Honda Pulls Mario Andretti From Driving the Two-Seater IndyCar, and We Had the Last Ride [UPDATE]

Mario Andretti is no longer driving the fastest seat in sports. We took the very last ride with him.

bySteve Cole Smith|
Honda News photo


Lady Gaga, Channing Tatum, Nick Cannon, Mark Wahlberg and Julian Edelman have all sat where my substantial rear was parked on October 25: In Mario Andretti’s famous two-person Honda IndyCar, long marketed as the Fastest Seat in Sports. Andretti's been giving these thrill rides to lucky fans and VIPs for the better part of a decade. But the iconic racer, who turns 81 in February, has formally been removed from the driver's seat by Honda.

And somehow, the fates aligned to put me in the car for his very last drive.

[UPDATE 11/2, 3:00pm ET: Over the weekend, published a rebuttal to our story—though this account never uses the word "fired" as Racer purports—citing both an anonymous Honda source and Mario Andretti himself, who claims he hasn't been told anything to this effect. Earlier today, Honda admitted this is because it messed up the timing of another announcement—that it's ending its involvement with the IndyCar ridealong program entirely. Honda's decision means that Andretti will no longer drive the official Fastest Seat in Sports two-seater unless the next title sponsor decides to sign him on, though he can (and likely will) continue to give two-seater rides in other circumstances. For more, read our follow-up story here.]

Why is this happening? Honda declined to comment, but “81 in February” may have something to do with it, liability- and insurance-wise. Regardless, I have never been so polite in a line as I was last Sunday, when it was, “No, you go ahead,” as I drifted to the rear of the line of 20 or so queued up at the St. Petersburg Grand Prix at 7 a.m. race morning, paperwork (a lot of paperwork) in hand.

Eventually, it was time for the last and final person: me. I’d suited up 90 minutes earlier, and not one kid asked me for my autograph, if that tells you something about how I look in a fire suit. I was herded into the car—this thing moves like a synthetic-oiled machine—and I was strapped in, the crew started the engine, and Andretti roared off.

Deborah Van Valin

As you likely know, the St. Pete street course is rough and tight and the walls come at you so fast You’d never know the man driving had 60 years on some of the competitors who’d race later that day. It's not like you can have a conversation or, you know, even see the other person's face in a two-seat IndyCar, but watching and feeling the car react to his preternatural inputs was its own form of communication. Mario told me later he had been at about 85 percent, which was good for 165 mph on the main straight of the race track, the runway for Albert Whitted Airport.

Then hard on the brakes, back to the pits. Unbuckled, as did Andretti, and we spoke for a while.

“Though the ‘Fastest Seat’ doesn’t necessarily give you a feel for the racing, I hope it gave you a feel for what it’s like out there, to be in the middle of 20 other cars. It’s pretty authentic,” Andretti said.

It’s a wonderful way to showcase our sport,” he said. “Our sport is very non-participant. You can go to a driving school, and you’re driving 15 percent. I know, I had one. Then they lie on the speeds. Here, we can reliably run at 80 or 85 percent, and hopefully you come away with an appreciation of what our racers do. That’s the reason I do this. Because I love it.”

Deborah Van Valin

Indeed, it isn’t that hard to imagine what a single car can do on the track. But on-the-edge racing for 100 laps – anybody want to argue again that these aren’t athletes?

Mario Andretti sure as hell is. Fifty-two IndyCar wins and four championships; the Daytona 500, the Pike’s Peak Hill Climb, and the Formula 1 championship – the last American to win an F1 race (a good trivia question, the 1978 Dutch Grand Prix). At that moment last Sunday, neither of us knew it would be his last time inviting some mope like me along for the ride in the sport that made him. To think about it now, another abrupt ending in a year of abrupt endings, is sad and poignant all at once.

I’m old and seldom awed. But Mario Andretti, one of the nicest people in racing, has awed me for decades. And hopefully will for a decade or two more.

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