No matter how good a driver you are or think you are, I’ve learned that you really discover how marginal a driver you might be when you ride with or get schooled by someone really good.  Or superlative.  Or legendarily world-class – like Mario Andretti.

I’ve been in the right seat with a lot of great drivers, four-time Trans-Am champ Tommy Kendall (very sharp guy, and really understands the physics of what’s going on with a car when accelerating, braking, and cornering), Randy Lanier, early 80s IMSA prototype champ (butter smooth, and willing to share his secrets and suggestions), George Follmer (best heel-and-toe double-clutch downshifter I’ve ever seen) and then, my uber hero and friend, the incomparable Mario Andretti. 

Super Mario brother needs no introduction here or anywhere else.  Because after all, he’s Mario Andretti. 

It’s been my distinct priv to ride along with him on three occasions; the first during an exotic car road test program I was involved with (Ferrari 360 Spider, Aston Martin DB7 Volante, BMW Z8, and Mercedes-Benz SL55 AMG).  The idea was that he would attack the backroads not far from his Napa Valley winery property in each car for about 25 miles, and I would ride along, make notes, and take a few photos.

Mario Andretti behind the wheel of the Ferrari F430

In my life and career, I’ve never witnessed anyone that so clearly and deeply just loves the art and discipline of driving. 

He drove all of these four exotic convertibles quickly and with gusto, never putting us or any others on the road at any risk or peril. 

It was thrilling to watch his mental computer, butt dyno, and gut gyro feel out each car’s strengths and weaknesses, plus its handling limits, powerband, and such. 

The one he seemed most interested into sampling was the SL55, I’m guessing primarily due to its rock-solid chassis, and high horsepower, and torquey supercharged V-8. 

He loved the big power and the handling, was less pleased that the automatic transmission wasn’t as responsive to his up-and-downshift requests as he wished. 

Mario – Cool as always

Somewhat ditto the automatic-equipped Aston Martin, with praise for its howling V-12 engine, and less glow for its somewhat sluggish slushbox that shifted far too softly for his taste. 

He praised the Z8 for its smooth and strong V-8, stable chassis, and liked that it had a 6-speed manual gearbox, which he shifted masterfully. 

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By: Matt Stone
Title: Riding with Mario
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Published Date: Mon, 15 Mar 2021 19:34:05 +0000

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