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Mario Andretti's Reunification Attempts

Toronto, Ontario, July 13, 2003 About a half dozen reporters, including myself, were lucky enough to partake in a semi-private conversation with racing legend Mario Andretti on race morning. The main topic of conversation was the state of open wheel racing in America and the idea of reunification.

Make no mistake about it -- not only is Mario 100% behind the idea of getting the two series together, he is doing everything in his power to get it done.

"I'm making noises," Andretti said. Andretti speaks with great passion on a topic that he cares so much about. The fire in those eyes that were often seen inside a helmet were evident on this day. When Mario speaks, everybody listens (except perhaps A.J. Foyt). Andretti is definitely making noises, and he used this opportunity to spread his gospel.

"If you put intelligent minds together, there are ways to put this together. The financial situation will eventually force it, and to the benefit of everyone. Nobody losses."

That is one of the themes that Mario stressed -- a win-win situation. "I want to see everyone smile." But is there really any hope? "I am positive you can find the answer. Everything is doable as long as you have the willingness. I have reason to be absolutely optimistic."

Even if this is a possibility, just when should it happen? "Yesterday. It can't happen soon enough," Andretti said. However, he acknowledges it could take a long time. "You can still follow two different paths and eventually do this," Andretti moved his two hands slowly together to form a single path. "The first thing that needs to happen is for both sides to say we need each other. If it takes five years for it to finally happen, that's okay. As long as that message is said now."

But aren't the sides so far apart that they could never admit to this? Not according to Mario. "A lot of the borders that were once impenetrable, no longer are." Andretti was referring to the fact that so many teams and drivers have crossed over, including his own son, and therefore communications between the two series are more open than in the past. Then, he said something that leaves one going, hmmm. "Some of the borders are falling. That's all I can really tell you."

If these borders are falling, how come nobody else is saying anything? "The major players can't say what I'm saying. If they do, they will appear to be waving the white flag, a sign of weakness. I think it's just the opposite. It's a sign of strength." In fact, this was one of the reasons Mario said up front that he told CART it was a 99% chance he would only serve one term on the Board when asked to join. There was the time commitment issue and "I wanted to express my opinion."

He is certainly doing that and more. "I will play whatever role that makes sense," Andretti said when asked what he is willing to do if asked. "I will say things that either side cannot say. Am I looking for more work? No. But, will I do things that will make it work? Yes."

Is it too late? One reporter asked if we would be back next year here in Toronto. Andretti pounced on that question like he would to any driver who left an opening on the track. "Yes! I'll bet you whatever you want. I'll bet you anything. Open wheel racing isn't going to go away. It's a great product. It's been around since the car was invented."

Okay, so Mario believes open wheel racing will survive in some form, but can it ever regain it's footing versus NASCAR? "I think I would like to test that. I think that a lot of fans went to NASCAR because they were confused. A lot of this is the emotion of having to choose. That's what I would like to fix."

Interestingly, despite the diplomatic tone Andretti expressed throughout the interview, he still was a bit uncomplimentary of the other side. "It's commendable to have a strong philosophy, but if it doesn't work, it's commendable to recognize that, and change your philosophy," Mario said in a not so disguised opinion of Tony George.

How about the teams that switched to the IRL? Are they happy? Not according to Mario: "No. They will argue with me, but I can tell you they are not happy over there. I think everybody will be happier when we are all together."

Mario Andretti firmly believes that the best of both series "Indianapolis and a few other of their races and strong venues over here like Toronto" can be combined to make a strong single series. As to the rules, technical specifications, and the like, to Mario those are all details that can be worked out once the willingness is there to do so. "I'm looking at the bigger picture, the longer range. It can't go on like this forever."

Remember, this is the same guy who found a solution to get Road America back on the schedule when it looked all but hopeless. "I'm a guy just making noises."

The thing is, Mario is not just "a guy" and when he makes noises, they reverberate through the racing world. Especially, the open wheel racing world.

Copyright © 2003 by Russell Jaslow and Deep Throttle. All Rights Reserved.

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