Q&A with Mario Andretti
We recently had the honor and pleasure of speaking with racing legend Mario Andretti, a neighbor of ours here in Nazareth. We asked him a few questions, and thought you'd be interested in his answers. We thank him for his insight into the world of car racing.
You are the only race car driver in history to win the Indianapolis 500, Daytona 500, and Formula One races. What are the different skills needed behind the wheel of a NASCAR vehicle compared to that of an F1 or Indy car?
Mario Andretti: The skillset of the driver is basically the same, but each race car has its own characteristics including performance limits. So the driver has to be able to understand and adapt to those characteristics in order to extract the maximum performance out of each car. Most F1 or Indy car drivers would have a tendency to overdrive a NASCAR because stock cars are heavier and are slower to respond. A driver has to be skilled enough to be able to get the most out of each car and identify its limit. While it takes similar skill, it’s the handling that’s different. It’s like flying a fighter aircraft (F1 car) versus a bomber (NASCAR).
When did you first fall in love with cars? And what made you want to start racing?
Mario Andretti: It was while I was growing up in Italy that I developed a love of cars and racing. Racing was more popular than any other sport in Italy so I became enamored at a very young age. When I was 14, a year before moving to America, I went to my first race, the Grand Prix at Monza. I decided that day that I wanted to be a race.
You raced for five decades so you saw firsthand the progress of many safety measures in motor racing. Was hearing protection part of it?
Mario Andretti: There has never been a formal orchestrated plan for hearing protection. The race cars became safer, but ear protection has always been a personal choice and personal concern. When I started my career and throughout the 1960s and 70s, there were no radios in the race cars, and no audio means of communication. Some drivers chose to wear ear buds to protect their hearing. In retrospect, it was a wise choice. In the early 80s when radio communication between drivers and pit crews was introduced, it was necessary for drivers to wear ear buds and their pit crew to wear headphones to communicate with each other, so the situation solved itself. That remains the situation today. Ear buds and headphones are worn by race teams for radio communication; hearing protection is a secondary benefit.
So before sophisticated radio communication, you raced with the engine noise just inches from your head. Did you suffer hearing damage?
Mario Andretti: What we know for sure is that many veteran drivers and mechanics (from the era before radios) suffered hearing damage or loss. I’m very lucky that I did not. Actually before racing became sophisticated with computers, race drivers had to hear the engine tone to know if they were running at the limit and not giving anything away. You had to be right at the rev limit (maximum speed an engine can achieve). When turbocharged engines were introduced, it was advantageous for drivers to drill a hole in their helmet and run a hose from their ear to the base of the pop off valve in order to hear it before it would open, which would result in a tremendous loss of horsepower. I wanted to hear it right smack in my eardrum, never thinking twice about damage to my ears. Later they developed valve control by computer, undoubtedly eliminating the danger of significant hearing loss for many drivers.
Is there much said about hearing protection for spectators?
Mario Andretti: It remains a personal choice, but it’s highly recommended. Like wearing a life jacket in a boat. Anyone who visits Formula 1, IndyCar or NASCAR races knows that the engine noise can be deafening. As a fan, there is a good chance that you find this sound fantastic. The roar of the engine can give you goosebumps. But it’s definitely loud enough to potentially hurt your ears. Ear plugs are certainly available at race tracks and many fans bring their own foam ear plugs or noise canceling headphones. It always remains up to the individual. I certainly recommend that everyone bring hearing protection with them to the track. And young children especially should have ear protection. It’s actually quite common now to see kids in strollers at the race track wearing big noise-cancelling headphones. Smart parents!