Formula 1's U.S. Fan Base 'Understated,' Andretti Says
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
And in Austin, Texas, after a five-year absence, Formula One racing returned to the U.S. A Formula One track called the Circuit of the Americas, was inaugurated over the weekend in a race won by Lewis Hamilton. Formula One is immensely popular in Europe and much of the world, but it's failed to win a big audience in the U.S., dwarfed by the homegrown culture of NASCAR and the Indy circuit.
Mario Andretti wants to change that. In 1978, he won the Formula One World Championship. Now at the age of 72, this racing legend is the face of Formula One in its latest attempt to find a fan base in the U.S. He spoke with Steve Inskeep.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Is it going to be hard to draw, over time, American audiences to a sport if there are a few - if any - American drivers?
MARIO ANDRETTI: I don't think so. I think the appeal of Formula One has been huge in United States. Every interview, I say this; but I feel it's very true that the Formula One fan base in United States is understated. We have seen it from the response. They've sold tickets in 50 states, in 46 countries. So you could see the buzz is out there.
INSKEEP: Pretty competitive landscape, though, right? - because you not only still have Indy car racing, you've got NASCAR; you've got other forms of racing in the United States.
ANDRETTI: Yes, indeed. Actually, this is probably the only country in the world that has that type of competition. Many people ask, why don't we have more American drivers in Formula One? Because, to be honest with you, you could have a very satisfying, complete career and just race, basically, in this country. And there's probably no other country that can make that statement.
INSKEEP: You must have raced in about every kind of car that there is to race, and every kind of race that there is to race, in your career. Is that correct?
ANDRETTI: Yes, indeed.
INSKEEP: What do you like best about Formula One, compared to the others?
ANDRETTI: You almost feel that you're measuring up not against the best that your own country can provide, but the best the world has to offer. So Formula One was my dream, for me, when I was a youngster still living in Italy. It was that important.
INSKEEP: When was your first Formula One race?
ANDRETTI: In 1968. It was the U.S. Grand Prix at Watkins Glen.
INSKEEP: It didn't take you more than a second to remember that. It must have been a memorable event.
ANDRETTI: Memorable event, yes, because my very first race, I had the fastest time, and I put the car on pole and obviously, was very proud of that.
INSKEEP: Put the car on pole - we should explain, for non-racing fans, you get the pole position; that means you had the fastest time qualifying. You start first, more or less, right?
ANDRETTI: It was driving for the British team Lotus. And - and again, it was just a very auspicious beginning for me.
INSKEEP: What do you do when a race doesn't go well?
ANDRETTI: You just prepare for the next. You know, it's just - there's nothing you can do. If it's your mistake, you learn from it, and you go on. The series is very intense throughout the years. The season just keeps you very focused because it's one race after another. You don't dwell on the negative. You just try to stay positive, and you go on.
INSKEEP: I just want to get a sense of what it feels like to be behind the wheel of a Formula One car, at high speeds. There must be a subtle difference between a car that is on its way to winning the race, and a car that is doing OK. I mean, it must not be that big a difference. Can you feel it, as you're driving around?
ANDRETTI: Oh, yes, you can. Indeed. You know, a racing car is an animal with a thousand adjustments. And it's when that car, under you, just responds to all of your commands, that's when you get the ultimate satisfaction; and normally, that's when you're leading a race.
INSKEEP: We know, of course, you haven't raced competitively in years. But we're curious if you still get on a track sometimes, and stand on the accelerator.
ANDRETTI: Oh, yes. I have an opportunity to get on the track with what they call a two-seater car, where I can take, actually, a passenger for a joyride.
INSKEEP: What - what kind of speeds might you take that passenger at?
ANDRETTI: Well, depends on the track. It would be 180, 190 miles an hour.
INSKEEP: Sounds like fun.
ANDRETTI: Oh, it's absolute fun.
INSKEEP: Or does it feel kind of slow to you because you've been faster?
ANDRETTI: Well, to me, it's fine. I mean, it's within limits. But I think to the individuals that have never experienced that before, it's always a thrill.
INSKEEP: What does it look like, when you look out the side of a vehicle going close to 200 miles an hour?
ANDRETTI: Things are pretty blurry.
INSKEEP: I would imagine so. Well, Mario Andretti, it's been a pleasure speaking with you.
ANDRETTI: Thank you very much, Steve.
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MONTAGNE: And this is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
And I'm Linda Wertheimer.
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Correction Nov. 19, 2012
An early version of this story incorrectly referred to Mario Andretti as the only American to have won a Formula One World Championship (in 1978). Another American, Phil Hill, won the championship in 1961.