By Shawn Wood
For The Daily Item
NAZARETH -- From the narrow streets of Monaco to the cathedral that is the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the name Andretti is synonymous with a relentless pursuit of victory.
At 73, Mario Andretti's passion for racing still burns brightly, and today he'll watch his grandson Marco race the Pocono Raceway 2.5-mile tri-oval as the IZOD IndyCar Series returns to the track for the first time since 1989.
n Early days
Mario Andretti wanted to be a race car driver. He didn't have a Plan B.
His earliest memories of the sport came from watching Formula 1 racing when he was 10, cheering world champion and fellow countryman Alberto Ascari.
The family came to the States in 1955 and settled in Nazareth where Mario lives today.
Along with his twin brother, Aldo, they built a 1948 Hudson and raced in the sportsman division at Nazareth Speedway in 1959.
"We ran two years with our own car because we were technically underage," he said. "We sort of fudged our license, because you had to legally be 21 to race professionally in those days; we were 19. I then raced three-quarter midget before I got a ride with the American Racing Drivers Club (ARDC) midgets (full-size midgets) which was a very strong midget club on the East coast."
Settling in Nazareth was a blessing for Andretti.
"I think Pennsylvania was very fertile ground for race fans," he said. "Tracks like Hatfield, Flemington, Williams Grove, Trenton, Langhorne ... all were in a 150-mile radius for the race fans."
He noted that he learned a lot from racing with legends Ed "Dutch" Shaffer and Len Duncan in his early days.
"I never tried to categorize a track as 'I like this one,' or 'I don't like this one,'" he said. "If you enter an event and say that you don't like a track, technically you are defeated before you enter."
One track Andretti enjoyed was Trenton where he was a six-time Indycar and Champ Car winner.
While the late Dr. Joseph Mattioli was the founder of the Long Pond speedway, Andretti had a hand in getting it started.
"The whole project was so welcomed right from the very beginning," he said. "It represented a super speedway right in our own back yard. I was part of some of the early meetings even before ground was broken."
He won the open-wheel race in 1986. That year, son Michael (now team owner of Andretti Autosport) sat on the pole, and nephew Jeff Andretti won what is today's version of the Indy Lights.
"From the first race on, it was a heaven for the East Coast," Andretti said of racing at Pocono. "To go back there now, it's the bright side of the series. We needed to be at Pocono again."
During test sessions leading up to today's race, some drivers referred to Turn 1 at Pocono as "a monster" and "a beast," with its 14-degrees of banking patterned after the Trenton (N.J.) Speedway.
"I know exactly what they are talking about," Andretti said. "It's daunting. The straight is longer than Indy or any other super speedway we go to. They'll never lift. They'll be going 240 mph into it and the jolt of 6.5 Gs -- wow -- that's big-time stuff."
Mario's winning pole speed in 1987 was 152.016 mph. Marco's pole speed for today's race was 221.273 mph.
Today's race also features a three-wide start which was used in the original days of the Triple Crown. Today's Triple Crown is comprised of the Indianapolis 500, the Pocono 400 and the Auto Club (Calif.) 500.
Marco, who was two years old the last time the Indycars raced at Pocono, is third in the series points entering today's race. Teammate and defending IndyCar champion Ryan Hunter-Reay is second (two wins) and James Hinchcliffe (three wins), is fourth in points. Team Penske driver Helio Castroneves is the points leader.
History will show that Mario Andretti was one of the very best to ever circle the vaunted 2.5-mile oval despite winning the race just once in 1969.
"I tried to look at Indy like any other track," he said. "If you try to go out there and build yourself up with a lot of anticipation, you are just putting undo pressure on yourself. I am going to prepare (to go to Indy) the same way I was going to prepare to go Trenton or anywhere else: it's another race -- but it's an important race.
"I did not let that place intimidate me in any way. I think that's a mistake that some of the younger drivers make."
Marco Andretti finished second in his first 500 in 2006 when Sam Hornish Jr. beat him by .0635-seconds.
It was another entry in the long-list of disappointments the family has endured at the track.
"It's the old saying 'You never give up,'" Andretti said about trying to win the world's biggest race. "It is certainly worth the effort to stay on top of it and do it again."
Andretti, who won the Rookie of the Year at Indy in 1965, noted that he doesn't feel defeated at Indianapolis.
"I've been defeated maybe by some luck, so has Michael," he said. "I've dominated that race more than any of the four-time winners. If you look at the amount of laps that Michael led, the amount of laps I led, we're 1-2 on the all-time laps led list.
"There are certain things that you cannot control. I can hold my head high and I've had good, positive times there. Marco loves Indy and he knows how to lead. Sooner or later, this luck has to break. We'll never give up, I can tell you that."