Mario Andretti has been married to the love of his life, Dee Ann, for 55 years.
But this weekend, after 22 years away (he last raced there in 1994), the patriarch of the Andretti clan will resume a long-lost love affair as he and the rest of the Indy car world return to the legendary Road America road course for the KOHLER Grand Prix.
It’s the first time that Indy cars will race at the twisting 4.014-mile, 14-turn track in Elkhart Lake, Wis., since 2007. And few could be happier for the return to the Kettle Moraine area than Andretti.
CLICK HERE: KOHLER Grand Prix entry list; Watch a "visor cam" lap of Road America with Graham Rahal
“It’s one of the classic circuits in America that’s hosted Can-Am in the glory days and Indy car was so extremely successful there as well under the CART banner,” Andretti told IndyCar.com. “It was only disrupted after the division between the ranks and Elkhart Lake was one of the casualties, unfortunately.
“Now, the whole thing is back together and the series has some momentum, and to pick up the classics again I think is awesome. It’s really what the series needs.
“I can just see from the reaction from the fans, who keep asking if I’m coming. Yes, yes, I’m coming. There’s a big buzz in my opinion about this place and, again, it’s got that history. That’s valuable. If you make that successful, then the infrastructure is going to grow and it’s going to be better and better, and that’s what we want to see.”
Mario and son Michael had great success there in their respective careers, each winning three times. Some jokingly suggested renaming the place Road Andretti.
In 12 starts at Road America, Mario amassed three wins (1983, 1984 and 1987, shown at right) – all from the pole – as well as seven top-five and two other top-10 showings.
“Road America is a place I embrace quite nicely and I learned how to get around it,” he said. “I also won two races in Formula 5000 there (also from the pole) as well. Five wins and five poles, it just suited my style.
“But I’m not alone, either. I haven’t spoken to any driver ever that said he didn’t like it. Everybody says, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah.’ It’s a positive feeling that everybody has, which I think is awesome.”
It’s not surprising that Mario ranks Road America among the top tracks, not just in the U.S. but around the world.
“It’s just the layout,” Andretti said. “The course offers just about everything that you’re looking for on a nice, wide-open road course. You can really stretch your legs. It basically has three straightaways and immediately three good overtaking points, you’ve got elevations, high speed, low speed, just about anything you’d want.
“I don’t know, there’s something about that place from Day 1 that I really gravitated to and it seems like everybody else feels the same way. I just talked to (grandson) Marco, they just completed a test there last week, and he said he can’t wait to get back there. He’s raced there before in Formula Fords and things like that.
“It’s all those characteristics and I consider that at the very top anywhere. You consider it with the classics, in my opinion. People would put it in the category of Spa (Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps in Belgium), places like that.”
When a world-class driver like Mario Andretti compares Road America to Spa, that’s an extremely lofty compliment.
“They’re different but it’s a place where drivers really enjoy the challenges,” the elder Andretti said. “What I really look for is if you’re running somewhere in a pack for whatever reason or you have a bad qualifying and yet you feel like you have a shot at getting to the front, the overtaking is really good there. That’s a good feeling to always have.
“At some other places, you may feel like you’re stuck and you’re behind and the chances to advance (aren’t good), but (at Road America) you have your best chances to advance. You always have that hope as a driver. And I like a long laps, for some reason.”
Andretti then added with a laugh, “Psychologically, you think to yourself, the race is only 50 laps, that’s a short race. You forget that it’s over four miles a lap.”
Mario’s return to Road America won’t be just as an observer or fan or to watch grandson Marco race. He will be working, driving the Honda “Fastest Seat in Sports” two-seater Indy car all weekend.
“I’m not just going to be a passing fan,” he said. “I’m in it to reacquaint myself with the place with the big two-seater, so I’m really looking forward to that as well.”
KOHLER Grand Prix fast facts:
• Race 9* of 16 in the 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series season (*-Race 9 was scheduled for Texas Motor Speedway but was suspended June 12 after 71 laps and will be completed Aug. 27). There have been 25 previous Indy car races at Road America, the last in 2007 won by Sebastien Bourdais.
• Race distance: 50 laps/200.7 miles
• Track length: 4.014-miles, 14-turn permanent road course
• Track record: Dario Franchitti, 1 minute, 39.866 seconds (145.924 mph), Aug. 19, 2000
• Tickets and event information:
• Twitter: @RoadAmerica, #KOHLERGP; @IndyCar, #IndyCar
• TV: NBCSN will telecast Friday’s first practice live (noon-1:30 p.m. ET), Saturday’s qualifying on a delay basis (5:30-7 p.m.) and Sunday’s race live (12:30 p.m. ET). Leigh Diffey is the lead announcer alongside analysts Townsend Bell and Paul Tracy. Pit reporters are Katie Hargitt, Kevin Lee, Robin Miller and Marty Snider.
• Radio: The Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network is led by chief announcer Mark Jaynes, with booth analyst Davey Hamilton. Pit reporters are Dave Furst and Rob Howden, with Jake Query, Nick Yeoman and Michael Young calling the turns. All Verizon IndyCar Series races are broadcast live on network affiliates, Sirius 212, XM 209, IndyCar.com, indycarradio.com and the INDYCAR Mobile app. Qualifying broadcasts are available on Sirius 212, XM 209, IndyCar.com, indycarradio.com and the INDYCAR Mobile app. Practice sessions are on IndyCar.com, indycarradio.com and the INDYCAR Mobile app.
• Video streaming: Friday’s second practice (4-5:15 p.m. ET), Saturday morning practice (noon-12:45 p.m. ET), Saturday qualifying (4-5:15 p.m. ET) and Sunday’s warmup (9-9:30 a.m. ET) will stream live at RaceControl.IndyCar.com. Live timing and scoring for all weekend sessions is available at the same site.
• Fantasy league: The #INDYRIVALS Fantasy Challenge driven by Firestone allows fans to become a team manager by fielding a four-driver lineup for each Verizon IndyCar Series race, with a stockpile of prizes on the line each week. Sign up today at fantasy.indycar.com.