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[originally published in Smoke magazine]

mario andretti and the science of speed [cover feature]

Mario AndrettiIn 2003, Mario Andretti temporarily stepped-out from a nine-year retirement to fill-in for an injured driver on his son Michael’s team during a test run at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Most of the run was uneventful (which in this line of work, is often a good thing). Then with two minutes to go in the session, Swedish driver Kenny Bräck crashed while traversing the track’s “south chute” shelling debris over the raceway. While hitting the turn, some pieces of what had been Bräck’s vehicle slammed into Mario’s car, sending it somersaulting into the air, along with its then 63-year-old driver in tow.

“When I came around the turn, I was surprised by the debris because of the blind corner. So, at that point, I was just trying to dodge pieces. Then obviously, I hit something—it was a piece of his wing and that sent me up in the air,” Mario matter-of-factly recalls with an accent still peppered with remnants of his native Italy. “It dislodged the car from the down force and I went flying. The telemetry tells us we were exiting that corner at 220 miles per hour. That’s after I had backed off. So it gave the car a bit of attitude and the car went flying like an F-16.” After the collision and a few milliseconds spent unsuccessfully challenging gravity, Andretti miraculously landed back on the track on all four wheels with nothing but a few superficial bumps and bruises to show for it. At least one commentator called it “one of the most dramatic crashes in history,” but to hear Andretti calmly describe his fete of automotive acrobatics it “was the most spectacular crash I’ve had. I’ve been in other ones where I’ve been injured, but this was the most spectacular. And it could have been one of the bad ones if I landed upside down—I probably wouldn’t be talking to you today.”

A knack for death-defiance is a handy trait for professional drivers from any era. But it was a prerequisite for the pioneers of the ’60s and ’70s when, on average, five drivers a year wouldn’t survive to see next season. But Mario Andretti managed not only found a way to survive, but to thrive in a profession with some pretty daunting workplace hazards. What was the best way to remain effective with that real lurking danger? “You just couldn’t dwell on it. We all knew the sport was dangerous at the time and you accepted it. It was what it was,” comments Andretti with signature filter of calmness, a temperament which perhaps proves that when fighting for that lead position, puffing on that cigar, or engaging in any of life’s little pursuits, it’s never just about going full throttle.

At the age of 15, Mario Gabriele Andretti emigrated with his family from Montona, Italy (now part of Croatia) to the Eastern Pennsylvanian town of Nazareth where he still resides. After discovering the dirt racing track at the Nazareth fairgrounds, Mario and his twin brother Aldo started “racing in earnest.” Along with a few friends, the two Andrettis rebuilt a 1948 Hudson Hornet into a stock car and embarked on an amateur racing career—a secret pastime they kept hidden from their parents. Early in their racing days, Aldo had a crash which landed him in a coma—forcing Mario to come clean to their parents about the brothers’ clandestine activities. Aldo eventually recovered and would even return to racing, but would get into another accident ten years later, finally sending him into retirement. His brother Mario’s career, of course, would follow a different path.

Mario Andretti worked his way up the racing ladder through the 1960s from stock cars to open wheel racing. He won his first IndyCar championship in 1965 and made his Formula One debut in ’68. By 1970 Mario Andretti would become the most recognizable and successful name in American racing. His career shadowed the evolution of the sport from rag-tag enterprise to spectator juggernaut. Mario has raced and won in five different decades, proving to be one of the sport’s most enduring figures. He is the only person to ever have been named “Driver of the Year” in three different decades and one of the few to have seen checkered flags from the helm of both refurbished dirt track jalopies and the million dollar–branded super-machines of today. “I started in the grassroots side of the sport in the ’60s when everything was so basic. But I also drove one of the first cars to use a computer. So, I know what it was all about. You talk to Stirling Moss, he only knows the basics from his era. If you talk to Michael Schumacher he only knows what’s around today. I had a taste of all of that. To me, that’s magic. There’s so much that’s so interesting about the technical side of the sport. I went through the development of racing tires as we know them today. I went through the development of sophisticated suspensions as we know them today. I went through the aerodynamics of no wings to just surface wings to ground effects. I experienced all of that. Not too many of us can make that claim.” Mario has also proved to be one of the sport’s most versatile: he is only one of two drivers in history to win races in Formula One, Indy cars, sports cars, and stock cars. Adding in wins in midgets and sprint cars, he has a career total of 111 major victories.

While officially retired from racing, Mario says he still “keeps his options open—for the right opportunity.” Though he doesn’t find himself behind a 750 horsepower behemoth everyday, he’s happy to get around most of his time in his Corvette, his favorite in his personal stable that also includes a Lamborghini, Audi, Ferrari, and even an S.U.V. (Yes, even Mario Andretti sometimes drives an S.U.V.).

Today, the 69-year-old Andretti has made the transformation from Speed Demon to Branding King. He keep busy with several business endeavors. In addition to numerous corporate endorsements, he’s involved in several Andretti-dubbed entrepreneurial ventures including Andretti Indoor Karting and Games, a family entertainment and “corporate team building” complex based in Roswell, Georgia; The Mario Andretti Racing School, which is partnered with The Jeff Gordon Racing School and offers a fairly close-to-genuine racing experience with 170 mph-capable cars at franchises in Las Vegas and Charlotte; and the Andretti Winery based in Napa, which he proudly boasts “just came away from a wine tasting sponsored by the San Francisco Chronicle. We entered five varietals and medaled in all five.” And now, Andretti is partnering with Pacific Cigars to put out his namesake Andretti line of cigars.

“The opportunity came up with Pacific Cigars, so I looked at them and smoked some of their product and saw their tobacco options—they have Dominican tobaccos and Philippine tobaccos and so forth. So we made some of the choices of what we liked in regards to taste and size. And we put the product together. And I’m really happy with the end product, even down to the packaging. It’s been a fun process. I have friends who smoke—even doctors who love to puff with me. I always say that when it comes to people who love wine or love cigars, there’s always some interesting conversation there. I’m really happy to be part of it.”

The first Andretti release is the imposing 60-gauge Commendatore, a reference to Andretti’s Italian roots which led to the official designation of Commendatore della Repubblica Italiana, the highest civilian honor given by the Italian Government bestowed upon Mario in 2006 (Enzo Ferrari being the only other racing figure to achieve Il Commendatore-hood). Andretti cigars will eventually be available in a full range of sizes from the Commendatore down to a 42-gauge corona. All cigars are Dominican blends and come in either Ecuadorian shade grown Connecticut or Brazilian Maduro wrappers. (For more information, check out www.pacific-cigar.com).

“I can say that nothing is more relaxing than having a nice glass of wine or a port and enjoying a nice cigar. Over the years, I’ve gotten to know a number of people who really love cigars. One of my car owners, Carl Haas [who along with the late actor Paul Newman headed the Newman/Haas racing team, which won its first CART title with Mario] is known for his trademark cigars, both on and off the track. Carl and I found the combination of fine wine and a good cigar was a great way to celebrate a win.”

And celebrating a win is something Andretti has had plenty of chances to do. While many use cigars to relax, many will use it to celebrate, be it for the birth of a co-worker’s child with one of those god-awful “It’s A Boy/Girl!” novelty sticks, or rewarding yourself for landing that account by digging a bit deeper for that Davidoff or Fuente. Now Mario is hoping his name gets thrown in with those smokes of celebration—and next to the strategy of speed, “celebration” might just be what Mario Andretti knows best.