more character. I love getting a bottle out, being patient, allowing it to open up – I relish every moment.”

Ironically, he recounts, it was this passion for the great French chateaux like Lafite and Margaux that led him to own a vineyard in one of the world’s other great winemaking regions – California’s Napa Valley.

“I was having dinner at Newport Beach in 1976 when the US Grand Prix West was at Long Beach nearby and I was asked to choose the wine. I went for something French and Ken Tyrell (an F1 team owner) asked me why, when were in California. It was about the time Californian wines were really beginning to show on the world market.

“So, at the end of the season I went to Napa Valley with some friends for the first time. Every year after that we’d make the pilgrimage and come back with an airplane full of great wine.”

When the opportunity arose to purchase his own vineyard and winery with friend and sponsor Joe Antonini, Mr Andretti took it and after working with the same winemaker Bob Pepi for the past 20 years, “his dad was the first to plant the Brunello grape in Napa in 1986”, now produces around 40,000 cases of wine, including Shiraz, Merlot, Cabernets, Sauvignon Blancs and Pinot Grigios, that do very well at blind tastings. “I’m very proud of our wines,” he says.

Does he get the same kick from winning a prize for his wine as winning a race? “You can’t really compare the two,” he claims, but he tells me that there are definite similarities between his racing career and what he does now.

“Making a great wine is a bit like setting up a race car – there are hundreds of tiny adjustments you can make to get it just right. I don’t claim to understand how they all work, I rely on the experts for that, but I do know when the mechanics or winemakers have produced something that works really well.”

As the conversation draws to a close, I ask Mr Andretti if he views wine as a passion or an investment. In terms of collecting, it’s most definitely a passion, he says. “If Sotheby’s has a wine auction I might out of curiosity see how a bottle I own has done, but drinking it is what gives me the most pleasure.”

And when it comes to the winery? “It is a business, but maybe not one to retire on. Let’s call it a business of love.”

Andretti highlights

  • 111 career wins on major circuits
  • 1978 F1 world champion
  • Four-time IndyCar champion
  • US driver of the year ’67, ’78, ‘84

This interview was originally published in the latest Knight Frank Luxury Investment Index Classic Car special

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