Interviews from the world of sports!

Written By: Michael D. McClellan | Picasso once said that where others have seen what is and asked why, Picasso himself saw what could be and asked why not. He backed up this bold proclamation by ripping apart conventional art and giving us the jaw-dropping Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. Gone were the whimsical figures and haunting landscapes of his Rose Period, replaced instead with ugly, angular women rising from jagged fragments of shattered glass. Rather than painting to imitate nature, Picasso abandoned 600 years of artistic refinement to produce his signature masterpiece, emerging with what is considered the rupture moment between the art of the past and the art of the future. As it turns out, Picasso was just getting started. He soon took a (figurative) sledgehammer to centuries of pictorial art and introduced the world to Cubism, said to be the most momentous innovation in art since the development of perspective. The stream of masterpieces that flowed through Picasso during his lifetime – works that include Le Rêve, The Weeping Woman, and Guernica – validated his genius and secured his place among the greatest artists to ever live.

Which brings us to Mario Andretti. There have been racing legends before Andretti, trailblazers like Alberto Ascari and Stirling Moss who helped legitimize Formula One racing during its infancy, and there have been stars who have come after Andretti, charismatic drivers like Lewis Hamilton who have elevated the sport into a different stratosphere. In between is a prolific, groundbreaking body of work by a man whose name, like Picasso’s, is deeply ingrained in popular culture. If something goes awry, it’s said to have gone a bit ‘Picasso.’ If you ‘Drive it like Andretti,’ you’re the unquestioned alpha at whatever it is that you do. Jay-Z Jay compares his own fame to that of the prolific painter and sculptor, rapping, “What’s it gonna take/For me to go/For y’all to see/I’m the modern day Pablo/Picasso baby.” A Tribe Called Quest raps, “See, lyrically I’m Mario Andretti on the MOMO/Ludicrously speedy, or infectious with the slow-mo/Heard me in the eighties, J.B.’s on ‘The Promo.’”

Mario Andretti and Lady Gaga, together at the start of the 100th running of the Indy 500. May 29, 2016.
Photo courtesy of Mario Andretti

You can’t counterfeit that kind of street cred. It’s a binary proposition, ones or zeros, on or off. Some of us have it. Some of us don’t. And while there’s no magic formula, the ingredients include crazy amounts  of God-given talent, a tireless work ethic, a magnetic personality, boundless drive, utter fearlessness, and insatiable curiosity. Check those boxes, mix with good fortune, and you might have an infinitesimal shot at someday being the next Mozart, the next Michael Jackson, the next Tiger Woods.


Which brings us back to Mario Andretti. Andretti’s place in our lexicon is long since secure, but his journey from the Italian hillside village of Montona to auto racing’s summit is anything but a straight line affair. There are plenty of detours and pit stops along the way, anxious moments when the dream seems an unobtainable figment of his imagination. Who could blame him if doubt creeped in? Formula One boasted sophisticated cars driven by men like Ascari and Moss on famous tracks like Monza. The Andretti’s lived in a village on a hill. There were no automobiles to speak of in Montona, only horses and buggies and bicycles. And then the war came, and with it hardline communism. A converted monastery in Lucca provided a safe haven, but it did little to propel the dream. Who reaches racing’s summit after fleeing to a refugee camp with only the belongings that can be carried and the clothes on your back? Who has time to dream in a place where bed sheets are all that separate the living spaces of complete strangers, and where there is no running water in your space…only water that you would go and get and carry in?

The Andretti family in Montona, Italy 1947
From left:  Mario, his mother Rina, his sister Anna Maria, Aldo, and Alvise “Gigi”
Photo courtesy Mario Andretti

Still, Andretti dreamed. He and his twin brother, Aldo, had careened recklessly down that steep Montona hillside in a four-wheeled cart constructed by a neighbor who was a carpenter, terrorizing the old ladies unlucky enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Then, in Lucca, the brothers befriended the owners of a small parking garage on the edge of town, where they were eventually given the responsibility of parking cars.

They were twelve at the time.

As close as brothers could be, Mario and Aldo were equally consumed by the same dream, holding steadfast to the belief that one day the racing gods would reward them for their faithfulness and make them race car drivers. Then, in 1954, the two guys who owned the parking garage took them to Monza, where they got their first real taste of Formula One, and where they got to see their hero, Ascari, in his red Ferrari 625. Ascari was a revelation. While the sight of their driver battling in the corners thrilled the brothers to no end, the gulf between watching the Italian Grand Prix and racing in it seemed as vast as the distance between the Earth and the Sun. That distance only seemed greater a year later, when their father, Alvise Andretti, announced that he was emigrating his family to the United States. Little did anyone realize it then, but that move would provide young Mario with his missing ingredient.

Good fortune was about to play its part.

~  ~  ~

In 1955, the Andrettis arrived in Nazareth, Pennsylvania, with just $125 to their name. It had taken three full years for Alvise to obtain the necessary visas to make the move, a requirement of which was gainful employment. Alvise’s brother-in-law, who had lived in the United States for many years, lined up a factory job in Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley, and by June the family had started their new lives in America.

Mario’s first car – 1948 Hudson Hornet Sportsman
Left to right:  Larry Slutter, Bill Tanzosh, David Solt, Aldo Andretti, Mario Andretti, and Bob Noversel
Photo courtesy Mario Andretti

The Andrettis were visiting the brother-in-law a few days later when lights from a nearby fairground flooded the night sky. Soon the roar of engines could be heard. The brothers ran the mile-and-a-half to the fairground, watching slack-jawed through the fence as brutish-looking modifieds chewed their way around the dirt oval. In many ways the spectacle seemed prehistoric, even for the times, but to the brothers it was a scene straight from heaven. They were only 15 at the time – a full six years away from the legal driving age – but that didn’t matter one bit. Like everything else in Mario Andretti’s world, he was about to stomp hard on the accelerator and go full throttle toward the dream.

~  ~  ~

After two years of careful planning, Mario and Aldo had assembled a team of high school classmates, taken out a loan, purchased a car, and then set out to make that car as competitive as it could be on that half-mile dirt track in Nazareth. By the age of 19, that car – a 1948 Hudson Hornet Sportsman – was ready to race. Problem was, the brothers were two years too young to drive.

For Mario, the way around this problem was simple: Lies and forgery.

Boyish in looks and smallish of stature, the brothers concocted an elaborate, bullshit backstory that included racing Formula Junior in Italy. A couple of fake driver’s licenses later, and they were suddenly street legal. Sure, eyebrows were raised, but how do you fact check a story like that from Nazareth, circa 1959?

Just like that, Mario and Aldo were cleared to race.

Nothing would ever be the same again.

~  ~  ~

They took turns racing the Hudson. A coin flip determined that Aldo got to drive first and he went out and won his race. Mario, not to be outdone, won in his debut a week later. The celebrations stayed between them, because their father didn’t have a clue as to what was going on.

He’d tan their hides if he did.

~  ~  ~

Everything was going according to plan until a vicious crash at Hatfield Speedway left Aldo in a coma and a priest reading him his last rites. It’s the kind of thing you can’t keep secret. As Mario remembers it, Alvise, who spoke very little English, let the palm of his hand communicate with Mario’s backside. Miraculously, Aldo emerged from the coma with his cognition intact, and by then Mario was already at work on a replacement car.

~  ~  ~

Mario at full throttle?

It goes something like this: Mario registered 21 modified stock car wins in 46 races in 1960 and 1961, his reputation growing with each victory. Soon he found himself moving from stock cars to midgets to sprint cars and back again. In 1964, he made his Champ Car open wheel debut on April 19, 1964 at the New Jersey State Fairgrounds in Trenton, New Jersey. Andretti finished eleventh in the USAC National Championship that season.

In 1965, Mario ran his first Indianapolis 500. He qualified fourth and finished third, winning Rookie of the Year, and in the pit lane he met Colin Chapman, the founder of Lotus Cars. A conversation ensued, during which Andretti explained to Chapman that his sights were set on Formula One. Chapman promised him a car as soon as he was ready. That season Andretti beat A.J. Foyt to become the youngest-ever national champion at age 25. He repeated as national champion in ’66, winning 8 of 15 events. By then he was racing anything and everything, on any surface anywhere, and under any conditions. In total, Andretti drove 14 different cars in 51 races in 1966, taking 14 victories in four of them. He ran in NASCAR and Can-Am, too, while still pursuing a full Champ Car schedule and racing midgets on dirt if he had a free weekend.

In 1967, Andretti finished second overall at the end of the IndyCar season, but he made his biggest noise by winning the biggest NASCAR race of all, the Daytona 500. The win was lauded by everyone except NASCAR purists, who couldn’t comprehend how an open wheel driver could take the top prize in their sport. Andretti was named Driver of the Year.

Mario Andretti, winner of the 1967 Daytona 500, poses with his wife, Dee Ann.
Photo courtesy Mario Andretti

“Those guys didn’t like an open-wheeler coming down and beating them,” Andretti says with a laugh. “The next day, the newspaper headline said: ‘All of Dixie Mourns Andretti Victory.’”

In 1968, three years after their meeting at Indy, Andretti made that call to Chapman. He tested the Lotus 49 at Monza, where 14 years before he’d pressed his nose to the fence to cheer on Ascari. As unthinkable as it might sound, Andretti took the pole position in his debut at the 1968 United States Grand Prix at Watkins Glen.

A year later, in 1969, Andretti won his third national championship in a season that included the crown jewel of IndyCar – the Indianapolis 500. This win didn’t come easily. Andretti crashed car owner Andy Granatelli’s new four-wheel-drive Lotus in practice, forcing co-chief mechanics Clint Brawner and Jim McGee to hastily prepare an old Hawk chassis. Andretti qualified it in the middle of the front row. This win was especially satisfying considering Mario’s spate of bad luck at Indy, a run that had some calling it the “Andretti Curse.” In ’66, he’d placed his car on pole, only to blow a cylinder after a few laps; in ’67, a slipping clutch doomed his chances; in ’68, it was engine failure that sent him packing. On this day, there was no curse. Andretti led 116 of the 200 laps, beating runner-up Dan Gurney to the finish line by 2:13:03. After the race was over, Granatelli planted a now-famous kiss on Andretti’s cheek.

1969 Indy winner Mario Andretti in the Brawner Hawk with Aldo the day after race — photographer unknown
Photo courtesy Mario Andretti

“It was a happy moment,” Andretti says. “I remember that big kiss from Andy Granatelli. I can still smell the garlic [laughs]. I knew how much it meant to Andy, because he only cared about Indianapolis. It was everything to him. To be able to do it for him after all the glitches was very special.”

As the 1970s rolled around, Andretti continued a mind-boggled racing schedule that included grand prix,  USAC dirt races, and endurance sports car races. He drove a Ford GT40 at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. He won the 12 Hours of Sebring three times in six years. In 1974 he was named the United States Auto Club National Dirt Track Champion. In 1975 he plunged into Formula One full-time; three years later he won 6 grand prix events on his way to the 1978 Formula One World Championship. In becoming the first (and still only) driver to ever win the Daytona 500, the Indianapolis 500, and a Formula One Championship, Andretti was honored with his second Driver of the Year Award.

In 1984, Andretti won his fourth national championship and was again named Driver of the Year Award, making him the only driver to win that prestigious award in three different decades.

Mario Andretti behind the wheel, 1971 German Grand Prix — photographer unknown

In 1991, Andretti, at 51, finished seventh in the Indy car standings, while his son Michael won the championship. Andretti also competed that season against his other son, Jeff, and a nephew, John (Aldo’s son), making it the first time four family members raced together in the same series.

The last of Andretti’s record 407 Indy car races was in September 1994. His 52 Indy car victories are second to A.J. Foyt’s 67, and his 67 pole positions remain No. 1 on the all-time list. He is enshrined in 24 Halls of Fame – including the International Motorsports Hall of Fame, the Automotive Hall of Fame and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame. He has received hundreds of awards and recognition.  Among the most prestigious, he was named Driver of the Century by the Associated Press (tied with A.J. Foyt), he was knighted by his native Italy in 2006, and in 2008 the Library of Congress in Washington DC added him to its Living Legends list.  And on the lighter side, but undoubtedly affirmation of his charisma and popularity, he was in the first Pixar Cars movie voicing himself and GQ Magazine named him one of “The 25 Coolest Athletes of All Time” (Feb. 2011).

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More than anyone before or since, Picasso reinvented art. He was the master of a new, modern movement, swinging a wrecking ball through centuries of tradition and destroying the hackneyed clichés of representative art. He would try anything, no matter how outrageous, in his quest for innovation. He lived into his nineties, and worked as if to defy death. His later pieces were of mixed quality, as the baton of shocking, revolutionary art had been passed to others who, across the Atlantic, were busily splattering paint and printing soup cans. Not that it mattered. By then, Picasso’s place in history had been secured.

Andretti racing family at Nazareth Speedway 1991
Photo courtesy Mario Andretti

Times change, and Mario Andretti too has passed the baton. The spotlight and adoration now goes to a new generation of drivers, brand names like Lewis Hamilton and Daniel Ricciardo, who generate more money in one year than Andretti did over the course of his entire career. There is no jealousy. How can there be? The dream, which seemed so unobtainable as that child in a refugee camp, has been realized many times over. He’s traveled the world. Paul Newman became one of his closest friends. Everyone from Jay Leno to Lady Gaga have climbed into a two-seat racing car with him, and his name is mentioned in lyrics by artists as varied as Amy Grant, Alan Jackson, the Beastie Boys, and Ice Cube.

“I have no complaints,” he says with a smile. “I never gave up on my dream, and I never settled. I never had a Plan B.”

Even in old age, Picasso kept living life to the fullest. He enjoyed his fame and his wealth, buying a vast fourteenth century chateau in in the hills of Uzès, France. Andretti never left Nazareth, but his 22,000-square-foot home is filled with glass trophy cases featuring decades of racing prizes and memorabilia, including items celebrating that 1978 Formula One championship. In 1996, two years after he retired from racing, Andretti bought a 53-acre vineyard and winery in the far north part of Napa. It’s but one in a myriad of other business interests in the Andretti portfolio, but it runs deeper than that. The vineyard connects Andretti with his childhood in Montona, where his dad managed several farms, mostly wheat  fields for bread and grapes for wine, before the war changed everything.

Mario in the courtyard of the Andretti Winery in Napa, California. The Andretti Winery opened in 1996.
Photo courtesy Mario Andretti

“My one thing I regret more than anything is that my dad didn’t get to see the Andretti Winery in Napa Valley,” Andretti says. “Managing a vineyard is what he knew and loved; his life back in Italy managing farms, including a vineyard.  That’s what his life was all about before the war. I think he would have felt somewhat satisfied had he lived long enough to see the Andretti Winery.  He lost his livelihood to Communism, maybe he would have felt that we won it all back.  Seeing the Andretti name on a vineyard in Napa Valley would have given him a sense of pride, he’d finally have the appreciation of something he understood.”

When Picasso died, he left behind an estate of 43,000 works, which is easily the largest recorded output of any artist ever. Mario Andretti, like Picasso, worked prolifically, his instrument of choice a steering wheel instead of a paintbrush, his medium a track instead of a canvas. Picasso’s genius illuminated the twentieth century like a comet. The same can be said of Mario Andretti, who is far and away the most versatile driver the world has ever seen.

Please take me back to your childhood in Montona, Italy.

I spent the first 15 years of my life in Italy, the first seven years in Montona.  My twin brother and I were born in Montona, Italy in 1940.  It was shortly after the start of World War II.  Montona was a medieval town on a hill in the Italian countryside.  To get to the highest point, you need to climb 1,052 steps, the longest stairway in the world.  It’s about 35 miles from the city of Trieste, inland from the Adriatic Sea.  Montona was a typical mid-evil village, with very narrow cobblestone streets.  We loved it there and my father owned and operated several farms, mostly wheat fields and grapes.  We played freely and happily on the cobblestone streets, amid ancient churches and a bell tower.  But the town was forever changed by the end of World War II.  Montona, located on the Istrian peninsula, was ceded to Yugoslavia as part of the post-war political settlement, leaving us trapped inside a Communist country.  Those years were certainly anything but normal by any standard, but as kids we knew nothing else. We had started school in Montona and did all of the normal things that you do at that age, including doing the chores and playing outside with the other children who were around at the time. When the war was over, there were a lot of uncertainty and there was a sense that something dramatic was happening.  But did we understand Communism?  No.  As kids you just roll along.

Did most of your extended family live in Montona?

Yes, everyone.  My grandparents owned a small hotel by the train station in Montona. There was a very famous restaurant in their hotel, and my grandmother was an incredible chef and very well known. There was no refrigeration, so she would have to go to the butcher two or three times a day to get fresh meat for whatever she might be serving. Because Montona is positioned on a hill, I think it was two kilometers down the hill and back up just to get to the butcher.  I remember my mother and my grandmother making these trips up and down the hill every day.  When we left Montona for Lucca, my grandparents went with us.

Mario and Aldo Andretti

Is it true that you and your brother terrorized the neighborhood in a small cart at the tender age of six?

That’s very true [laughs]. There was a local carpenter who lived next door to us in Montona, and he built us a little flatbed cart on wheels.  We called it a buggy, but it was like wagon with no sides.  Just flat.  There was a pretty steep hill above us, then a level plain in front of our house, followed by a sharp turn, and then the hill continued on down.  It was all cobblestone and bumpy.  And only about six feet wide.  Aldo and I could both fit on the cart and we’d take turns steering down the hill, crashing into walls. We used to scare the little old ladies coming up the hill, and they would get so mad that they complained to my dad’s Uncle, who was a priest in Montona.  He was my great-uncle and we called him “Uncle Priest.”  So the old ladies would go to the house where the priests lived and complain that we were reckless on the cart.  My great uncle would defend us.  That’s when the concept of speed started to be ingrained in us. Why did we want to be daring at such a young age? I cannot explain that to myself, but I always say that I was born with a steering wheel in my hand. I think it was meant for me to be a race driver.

In what ways were you effected by World War II?

We lost our home, our farms, my dad lost his livelihood.  World War II had begun right around the time I was born, and when it ended our town Montona fell under Communist rule.  We stayed for a few years hoping things would work out, but we eventually left Montona as refugees when my brother and I were seven years old.  Our first stop was a central dispersement camp in Udine.  About a week later, we were  dispatched to a refugee camp.

A close-up photo of Mario Andretti’s home in Montona, Italy
Photo courtesy Mario Andretti

Our parents had a difficult decision to make once territory in Italy became occupied by Yugoslavia, which was three years after the war ended. The borders were realigned at that time, and we were suddenly trapped in the region of Istria, which was handed over to Marshal Tito and the hardline communists of Yugoslavia. Everything changed dramatically under that regime for Italians living in this region. There were some very dangerous areas if you were of Italian descent, areas where the Yugoslav Partisans carried out “foibe massacres,” which literally refers to mass killings by which the corpses were thrown into foibas, or deep, natural sinkholes. For everyone else, you succumbed to what the rules were. In the case of my dad, the family owned vast parcels of land on which he had seven tenants. Before Tito, he was the administrator of that land. Then, all of a sudden, it all belonged to the state, so if he had decided to stay he would have been working for the state. That’s because all of that land became the government’s property and he owned nothing. That is what hardline communism is all about.

How many Italians fled the region following the war?

I think some 85% of the Italian inhabitants of that region left. There was a decision to be made. It was straightforward: You were allowed to leave with only the belongings you could carry, or stay.  Some left for America.  Others to Australia or Canada.  Wherever you thought there was your best bet.  And some people stayed.   If you left, there was a non-binding pact that was made between the Italian and the Yugoslav governments.  It said that the inhabitants who were part of the Istrian exodus would be compensated for what they left behind at a price that was agreed among them. There were promises of payments to be made.  So we left thinking we’d be paid for the belongings and property we left behind.  It never happened. With respect to our family, I think there was only one initial payment made while we were still in the refugee camp. That was it. So basically, my parents had to start a life all over again in America with nothing.

Mario Andretti

What are some of the things you remember about life in the refugee camp?

We were refugees for 7½ years, from 1947 until 1955, in the Italian city of Lucca, one of the regions of Tuscany.  The refugee camp was an old monastery that had become a college, and we spent the first three years in a converted classroom with several families.  Everyone hung blankets to separate their quarters. Eventually my dad’s uncle (the priest), pulled some strings and they moved us to two classrooms as our quarters, which was then occupied by our grandparents and us. You had to make do with the very basics, but we were always clean and dressed properly, and never hungry and never cold. That is a credit to my parents for keeping us all happy with very little, and doing their best to make sure that family was as comfortable as possible. Even though we were living in the refugee camp, I thought Lucca was nice.  There was a school and an opera house, a church.  As kids, you only know what you’re exposed to and I knew of no place else.  And living in a refugee camp doesn’t mean you go hungry or that you’re cold.  You just exist.  I still went to school and my dad worked odd jobs.

One of my favorite places as a child was Viareggio, a beautiful resort on the Tuscan coast – basically at the beginning of the Italian Riviera.  We could bicycle there – all the way to Pisa.  Another one of my fondest memories was the sports car race called the Mille Miglia, a thousand mile race.  One of the segments ran through the Abetone pass, near Florence.  Once a year, my brother and I would watch from the side of the road.  It was magical to us and that’s about the time we fell in love with auto racing.  We’d go back home (to the refugee camp) and pretend for days and weeks that we were race drivers.  As kids you can be pacified with your imagination.

Let’s talk cars. What inspired you to drive?

It was while we were in Italy that I was developing a love of cars and racing.  Aldo and I, for some odd reason, became enamored with cars right from a very young age in Montona. My dad didn’t own a car – only a bicycle. The only car that existed in our town of about 400 inhabitants was the one owned by the town doctor. I remember Aldo and I seeing a 1946 Ford that somehow made its way through the city shortly after the war. Everyone thought that that was really something. To us, it was unbelievable, inspiring and jaw-dropping.  When we moved to Lucca, there was a parking garage right next to the entry of the refugee camp where we were staying. We started hanging around at the parking garage, looking at all the cars, and we ended up befriending the owners – two guys named Sergio and Beppe.  They liked us. And then, at the age of 12, we started parking cars for them.  We learned to drive in that parking garage.

Were you aware of Formula One as a child?

In those days, motor racing was more popular than any other sport in Italy.  And the world champion at the time was Alberto Ascari – my idol.  I was very aware.  Back then, Alpha Romeo, Ferrari and Maserati were involved, and you had the golden years of drivers such as Alberto Ascari, Juan Manuel Fangio, and Stirling Moss. These drivers were just incredible individuals and protagonists during that era. My brother and I were at the impressionable age at the time, and we both became enamored with the sport.

In 1954, the two guys who owned the parking garage invited Aldo and me to go to Monza with them to watch the Italian Grand Prix.  It was unbelievable.  I watched my idol, Alberto Ascari, driving his Ferrari and fighting with the Mercedes.  Ascari was fighting hard and raising dust in every corner. There was just something about Ascari’s spirit, something that just captured me.

Two-time Formula 1 World Champion Alberto Ascari

Did you ever get to meet Alberto Ascari?

I never met Alberto Ascari.  Sadly, he was killed a year after Aldo and I saw our first race at Monza.  Alberto Ascari was killed in 1955, about a month before we arrived in America.  In 1992 he was inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame posthumously.  I had the honor of presenting him for induction, and presenting the induction medal to his son, Antonio. It was an honor for me beyond anything I could ever imagine because Alberto Ascari was my absolute idol and the inspiration for wanting to become a race car driver.

Did watching that Italian Grand Prix in 1954 seal the deal? Is that when you decided to become a race car driver?

Yes, that day at Monza is when my dream began.  The die was cast that day.  Not only did I want to be a race driver….. I wanted to be Alberto Ascari.  And it truly was as impossible as anything that you could think of at the time. Two kids in a refugee camp dreaming of being world champions.

How did you end up immigrating to the United States?

We kept correspondence with an uncle on my mother’s side, who had immigrated to America in 1909. At one point, he suggested to my dad, “Well, if things don’t get better, why don’t you think about coming to America? I will do whatever I need to do to guarantee that you have a job and a place to stay in order to obtain visas.” My dad applied for visas in 1952, and three years later our visas were granted. Suddenly it was decision time.  We had been in the refugee camp seven-and-a-half years.  For me and Aldo, that was age 7 to age 15.  We had almost forgotten about the visas.  Then my dad gave us the news, “We are going to America.”  Trying to make it seem less monumental, he told us we’d go for five years, and maybe come back.  That’s how he broke the news to us.  Done.  In 1955, we immigrated to America.  It took 11 days on the Italian ocean liner Conte Biancamano.  We arrived into New York Harbor on June 15, 1955.  We didn’t speak English and had $125 to our name.

Mario Andretti – 1967 Daytona 500

Were you already thinking about racing cars in America?

As kids in the Italian refugee camp, we followed the sport as closely as we could and we continued to dream about racing cars. We didn’t know much of what was going on in the United States, or what the racing scene was like, but we did know that there was some racing in America because of a film that Aldo and I saw in 1951. It was called To Please a Lady, starring Clark Gable and Barbara Stanwyck. It portrayed Clark Gable as a race car driver in Indianapolis.  So, we knew that there was racing and we had heard of Indianapolis, but at the same time, when we learned we were leaving Italy, we thought, “There goes our dream. Or, even worse, our life is over.”

Call it karma, but I’ve read where your uncle lived about a mile from a racetrack.

We arrived in America on Wednesday, June 15, 1955 and were settled in Nazareth, Pennsylvania by Thursday. Little did we know at the time, but the local racing season was in full swing. Races that were happening at the local level in Nazareth were held on Sunday night, at what was called the Northampton County Agricultural Fairgrounds. It was later known as the Nazareth Speedway. So anyway, we were at our uncle’s house, which was only about a mile-and-a-half from the fairgrounds, and we were lounging around on a Sunday evening. We looked outside, and we could we see bright lights off in the distance, and then, all of a sudden, there was this huge roar of engines. Aldo and I just looked at each other – we couldn’t believe it – and we immediately followed the noise, which led us to the fairgrounds.

That track changed your life.

I remember peeking through the gate there, and we could see these brutish-looking modified stock cars. They were making all of this racket, but it wasn’t racket to us. It was music to our ears. Aldo and I looked at each other in amazement. These were not the sophisticated Formula One cars we had seen in Italy. But this type of racing looked doable. In that instant, we were on a mission.

We started planning on the same night that we saw those stock cars for the first time. Two years later, at age 17, we assembled a team with four other buddies and started building our first car. I always say that we had one geek in the group. That was very important. You have to have that guy who knows everything, and he steered us in the right direction. His name was Charlie Mitch. Never to be forgotten.

October 2, 1960 — Mario posing at the Nazareth half-mile dirt track with his third car
Photo courtesy Mario Andretti

Your first car is now legendary in racing circles. Please tell me about it.

When we started building our car we didn’t follow the standard blueprint, so to speak. We went with something different, based on what Charlie Mitch suggested. It was actually a very, very intelligent strategy on his part. He said, “Mario, Aldo, you can’t just go out there and build something similar to what they are running, and then hope to beat them. You’ve got to do something different.” So Charlie reached out beyond the local level and into the national level, which was NASCAR at the time. He learned that the cars that were actually winning a lot of the short track races were the Hudsons. Ironically, the Hudson factory had officially withdrawn from NASCAR around that time, so there was a lot of information and parts available, and our focus became to accumulate as much of that as possible. We begged, borrowed, and went to the junk yard every day looking for parts.  We even borrowed $500 from the local bank, and used the money to pay for information from one of the prominent teams. In fact, the team was dissolving, so we bought information from them and that was very key to our success. What we ultimately built was something different. It was a 1948 Hudson Hornet Sportsman, and it had a lot of muscle.

The dream was starting to become reality.

The dream is what drove it all.  Pure passion.  Manic pursuit of our dream to be race drivers.  I remember so vividly when it seemed so unobtainable.  Things started falling into place just two days after we arrived in America. In the blink of an eye we had a plan. We were still going to school and all of that sort of thing, but we were already thinking way ahead. We were also very motivated; when we started building the Hudson, it looked like it would be four years before we could race it – at least legally – but the car was finished in two years’ time. We figured, “Well, we are not going to wait.” We were two years too young to be able to legally drive, because in those days, to drive professionally, you had to be 21. That’s when we decided to fudge are birth dates on our driver’s licenses, so that we could start driving at age 19.

How do you go about getting fake driver’s licenses in 1959?

We befriended the local editor of the Nazareth newspaper, Les Young. He did a good job on our licenses, changing our birth dates to make it so that we could drive. Back then there were no computers, so we got away with it. The fact that it worked was surprising, because we looked very young. We didn’t look 21. And we were small of stature to boot. The local race organizers said, “Well, what background do you have?” And we lied….. saying that we used to race Formula Junior in Italy. Here again, there was no way to double-check us. We fibbed our way in. We had one car and two drivers. Aldo won a coin toss between us and got the first drive, and low and behold, he wins the very first qualifying heat with that car. I couldn’t believe my eyes. Then he turned around and won the feature. As I said, at that point we owed $500 to the local bank, and in that first race we won something like $150. Which was amazing. That’s how it all began.

A couple of fake IDs, and suddenly you’re trading paint on a dirt track – now that is determination!

You know how we got away with a lot of this?  We figured we need to look like race drivers.  In those days, at the local level especially, nobody really had specific uniforms, but in Italy they had racing uniforms. So, when we showed up at the fairgrounds to race, we each wore a Salas Sports uniform that we got from the two guys who owned the parking garage in Italy…a white one, and a blue one…I wore the white, and Aldo wore the blue. We looked so damned professional and nobody questioned whether we were eligible to race or not. We were determined to do anything that we needed to do to be able to look the part. Then Aldo goes out and wins the race. I just couldn’t believe it!

One problem with fudging our driver’s licenses – once I reached the age of 21, I didn’t want to be 23, so I had to figure out a way to get back to my proper age. Needless to say, I had to start backtracking. You know what is interesting? Some of the stories we made up are still going around as fact. You read some of these old-timer journalists that cover our sport, and when they reminisce, they write that Mario and Aldo used to race Formula Junior in Italy, which is total baloney.

Mario Andretti

Aldo won his first race. How did your first race go?

Talk about pressure! Of course I had to win the following weekend, which happened. We were winning races, but we were also crashing, and doing all of the normal things associated with the sport. That’s okay, it’s all part of the game. That’s how it all started for us, and it couldn’t have been any better. I still remember all of this so vividly.

Did your parents know that their underage sons were racing cars?

That was the other battle. We didn’t dare tell my dad what we were doing because anytime you mentioned racing he would stop us cold. He knew that kids could be crazy and that they could get into all sorts of things, but racing was something he didn’t want us involved in. He thought it was too dangerous. Naturally, we didn’t dare tell him what we were planning, and for good reason. Once we started racing we didn’t even tell my mother…but you know moms. They have that sense. Although she somehow knew what was going on, she was of a different mentality and was more accepting. Part of it had to do with our Uncle Bruno, who was her brother. He was one of these daredevil types. So, my mom was caught in the middle and she decided to turn a blind eye. The problem was that we were doing some winning at the local level. At work, my dad’s boss would come up to him and say things like, “Hey Gigi, your kids are really, really doing well,” but my dad had no idea what the hell he was saying. He thought he was getting accolades for his own work or something like that, so he would smile proudly. Of course he had been in America for four years, but still spoke very little English, so that’s probably why he didn’t catch on. Thankfully for us, he was still in the dark.

You each had two wins in your first four races, and then came the race that changed everything.  Please tell me what happened at Hatfield Speedway.

It was the very last race of the season, an invitational that was held in Hatfield, Pennsylvania. To qualify, you had to be in the top three in points on tracks within a 150 mile radius. Both Aldo and I qualified, even though we would alternate racing every other weekend. Since we were pretty successful up to that point we entered our car, which was the Sportsman. This was a modified race, and even though our car was not a modified, it was still fast enough for a third of a mile track.

I got to ride in another modified from Allentown, so I was already qualified for the 100 lapper. Aldo was in the qualifying heat. He was running second, which, had he finished in that position, he would have been qualified for the feature. I was wanting him to hold his position and finish just like that, but he was trying to beat the track champion, a guy by the name of Freddie Adams. With about two laps to go, Aldo hooked a guardrail. The car went end-over-end-over-end. He suffered a fractured skull as a result of the crash. He was given his last rites that night at the local hospital. That’s how my dad found out that we were racing.

Mario Andretti

What were the next days and weeks like?

Aldo was in a coma for a long time before he came around. About 85 days. Our car was crashed, so I was already building a new car for next year. This was while he was still in the hospital. One of the doctors said, “When you talk to your brother, he probably hears you. He’s not responding, but just talk to him about things that would stimulate him.” I kept saying, “Hey, Aldo, you may have had this crash, but we are already building a new car.” So I would visit and tell him all about this car, and our plans for the following year [laughs].

Is it safe to assume that your dad was upset that you’d been secretly racing when Aldo got hurt?

Of course! My dad beat the crap out of me for doing what we were doing without him knowing. When Aldo finally came to, it took him a while to start talking. His first words to me were, “I’m glad you had to be the one to face the old man.” [Laughs.]

Aldo eventually recovers. How long was it before he was behind the wheel again?

Aldo did have to take a sabbatical. He didn’t race the whole following year. I think my dad felt vindicated, and he probably thought that we had learned our lesson about the dangers associated with racing. The worst thing was that my dad found out that we were racing again. If he had a better command of the English language, I think he would’ve disowned us [laughs].

These were precarious times in our house. As I said, my poor mother was caught in the middle. She was on our side, which was obvious even though she tried to appear neutral, so this created tension. Later on my dad realized that he couldn’t fight his kids because they were hellbent on pursuing this dream, so he eventually started to soften up. He would ask Aldo, “Hey, how’s Mario doing?” And then he would ask me the same thing, “Hey, how’s Aldo doing?” And then, of course, he became a great fan and supporter of ours.

Mario Andretti – 1967 Daytona 500 Champion

Your racing world expanded greatly – and rapidly – during the early 1960s. Please take me back to those formative years.

Because I loved driving so much, I was looking at all of the different disciplines in our sport at the top level. The one thing that I wanted to do immediately was to get out of stock cars and get into single seaters, which was more of the purest form of the sport. Racing in open wheel, single seaters was how I got into midgets and sprint cars, which was part of the ladder system to get into the top level of Indy car racing. It was me going from steppingstone to steppingstone. As soon as you start winning in one category, you want to progress and go to the next level. It’s just like going to school, where you want to progress and go to the next grade. You don’t want to repeat the same level. You don’t want to repeat the same grade. You’ve got to move on. And that’s what happened with me. As soon as I started winning in whatever category I was in, I wanted to go to the next level, then the next level, and then the next. The progression continued for me until 1964, when I got my first chance to compete at the top level of Indy cars.

As you said, your ultimate goal was open-wheel racing. You quickly made a name for yourself in IndyCar, but you didn’t stop there.

1965 was really a pivotal year for my career. I won my first championship car race at the Hoosier Grand Prix, which was on a road course at Indianapolis Raceway Park. I finished third at the Indianapolis 500, was named Rookie of the Year, and won the series championship at age 25, becoming the youngest season-ending national champion in history at that time. That was my very first full year in IndyCar. Then I backed it up with another championship in 1966. During the next couple of years, 1966 and 1967, I got a little more into sports cars and other disciplines. In ‘66 I raced in the 24 Hours of Le Mans. I raced sports cars and stock cars. And then, lo and behold, in 1967 I won the biggest stock car race of them all – the Daytona 500 – which was another launching pad for my career.

Mario Andretti

You also had your eye on Formula One.

By 1965, things were starting to happen that would fulfill my dream to get into Formula One. In 65, the winner of the Indianapolis 500 was Jim Clark with Lotus. I was third in that race and named Rookie of the Year. Rookie of the Year is a big deal at Indy.  At the banquet it is the most coveted award after the winner. So, the whole month of May I tried to befriend Jimmy and [Lotus founder] Colin Chapman, and as we were saying our goodbyes at the end of the banquet I said, “Colin, someday I would like to do Formula One.” Colin looked at me and said, “Mario, when you think you are ready, you call me and I will have a car for you.” I mean…oh my God, I thought I couldn’t believe my ears in that moment. In 1968, I felt that it was the time. I called Colin and I said, “Colin, I would like to do the last two races of the season, the Italian Grand Prix and the U.S. Grand Prix.” He said, “Alright, I will have a car for you.”

What was it like slipping behind the wheel of a Formula One car for the first time?

My first acquaintance with the car – a Lotus 49, designed by Colin Chapman and Maurice Phillippe in 1967 – was in Monza, in Italy. It was a test day, and I immediately felt right at home because I had been winning road races in Indy cars. So at Monza, I was the quickest in that test vis-à-vis Ferrari.

You were set to race in the 1968 Italian Grand Prix, but then…

It’s a long story here, but I was in the running for the season championship in the States. I’d finished second to A.J. Foyt in 1967, barely missing out on the championship in the last laps of the last race in Riverside, California. I was in the running again in 1968, and the Monza race fell on the same weekend as a USAC championship race held in Indianapolis, the famous Hoosier Hundred. Well, this race was happening on a Saturday.  So I only had the Friday to qualify for the Italian Grand Prix, then fly back to the United States on Saturday to race in the Hoosier Hundred, and then fly back to Italy on Sunday to race in the Grand Prix. It turns out that there was a 24-hour rule regarding international events – basically it forbade drivers from racing in two major events within a 24 hour period – but I had an understanding with the organizers, and also with the Automobile Club of Italy, and they were going to waive that rule. So I qualified for the Grand Prix on Friday, and then I flew back to the States and I raced in the Hoosier Hundred, where I finished second to A.J. Foyt, and then I flew back to Italy the next day. I arrived there on time, only to find that a last-minute protest had been filed. My car was literally on the starting grid with all of the other drivers, but they would not allow me to start. We think it was Ferrari that protested. It was very disappointing, but sometimes those types of games are played between teams.

That bit of gamesmanship only delayed your Formula One debut.

My very first start was the U.S. Grand Prix at Watkins Glen two weeks later. I put the car on pole against Jackie Stewart, and that was actually my debut in Formula One. Things were just happening to go my way, quite honestly. I still had to put up a great fight for it, but so many things were just going in the right direction. I’ve always felt so blessed that, throughout my career, I’ve been able to pretty much pursue my most ambitious dreams and come away with some good results. Winning the pole in my first Formula One race is an example of that.

You’ve mentioned winning the Daytona 500 in 1967. Please take me back.

I had developed a great relationship with Ford from the beginning to my rookie year at Indianapolis. They had introduced a new overhead cam engine, so we were armed with that. I won two consecutive championships with Ford, and in 1967 I expressed my desire to do some stock car racing. Actually, it was not my first experience – I had raced stock cars for Smokey Yunick the year before, without very much luck. But in 1967 I think I was with the right team. We had some early difficulties but we overcame all of that and on race day I was competitive from the get-go.

Mario Andretti – 1967 Daytona 500 Champ

You led that race 112 of the 200 laps, and you were dominating the field. And then you pit, as does your teammate, Freddie Lorenzen. That’s when things get interesting.  Your own team, Holman Moody, seems determined to sabotage you from winning the Daytona 500.

When we came in for the final pit, I was leading and Freddie was behind me. They kept me up on the jacks and they let Freddie go. He was just about at Turn 1 before they let me go. I was so pissed, as you can imagine. I drove like I was qualifying because I was so upset, and before you know it I had caught and passed him. We were lapping Tiny Lund going into the back straightaway, and Freddie was right behind me. I couldn’t shake him. All of a sudden, Tiny motioned me to go by on the outside. He went to the center of the track on the back straightaway, and I went right up to him and I dove to the inside to startle things. Freddie backed off because I don’t think he expected that. I pulled away from him at that point, and when I looked back he was pretty small. He never caught me.

That win in the Daytona 500 surprised a lot of people.

I’m sure not everyone was happy with it, including Ford; they wanted Lorenzen to win, not me, because it was a one-off race for me. But I felt like it could have been my day, and I fought hard, and it became my day. To win the biggest race but yet it’s not your specialty, it holds a lot more value. And here again, it did wonders for my career. Suddenly, if I wanted to go to any of the other disciplines, I would have the opportunity to be with a top team.

People might not always think about racing being a team sport, but teams are critical in Formula One, NASCAR, and IndyCar.

I look back on what made me successful and I asked myself why, and it’s because I was surrounded by the best people in the business. You shouldn’t profess to know what you don’t know. If you want to achieve something that is obviously ambitious, surround yourself with people who can help you achieve something that you could not possibly do alone. Motor racing is a very complex sport. It’s not like tennis, where all you need is a racket. This is racing. For me, it was important to work with the absolute experts in their own areas – the best engineers, the best mechanics, and all of that. As a race car driver, you cannot perform miracles on your own. Being part of a driven, knowledgeable team gave me the opportunity to win because they were providing me with winning equipment. These were lessons learned early on that I carried with me through my racing career and right into my various business ventures today.

You won nine races in 1969, including the Indianapolis 500 and the season championship. Did you feel like you could win IndyCar’s biggest event so early in your career?

I felt right at home at the Indianapolis 500 from the get-go. I finished third in the Brawner Hawk during my rookie year in 1965, and in ’66 I won the pole. In 1967 I won the pole again, and I felt confident in ’68 even though I failed to finish the race. So, going into the race in 1969, I felt as if I had a good chance to win.

Take me back to the 1969 Indianapolis 500. You had a crash that changed everything.

We arrived there with state-of-the-art equipment. We had the Lotus 64, which was four-wheel drive and a derivative of the turbine cars, with a very advanced type of chassis. In practice I went very fast and was breaking some records. Two days before qualifying, the right-rear wheel hub sheared off, and I had a huge crash in Turn 4. There was fire and everything else. I was lucky to escape with just some burns on my face. Graham Hill and Jochen Rindt, who were racing for Team Lotus at this time, were also driving the four-wheel drive Lotuses, and these cars were withdrawn after my crash. So we also had to withdraw our spare car, also a Lotus, leaving me with a car that we never intended to race.

Mario Andretti – Inside the Brawner Hawk (’69 Indy 500)

The Brawner Hawk.

The Brawner Hawk!  All of this happened on a Thursday, so I only had Friday and Saturday morning practice to get that one up to speed. And then, in qualifying, I was somehow able to put the Brawner Hawk in the middle of the front row. So, here again we were very fortunate that we were able to do that. And then, in the race, I had a lot of overheating problems and one tire that wouldn’t come off during my pit stops so we were only changing 3 tires and one tire ran the entire 500 miles…. but still, I was always up in the top three, and I led for more than half of the race. Ultimately, the damn thing just hung together. It turned out to be my magic car. I remember in the post-race tear down when we pulled the transmission apart. It seemed like everything just crumbled out of the case – the gears were all black and blue and had obviously gotten very hot. But, thank the Lord, it held together long enough to win the race.

You became an Indy 500 legend with that win.

1969 turned out to be my only victory there, but I always felt competitive at Indy. In 1981 I actually won that race, but there was a very big political aspect to it. Still, I am third in all-time in laps led there, and led more laps than all but one of the four-time winners. So, even though victory has eluded us a few times, the Indy 500 has been great for the Andrettis. I say us because my son Michael was also very competitive there. He dominated Indy on his way to becoming one of the most successful drivers in the history of American open-wheel car racing, but he never won the Indy 500.  And Michael’s son – my grandson Marco – is now an IndyCar driver. He also has come close, but hasn’t won the 500.

Mario Andretti – 1969 Indianapolis 500 Champ

What do you think of when you hear the name “A.J. Foyt.”

A.J. Foyt was five years my senior, so he was obviously very established by the time that I came up through the ranks. He was certainly the yardstick. Any race that you were hoping to win, you had to go through A.J. Foyt at one time or another.

Let’s talk rivalries.

 I think I’ve matured over the years when it comes to rivalries. Today I’m able to see how healthy rivalries can be, which wasn’t necessarily how I looked at it at the time. Rivalries elevate your game. There is always going to be somebody who is better than you, and that makes you work harder. It gives you every incentive to say, “You know what? Somehow, I’ve got to raise my level. I’ve got to do something better.” And when you have an opportunity to reflect, you say, “Thank goodness I had those rivalries and those challenges.”

And A.J. Foyt was not the only one. There were others through the decades that you had to deal with. The first pole that I got in Formula One – who did I beat? The guy that was the yardstick: Jackie Stewart. My very first race that I won in South Africa, who finished second? Jackie Stewart. The second race, at the Questor Grand Prix, who finished second to me? Jackie Stewart. As you look back through time, those are the things that mean something, and that’s where you put value on the achievement. When you are somehow able to succeed with your main rival finishing second to you, it gives you all of the encouragement that you need. You suddenly have the confidence to feel like you belong on this stage.

Your Formula One career really took off when you started driving for Lotus.

I joined Team Lotus on a full-time basis at the right time. Colin Chapman was such a genius, and he was somehow able to be 100% dedicated to the sport without being distracted by his other business interests. For example, he had an automobile company and a boat company at the same time that he was involved in Formula One. I experienced great success racing on his team. In fact, if it hadn’t had been for so many engine and reliability failures in ’77, I would have won the Grand Prix Championship that year as well.

Mario Andretti – 1978 – Lotus ’79

You won four Grand Prix events that year, including in Monza where it all began.

As a Formula One driver, one of the highlights that year was representing the United States and winning the ’77 U.S. Grand Prix West at Long Beach. And then, to be able to turn around and win the Italian Grand Prix later that year, in my home country, was something that I had never thought would be possible. So can you imagine the satisfaction that I derived from that accomplishment? Winning in Monza where it all began for me as far as the ultimate dream, and then winning in the States, where we had immigrated to start a new life.

You clinched your first and only Formula One Championship at the’78 Italian Grand Prix. Please tell me about this crowning achievement.

It was a great season. We battled through a lot of issues, including some engine problems, but nevertheless I was able to overcome some obstacles to win that championship. I finished first six times that season, including the season opener in Argentina in the Lotus 78. Then, we switched to the Lotus 79 and won in Belgium, Spain, France, Germany, and the Netherlands. And on top of that, to clinch the points championship in Monza, that couldn’t have been a sweeter moment.

Ronnie Peterson (left) and Mario Andretti — photographer unknown
Photo courtesy Mario Andretti

That series-clinching win in Monza was overshadowed by the devastating loss of friend and teammate Ronnie Peterson.

That day is forever bittersweet. It’s 1978 at the Italian Grand Prix in Monza……this race had huge significance for two reasons:  First, I was back in my native Italy, in the exact place where the dream began for me. On the track where my brother and I had watched our first race with the two guys from the parking garage. But I wasn’t a spectator this time. I was sitting in the cockpit. I really had come full circle.  This race was also going to determine the Formula One World Champion. It would either be me – or my teammate and best friend Ronnie Peterson. At the start of the race, there was a horrific crash and Ronnie plowed through the guardrail. His car erupted in flames. I won the World Championship that day…Ronnie Peterson died. It should have been the happiest day of my life. My lifelong dream – that had begun when my brother and I were 14 years old and were spectators at Monza – was now complete. I was World Champion. But my best friend and teammate was dead. The combination of triumph and tragedy was unbearable.

Our sport can be so rewarding, and so cruel at the same time. But, that’s the way it is. When you decide that this is your sport, you have to deal with all of it. If you’re going to be part of it, you have to take the good with the bad. As much satisfaction as I derived from this business, there were just as many moments that were difficult to live with. And it started with Aldo’s accident at the very beginning.

The grief of losing a close friend like Ronnie never leaves you. Things are never the same. Because you can never clearly say to yourself, “Now, I can finally celebrate and forget about the other…because you can’t.” So, it just stays with you forever. As much as you try to rejoice, there’s always that ‘but’ in the back of your mind. “Yes, but…” There’s always that ‘but.’

How do you overcome something like that and get back to racing at the highest levels?

You have to realize that some things are just out of your control. Some people wonder how those that suffer misfortune continue? When is something so devastating that you fold up? Quitting and walking away from your business is an option. But what you have to realize is that some circumstances are out of your control. Maybe the equipment fails you. Or it’s something else. Like it or not, you are going to have some good days and some bad days. You can’t be too overconfident when things are going well. At the same time, you can’t be overcome by setback, or heartbreak or tragedy. You have to manage both. Focus on what’s next. Success takes the appropriate response. So does heartbreak. Don’t let a setback be the final word. Some stretches of our lives are just going to be more difficult than others. There were many trying moments after that, and many times it was hard to keep the energy going, but that’s what you have to do if you are going to succeed. You need that energy to be able to exist, and exist in a way that you are able to perform at the top level.

You are one of 13 drivers who have won two of the three legs of the Triple Crown of Motorsport. For a competitor like you, what does it mean to be in such exclusive company?

It means a great deal, but I also look at it this way; as far as winning Indy, Daytona, and Formula One, nobody else has done that. That’s what I cling to. Dan Gurney won some IndyCar races, and he won Motor Trend at Riverside, and he won Formula One. The Triple Crown can be determined in many different ways, but my Triple Crown is winning Indy, Daytona, and the Formula One World Championship. That is still all my own. Nobody has done that, and we will just have to wait and see if someone can match it. Nevertheless, I am very proud of that part of my career.

Where did you meet your friend, the late Paul Newman?

I met Paul Newman in 1967 at a Can-Am race in Bridgehampton, Long Island, where I was driving for Ford. At the time I didn’t have a specific commercial sponsor on my car, and then, on race day, there is a big Paul Newman insignia on the front of my car. I was surprised and somewhat intimidated, because all of a sudden, Paul Newman shows up with his wife, Joanne. I think, “Oh my goodness, I guess he expects me to win today!” And on top of that, my car was not a very good one [laughs]. Nevertheless, that’s how I first met him. The very next year he was filming a movie in Indianapolis called Winning. It’s here that he’s introduced to racing, and then before you know, he arms himself with a national SCCA license and he starts racing. He completes in SCCA professional and amateur events, wins four national championships, and becomes a team owner in the Can-Am series. In 1983, I was the one who brought Paul Newman and Carl Haas together to form a new IndyCar team, which I joined. Over the years we would run into each other, usually at events held around a race. Once he became the team owner, that was a relationship that was made in heaven.

Mario Andretti and Paul Newman
Photo courtesy Mario Andretti

From what I understand, Paul Newman ended up becoming one of your closest friends.

Quite honestly, he became one of the most precious friends that I had in my life. I drove for 12 seasons for the Newman/Haas team. We had some great success, and won 18 IndyCar races after I came out of Formula One with them. So again, it was just precious times. There are so many things that I remember with such a great fondness about Paul, things outside of track. What an individual he was, one of the true people who made and left a mark in your life for many reasons. And there was something about this man that, not just because of his prominence, and his superstar status, made him so special. You just had to really know him intimately to appreciate what he was all about. I was one of the fortunate ones to have had that opportunity.

You’ve been named Driver of the Year in three different decades.

It certainly wasn’t a goal. It wasn’t something I was aiming for.  It just happened.  There are a lot of things that factor into my longevity, including luck. The awards are the fruit of the labor, of working as hard as you can toward accomplishing your goals. Then, to be recognized in that fashion…you can call it the icing on the cake. That’s how I look at those things.

You are a legend and a pop culture phenomenon. Your name appears in song lyrics by Ice Cube, Alan Jackson, The Beastie Boys, Amy Grant, Gwen Stefani, A Tribe Called Quest, and Charlie Daniels to name a few.

Again, it’s just one of those things that either happens. And when it does, it is extremely flattering. That’s the only way I can put it. Just like when you are invited to be inducted into a Hall of Fame. You have to pinch yourself. It’s that type of thing.

You drove Lady Gaga around the track at the Indianapolis 500.

Lady Gaga was an absolute delight. An amazing wonderful soul. She was so genuinely kind, so incredibly nice. I led the field at the start of the Indy 500 in the two-seat IndyCar and she was my passenger. She was soaking it all in that day, and the fans loved her. It was really enjoyable and epic to have her as a part of that day; it was actually the 100th anniversary of the running of the Indianapolis 500. Having her in the seat behind me…really a treat for me.

Who has more cars, you or Jay Leno?

That would be Jay Leno. Big time [laughs].

Mario Andretti

Please tell me about your Napa Valley winery.

The winery was not really a product of a specific plan. But during the last year of my racing career in 1994, called my Arrivederci Tour, an agency came up with an idea to have a commemorative label on a bottle of wine. It was done with the Louis Martini Winery. It sold very well and I enjoyed having it. One thing led to another, and the next thing you know, we bought a vineyard and have been in this business for 22 years now. I’m very proud of the Andretti Winery. It has been an enjoyable project.

Final Question: You’ve achieved great success in your life. If you had only one piece of life advice to offer someone, what would that be?

There are plenty of clichés out there, but the one thing that suits me is very simple: Follow your dreams and work hard.  Vision is only one percent. The other 99 percent is hard work.

Written By: Michael D. McClellan | The stifling summer heat arrives in Charleston the same time Patrick Walker does, both equally hellbent on making history at the 2019 Public Courts Tennis Tournament. Unyielding, oppressive forces each in their own right, it’s the heat that strikes first, the vast area of hot and sultry air swallowing the Kanawha Valley whole and driving all of the title matches indoors at Charleston Tennis Club. Walker, the former head pro at CTC and now the tennis el jefe at Windmill Harbour’s South Carolina Yacht Club, takes the court not long after, one win away from equaling the most Men’s Open titles in the tournament’s storied, 60-year history. That the very man standing in his way also stands across the net from him on this day is, in a word, poetic; James Kent and Patrick Walker’s dominance, much like Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal’s dominance on a grander scale, has come to define an era of tennis in a region known for producing tennis thoroughbreds. (Think Charleston’s Anne White, who reached the fourth round of both the French Open and U.S. Open in the early ‘80s, or Huntington’s Jeff Morrison, who beat future World No. 1 Juan Carlos Ferrero at Wimbledon in 2002, and you begin to get the idea.) And, like Federer and Nadal, theirs is a rivalry intertwined for the better part of two decades, one player older and in possession of the all-time Public Courts crown, the other chasing relentlessly from behind.

Beast Mode: Patrick Walker

But there’s much more to it than that. There is plenty to unpack when examining the James Kent / Patrick Walker dichotomy, their relationship running far deeper than the outcome of the match on this day, regardless of its significance. A Kent win gives him 11 titles to Walker’s nine. A Walker win squares them at 10 apiece. At 40 years old, and with a thriving financial business and three young children to raise, Kent enters the match as the clear underdog. Walker, seven years his junior and his game sharp from teaching tennis daily, is the prohibitive favorite. The 6-4, 6-1 result fulfills that prophecy, and as they shake hands at the net and reporters gather for interviews, fifteen years of shared Public Courts domination gives way to the mutual admiration each man has for the other. In a sport where love is a fundamental element, the love that truly counts is evident in the eyes of both the victor and the vanquished. You don’t get there just by blasting 130-mph serves at each other, or just by ripping forehands that explode from the string bed in a beautifully timed act of violence. Had they only measured themselves against the other’s greatness all these years, their weapons on full display but the emotional core of their rivalry removed from the equation, James Kent versus Patrick Walker still would have been compelling theatre. All of the haymakers and deft counterpunching aside, we really care because the storylines and backstories involved have everything – and nothing at all – to do with the game of tennis.

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I have had the privilege to watch Patrick’s development as a tennis player from the age of 11 until now. When I first moved to Huntington in 2001, I coached him in the junior tennis program at Ritter Park. Patrick was obviously a very athletic kid with a nice, calm personality off of the tennis court, but he got upset with himself easily on the court. His voice was so high-pitched at the time, which was hilarious looking back. Great memories of a great friend.– James Kent

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Wind the clock back to the pre-Y2K world that is 1997. Smartphones are primitive, app-less devices still used for – wait for it – making phone calls.  Deep Blue beats chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov at his own game. Mike Tyson takes a bite out of Evander Holyfield’s ear. A 21-year-old Tiger Woods becomes the youngest-ever golfer to win the Masters. Princess Diana dies fleeing the paparazzi.

In 1997, a preadolescent Patrick Walker is in the larva stage of his love affair with tennis, picking up a racquet at the urging of his father, a surgeon who himself had once played at the collegiate level. The game comes naturally to Patrick. Even back then his flexibility is off the charts, his torso capable of winding and unwinding like a human rubber band, a gift from God that is, for tennis players everywhere, the Holy Grail of racquet head speed.

For Patrick, tennis is fun from the jump – he starts out hitting with his father before graduating to junior tennis, clinics, and private instruction – but what’s really big at this moment in his life is basketball. When he’s not watching, he’s playing. When he’s not playing, he’s dreaming. Young Patrick is consumed with all things Michael Jordan, from the shoes to the swagger to the tongue sticking out on those drives to the rim. He’s geeked out over the movie Space Jam and believes that one day he too can be like Mike, escaping earth’s gravity long enough to throw down an array of acrobatic dunks. He can recount every second of the Chicago Bulls’ fourth quarter run against the Utah Jazz in Game 6 of the ’97 NBA Finals, a run culminating with MJ’s perfect pass to Steve Kerr for the 17-foot jumper that wins the championship. Quiz him about that Bulls team and 11-year-old Patrick Walker knows every player on it, from His Airness to Scotty Pippen to the Jordanaires who come off the bench to spark that run. He can also rattle off a good number of players from just about every other NBA team, and why not? He’s already a student of the game, a dreamer who sees himself on the same trajectory as the players currently balling in The Association.

Teacher, Rival, Friend: James Kent

Whereas basketball is his first love and the girl to whom he gives his first kiss, tennis is his steady. He’s already better than most other kids his age, and has more natural ability than nearly everyone else ahead of him. The heavy forehand, coupled with catlike reflexes and on-the-fly instincts that can’t be taught, suggest a future connected to the sport in some way. The better his game becomes, the more vested he becomes in it. Soon he can’t get enough. Working with Kent at Ritter Park fuels the fire. Kent, fresh off a successful college tennis career at West Virginia University, is the complete package, a workmanlike player who checks all the boxes and does everything well. And when he plays exhibitions at Ritter, he provides his young protégé with a glimpse of what it will take for him to go next level. His game is also built on power, but it’s far more nuanced than Walker’s: Sublime balance. Gorgeous footwork. Bombing serves. Even better returns. He focuses. He defends. He’s a master of point construction. It’s a blueprint that Walker will follow in the coming years, weaponizing it with his own breathtaking athleticism and then using it to unnerve and overcome the man he calls teacher, friend, and rival.

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Patrick’s game jumped up several levels while he worked with a local pro, Murphy Payne. He trained maybe 6 hours a day or more for numerous years until he was about 17 or 18. At the time, I was traveling on the Futures circuit. I would hit with him from time-to-time and knew that he was going to be really good. In fact, I played him in the Ashland City Championships when I finished the Tour and beat him 6-4, 6-4. I remember thinking after the match that it might be a long time before I would beat him again.– James Kent

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For as long as I have known Pat he has provided a solid foundation as a friend, coach and mentor to me and my two sons. He’s always there for encouragement, support and guidance. I am forever grateful to have him in our lives; he’s family.”  Lisa Kolb Hughes

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Patrick Walker comes from a big family. John and Peggy Margaret Walker had two children of their own before adopting seven more, including Patrick, so it’s fair to say that the Walker house is an uninterrupted blur of activity for the better part of a decade –of impromptu sleepovers, board game marathons, play rehearsals, bike rides, chase in the front yard, movies and popcorn on a Friday night. It’s hard to imagine the kitchen getting a break, or the washer and dryer for that matter. There are also plenty of lessons to be learned in a house teeming with people, universal concepts like cooperation, patience, understanding, and forgiveness. There’s laughter and hurt feelings. There are sibling rivalries, and the occasional hostility that comes along with them. There’s competition – over the bathroom, the phone, the most comfortable chair in the living room, the last candy bar in the pantry. And there’s responsibility – the trash needs to go out, the groceries need put up, and the grass needs cut. All things that shape Patrick Walker into the man that he is today.

Already Smiling: Baby Patrick Walker

Fast-forward to 2018. Walker is the head pro at CTC, his positive attitude and magnetic personality impossible to ignore, his flock of young-and-impressionable tennis campers hanging on every word. If he has a bad day it rarely if ever shows. He’s idolized for his tennis exploits and loved for the way he makes each camper feel as if they’re the very reason he teaches tennis. The charm is hardly an act: There’s a genuine warmth at work here, the kind that comes from growing up in the loving chaos of a big family. He uses these skills every day, drawing on life experiences to better relate to his students. It doesn’t matter if one kid is preternaturally suited to game, and another can barely hold a racquet. Patrick Walker treats them all the same.

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The first thing I think of is the kind of person Patrick is inside. I respect him as a player because he’s amazing, and I consider him a great coach as well. But more important than that, he is enjoyable to be around. I am very fortunate that I got the chance to be around him as I grew up. It was also a lot of fun to work with him in the CTC summer camps as well, and getting to see how the kids enjoyed being around him and learning from him. He has an infectious personality.– Anthony McIntosh

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Pat is undoubtedly one of the most skillful tennis players I have ever witnessed. Pat’s groundstrokes are pure and dangerous from every corner of the court. I had an opportunity to play against Pat, and every time I returned his serve I felt like a truck had hit me. Beyond that, he is a great ambassador for tennis, both on and off the court. Pat is an excellent tennis player and coach, but more importantly, he is a great friend.– Alek Gracin

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In 2005, James Kent equals Kevin Ball’s record by winning his seventh Public Courts Men’s Open titles. That championship also represents a changing of the guard, as Kent, still in his prime, has to deal with a young Patrick Walker in full effect. Walker proves as much by dominating Kent a year later, 6-4, 6-1, staking his claim as the best player in the region. In 2007 he beats Jacob Eddins, 6-1, 6-3, a two-time West Virginia high school state singles champion. Adam White upsets Walker in 2008, with heat and cramps playing a factor. Walker reclaims his crown in 2009, beating Kent 7-6, 6-3, and defends his title three years running, beating Chad Pierron (7-6, 6-1) in 2010; Chris Pratt (6-1, 7-5) in 2011; and Pratt again in 2012 (7-6, 6-7, 6-4). By winning the title six times in seven years, Walker is now breathing down the necks of both Ball and James for all-time Public Courts supremacy.

Patrick Walker in action during the Public Courts Tennis Tournament

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I hated losing to Patrick, actually, but I always respected how far his game has come. He wasn’t a great junior player but he turned into a monster. I wish he could have played a couple of years full-time on the pro circuit to see his full tennis potential. However, he lets his tennis racquet do the talking on the court, much like me. We both compete hard, win some, lose some, but always show up for the battles.– James Kent

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In 2013 it’s Kent who finally bests Walker in the final, winning 7-5 (7-6), 4-6, 7-5. The win means Kent stands alone at the Public Courts championship summit, but for how long? Walker, at 27, is in his prime; Kent, a seasoned 34, is starting a family and growing a business. The win buys Kent time, but the unyielding duality of age and responsibility conspires against him. But that’s a conversation for another day. On this day Kent is king, and the rivalry rages on.

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I broke the all-time record for Public Courts singles titles in 2013 by beating him. Mentally, it was one of the toughest matches of my life. It wasn’t the best quality match for either of us, but we fought each other tooth and nail.– James Kent

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Walker wins his seventh title a year later, beating Ryan Massinople, 6-3, 6-3. There is a circle of life feel to this final, given that Massinople was a long-time student under Walker, just as Walker’s future had once been shaped by Kent. That Massinople defeats Kent in the semis only adds to the intrigue. It’s also a reminder that time waits for no one; Walker, the new kid on the block not that long ago, is now being hunted by the next generation of tennis players. He’s no longer the young man striking out on his own and trying to make it on the ITF circuit, bouncing from one city to the next, grinding through the qualifiers in hopes of breaking through to the main draw. Those carefree days are long gone. He’s got that day job at CTC now, where he gives lessons to kids like Massinople, who dream of one day beating Walker at his own game, just like Walker is doing to Kent now.

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Kent enjoys a renaissance the next two years, beating Chris Pratt (6-2, 6-1) in 2015 and Walker (7-6, 3-6, 6-3) in 2016, pushing his Public Courts singles haul to 10. At age 37, Kent straddles the line between perennial contender and lion in winter, his championship days clearly numbered.

For now, Walker has no such problem. He wins the next two – a 4-6, 6-3, 6-2 gem against Kent in 2017, and an equally tense match a year later, defeating former University of Charleston No. 1 player Alec Foote, 2-6, 7-6, 6-4. That win completes a three-peat for Walker gives him nine titles, again drawing him to one behind Kent.

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Pat is a genuine guy that will always make you laugh. He’s a tough competitor on the court, and I wish his serve wasn’t so damned big [laughs]. It’s been a pleasure playing against him at Public Courts, it’s always been a battle.– Alec Foote

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James Kent and Patrick Walker each have 10 Public Courts titles now. Who knows what the future holds. Kent’s family and business responsibilities aren’t slowing down anytime soon, and Walker teaches tennis in Hilton Head Island. Whether they meet again for Public Courts supremacy is anyone’s guess, but what they’ve given us over the past decade is beyond special. More importantly, what they’ve given each other is something that will last a lifetime.

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The day of that 2019 final against Patrick, I decided that maybe it’s my last match at Public Courts because I have three little kids and things going on. I have not decided if I will play it in 2020. I owe him the opportunity to compete for the all-time Public Courts singles titles against me. Either way, I wish him nothing but the very best. I have appreciated our friendship over the years. He’s very honest and caring, and I would imagine that’s why people are drawn to his magnetic personality. I am happy for him and his family, and wish him the best of luck going forward. I’m very thankful for the time we’ve spent together, and for our friendship. Patrick Walker is a difference maker, and my life is better because of it.– James Kent

Take me back to the beginning.

I had a great childhood. I was born at The Ohio State University, and was adopted by my parents when I was four months old. There are nine of us – two are biological and the rest are adopted – so mama’s got a big heart on her.

My mom wasn’t very athletic but she was very brainy and loved to read, so she was the bookworm in the family. She went to Michigan State University and became a math professor at Marshall University after we moved to Huntington. She’s one of six siblings, so she came from a big family, which is probably why she wanted to adopt and have a big family of her own. She’s a very creative person as well. She loves to sing and act, and she also learned how to play the harp and the piano. When I was three or four, she contracted a disease that affected her legs and limits her walking ability, so she’s been in a wheelchair almost all of my life. I admire my mom greatly because she never let her disability get her down, and never used it as an excuse. She’s a strong-willed lady in that respect. She set a great example for us to follow.

Chill Time: Peggy Margaret Walker enjoys a moment with her children

My father went to medical school at the University of Missouri and played tennis there, which is a big reason that I got into tennis in the first place. He did his residency in Columbus before moving to Huntington to practice. He’s still a general surgeon at the VA hospital in Huntington and still does surgery there, but not quite as often these days because he’s taken on a bigger role in administration. I guess you could say he’s the big guy [laughs].

You were home schooled. What are some of the memories that stand out?

Mom and dad are Lutheran, so I went to preschool at the Lutheran Church. Our mother then home schooled both me and my sister, who is four months older than I am, which I actually liked a lot because I didn’t have to wake up early, I could do schoolwork in my pajamas, and I could eat whatever I wanted without being limited. I could also live on the court, either playing basketball or tennis, which better suited my personality. All of my brothers and sisters were into acting and singing, but not this guy. This guy is active, and if he’s going to perform it’s going to be in a sports atmosphere. I did go out for acting once to make my mom happy. I was the Mayor of Munchkin City in a school play, so I did my part on stage [laughs].

All Smiles: John T. Walker and his son, Patrick

You started out playing basketball and then transitioned to tennis.

Basketball was my thing early on. There were times when I’d go outside and practice till midnight, and other times when the neighborhood kids would come over and play. Back then I was consumed with Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls. I grew up watching Jordan play against the guys like Karl Malone, John Stockton, Magic Johnson, and Larry Bird. I caught a glimpse of the great Dr. J, but unfortunately he wasn’t in his prime.

I eventually got into gymnastics, baseball, and tennis, but I lived and breathed basketball until I was 10 years old. Ironically, it was basketball that led me into tennis. Dad was watching me play in a game where I made a block and converted some acrobatic layups, so I think he recognized my potential. He was like, “Your flexibility is ridiculous. Let’s try tennis. Let’s see what happens.” And I was like, “Can I still play basketball?” He said, “If you play tennis then you get to play basketball,” so it became this equal sports reality where dad taught me the basics of tennis, and I continued to have fun playing basketball every chance I could. Then I got better at tennis and started to fall in love with the game, and before long it naturally started to take over my recreational time. It wasn’t long after that that I began to play the game competitively.

Do you remember your first match?

Yes [laughs]! I played my first match when I was 11 years old, against a kid named Jared Miller. He had been playing for a while, and he really kicked my butt. When it was over I looked at my dad and said, “I’m good, I don’t want to compete. I’m done with this tennis thing. I think I’ll just go back to playing basketball.” But dad didn’t let me off the hook. He explained that it was just one match, and he promised me that I would figure it out. He was like, “You will have those types of days, Patrick. You’ll actually learn more from the losses than you will from the matches you win.” Then he asked me if I’d learned anything. I thought for a minute and said, “Yeah. I learned not to play tennis ever again!” He repeated the question, and I told him that it was going to take a while to figure out this tennis thing, and that I had a lot to learn. He smiled and said, “That was the whole purpose of this first match. Patrick, you are on your way to becoming a tennis player.”

Patrick Walker

Did you jump straight from hitting with your father to private lessons?

No, the next step in my development was playing in clinics. I was 12 years old at this point. I was still hitting with dad, which was great, but the clinics allowed me to get to know the other kids that were playing. There was also a social aspect that I really enjoyed. I looked forward to the time on the court, but the time before and after was fun as well. It was also a great transition to private lessons.

Who were some of the pros that influenced your growth as a tennis player?

At about the age of 14 I started taking lessons from a guy named Tim Keegan, who taught at Ritter Park in Huntington. Tim worked with me until a guy named Billy Levi came to town. Billy was a great guy. He taught lessons at Guyan Golf & Country Club in Huntington, as well as at the Huntington Tennis Academy on Fifth Avenue near Marshall University. Billy made me love tennis a little more because he made the game fun. He was very hands on, and you could tell by his energy that he loved the game, which helped to motivate me to practice and play harder.

Eventually, Billy found a better job opportunity in Ohio and had to leave the area, and at that point I started working with a guy named Keith McCarthy. Keith wasn’t really hands on, but he was very technical and went down into the really intense parts of tennis. He was also very direct and blunt. He was like, “You gotta do this, and you gotta do this, and here is what you really need to work on.” He would propose a challenge of some kind, maybe fifty forehands down the line without an error. I’d work on it until I met the challenge, and the he’d give me another one. My game started to take on a different vibe because of Keith, and my confidence started to go through the roof. Then a guy named Murphy Payne came along. Murphy’s the one who really took my game to the next level. He helped me see the game in an entirely different way.

All of these teachers were important building blocks in my development. They helped make the game fun, and they also showed me how to compete both physically and mentally.

As a young player on the way up, what was it like to hit with James Kent?

James was teaching outdoors at Ritter Park, and during the winter months they would build the bubble so we could hit year round. I love challenges, and beating James became my next big challenge. My game kept getting bigger. My confidence was through the roof. Then I played him that first time, and I quickly learned I nowhere close to taking him down [laughs].

Patrick Walker and James Kent at the Ashland City Championships

Kent pushed you to become a better tennis player.

James is about eight years older than I am. He was fresh out of college at the time, and I was still trying to graduate from high school. It was a fun, challenging period in my tennis life, and a lot like the movie Groundhog Day; we would play and he would beat me down, then I would go off and try to improve my game, and then we would play again and he’d beat me down all over again. It really opened my eyes. I made a list because I knew that if I were going to beat him, these were the things that I needed to do. So I kept playing, kept practicing, and kept setting goals that I could achieve. One New Year’s Eve I said to myself, “This is the day. I’m going to do it right here. I’m playing too good to lose.” We warmed up and I felt really good about how I was striking the ball. Then, about 2 ½ hours later, I walked off the court having beaten him 6-4, 7-5. After being dominated by James Kent for so long, it felt really good to finally break through. I felt like I had taken a big step.”

Around this time, you played an exhibition match against Jeff Morrison.

One day I was hitting with Murphy at the Huntington Tennis Academy when Jeff Morrison and his dad walked in. Jeff was from Huntington and had played at the University of Florida, where his doubles partner was Marty Fish. I believe they won two NCAA titles together. Jeff was Top 100 in the world at one time, and in 2002 he beat Juan Carlos Ferrero to reach the quarterfinals at Wimbledon. Ferrero would go on to hold the World No. 1 ranking, so Jeff beating him at Wimbledon was a really big deal.

Being from Huntington, everyone in the tennis community knew Jeff. He’d played exhibitions with people like James Blake, Julie Ditty, and Todd Martin, so when he walked in that day the place was buzzing. I wanted to make an impression, because I was hoping Jeff might like to hit with me. I’m blasting balls at Murphy and he’s ripping them back, and for about 10 minutes I’m not missing. I’m busting my butt and pouring the sweat. Jeff hits with his dad on the next court, and then they leave without saying a word. I took that as an insult. I’m thinking to myself, “Just because you are the top guy in Huntington and you’ve made the ATP Tour, why would you walk into the Tennis Academy and blow off another local up-and-comer who wants to hit?”

A little later, Jeff’s dad comes up to me and says, “Hey, Jeff is putting on an exhibition, would you want to play against him?” I was like, “Of course!” It took about a week to set up, so I used that time to prepare, and then we played the exhibition at the Huntington Tennis Club in Barboursville. I remember walking in and a guy asking me how many games I thought I’d get. I said six. Someone else walked by and asked the same question, and I gave him the same answer. Then we played and I beat him 7-6 in a tiebreaker. Those guys couldn’t believe that I’d just beaten Jeff Morrison, a guy who’d reached No. 85 in the world. Man, it was so much fun! It also boosted my confidence because he was fresh off the Tour and I’d stepped out there and played really well against him. After that exhibition I decided to go pro, so playing and beating Jeff was a big deal.

Pool Time!

Did you go out and celebrate?

I celebrated by playing a doubles exhibition right after our match [laughs]. Scott Zent was my partner. We’d never met up to that point. Scott was so good with his hands, he could do anything he wanted to with the ball. You play tennis with someone like that and you learn things about the game that you never thought were possible.

You played 7-time Public Courts champ Kevin Ball when you were 14.

It was in the Royal Tournament at CTC, on the stadium court, and Kevin beat me 6-3, 6-2. I was convinced I’d beat him without much effort, and afterwards I was like, “Who is this guy?!” Losing to him taught me not to take anyone lightly.

Was there a rematch?

The Daymark Tournament was next. I was hoping that Kevin would play, because I wanted another crack at him. He didn’t play, but Ron Williams did. I didn’t know anything about Ron Williams, but it didn’t take me long to find out. He was from Australia, a very good athlete, and one heck of a tennis player. We met in the finals, and he really knew how to use his height. He was also very cerebral, the kind of player who always seemed to be thinking one step ahead of you. We split sets and then I beat him 6-1 in the third. I walked off the court and someone says, “Do you know who you just beat?” That’s when I learned about some of the things he’d accomplished on the tennis court. After that, I wasn’t so bummed about not getting the chance to redeem myself against Kevin Ball.

Toe-to-Toe: Alec Foote and Patrick Walker battle in the 2018 Public Courts Men’s Open Finals

You followed James Kent onto the ITF circuit.

I got my GED and graduated from high school, and then I told my dad that I wanted to go pro. He asked me if I was sure, like any good parent would do, and I promised him that I was ready and that I would attack it. That’s when I started touring with Murphy. We went to Illinois and Indiana and played the ITF Futures, which were $15,000 and $20,000 tournaments. It’s extremely competitive. You have to win four qualifier rounds just to get into the main draw. The main draw is where you get your ATP points. You have to win six matches to earn one point. If you think about that, it’s insanely difficult. It’s very cutthroat out there.

Tell me about your first Futures match.

I played a very close and competitive match against a young kid from the Czech Republic. He had a ton of talent, and everyone was talking about him making it on the ATP Tour. It was a confidence booster for me even though I’d come up short on the scoreboard. When you’re on the circuit, you really don’t have time to dwell on the result. As soon as you lose it’s over, and you’re on to the next city and the next tournament.

How did the next tournament go?

I won three matches and made it to the last round of the qualifier, where I end up playing a kid from Wake Forest. I was a little nervous stepping onto the court that day because I knew what was at stake. I tried to keep the moment from getting too big for me but I was really young, had never played college tennis, and had gone straight to the pro circuit. I got tight and lost the match 6-3, 6-4. It was disappointing, but I had to chalk it up as a misstep and then learn from the experience. That’s what you do when you’re trying to make it. But, in my own defense, I was learning on the fly.

Patrick Walker

You end up cutting your ITF career short. Tell me about that.

We traveled to a tournament in North Carolina, which was fun because James Kent was there and we were able to hit and socialize a little bit. I easily beat my first opponent. My second match ends when the kid I’m playing gets heat exhaustion, so now I’m into the third round and playing a kid from the University of South Carolina. He’d won the national championship that year, so I knew he would be a big challenge. I lost that match 7-5, 7-6. I was super excited about the score and the way I’d played, but dad called and said it was time to come home. I tried to convince him that I was almost there, but he said, “You might be close, but we don’t have any more time because I’m running out of money [laughs].” That’s when I came back and started teaching tennis.

Most people don’t realize how expensive it is to play on the circuit. It’s not as glamorous as one might think.

Trying to make it on the circuit is insane. It’s so expensive. If you are not Top 150 you aren’t making it. You scraping along and pinching every penny. You’ve got to pay to string your rackets. You’ve got to pay for your hotel, your gas, your food, your clothes, the whole shebang. It is expensive in a hurry, especially if you’re not cracking the main draw and winning matches. If you’re going to do it, you’d better have a lot of financial backing, otherwise you’d better have a heck of a lot of talent.

At least you have no regrets.

Absolutely. It was expensive, but it was also eye-opening in other ways. It made me appreciate how hard it is for even the most talented players to make it at that level. I had beaten Jeff Morrison and I was competing against some really good players, but I couldn’t get there. That’s how competitive it is. But I’m thankful. If it wasn’t for my parents adopting me, I probably never would have had the opportunity to try in the first place.

Did you ever think about giving the circuit one more try?

My plan was to earn money by teaching, and then go back out on the circuit. Well, the problem with that plan was that I didn’t have a car [laughs]. Dad took me out and together we found a 2000 Chevy Cavalier. It had high mileage, the air-conditioning didn’t work, and it had roll-down windows, so it wasn’t the best, but it got me from point A to point B. From there I was able to start working at Bellefonte Country Club in Ashland, Kentucky. That’s where I met Todd Wise. He helped me get started with my teaching gig and from there I was on my own. I picked up a few lessons, and suddenly I’m like, “All right, I’m making some money!” Dad was like, “Okay, but know you’ve got to pay for your own gas.” At that point I realized I needed to focus on my teaching career [laughs].

I’d say it worked about pretty good. You’re a natural teacher.

When I was sixteen, my dad told me that tennis was a sport I could play and enjoy my whole life. As a tennis instructor, there’s really no limit to your earning potential, but there’s more to it than that. You can be a role model and a mentor. It’s really cool when you see young kids who are struggling, and you are able to step into their lives and help pick them up. It’s about helping someone, no matter what the skill level. If you approach it the right way they will look up to you, and the lessons that you share will stay with them forever. Making a difference in someone’s life is what I love to do.

Patrick Walker Photo-Op at Charleston Tennis Club

Let’s talk Public Courts. When did you first hear about it?

Actually, it was James Kent who came up to me and said, “Man, you gotta play Public Courts. It’s really cool. There’s nothing like the Charleston tennis community. When you win, there is a banquet, and you get your name in the paper. It’s a big deal.” So I told him I’d check it out. James had won seven Public Courts titles before I started playing in the tournament.

Take me back to your first Public Courts.

My first appearance in Public Courts was 2006. I played John Prokity in the quarters, and at the time I didn’t realize how many Public Courts championships he had won. I beat him and he says, “Good luck with James, you guys will be one hell of a match. Everyone in Charleston is going to come watch.” Well, I rolled through the semis, beating a kid from the University of Charleston two-and-two, and then I get to James. He was the defending champion, and he was playing some phenomenal tennis. His game was so smooth and clean. His serve was a big. His returns were unbelievable…ridiculous. The first set was a tight battle in the heat, but I won it, 6-4. I caught fire in the second set and beat him, 6-1. I remember shaking hands at the net and him saying, “Welcome to Public Courts.”

And your first Public Courts banquet?

I took my mom. This was the era of my Ben Wallace hairdo, the giant Afro. Ben was a great NBA player who rocked that look, and that was behind my inspiration. I wanted to bring basketball to the tennis court. It was my absolute favorite look. It was awesome.

Patrick Walker, sporting his Ben Wallace Afro, shares a moment with his close friend, Matt Hughes

Did you ever cross paths with Kevin Ball in the tournament?

One year I ended up playing Kevin Ball in the semis. I wore an all-white outfit and beat him 6-3, 6-4. I finally got my revenge [laughs].

You’ve had many memorable battles with James Kent. Any that stand out?

There are so many moments, it’s hard to pick one. One year I’m playing James, and he is battling a case of the yips. We’re talking about a guy who cranks out 130 mile-per-hour serves, and then, all of a sudden, nothing. I remember waiting to return, and his serve hits the service line before it ever gets to the net. I’m thinking that maybe there’s something in his eyes, but then he does it again. And I’m like, “What in the world is going on?” Later on I learned that he wasn’t used to someone beating the ball back to him like I was, and he sort of lost confidence in his serve. I mean, this guy had one of the biggest serves in Charleston, but it got to the point where he had to serve underhand to get the ball into the service box on the other side of the net. It’s one of those wacky memories for sure.

The James Kent / Patrick Walker rivalry has blossomed into a great friendship.

We stay in touch all of the time. We are great friends. I tell kids today that you can have a great rivalry, but you can still be friends off the court. To use a basketball analogy, it’s like Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. Both wanted to win, and both tried their very best to beat the other’s brains out, and in the process that competition brought out the best in both of them. That’s how it has been with me and James. And just like with Larry and Magic, our friendship goes far beyond the tennis court. We will always be friends.

What has been your most disappointing result at Public Courts?

In 2008, when I lost to Adam White. That was the first time I had ever cramped before. It was so hot. The cramping started with my forearm, then my calf cramped, and then both hips and both arms. I couldn’t move. I went home, pounded some pickle juice, and promised myself that would never happen again. Then I came back in 2009 and won four in a row.

Another disappointment was when James broke the all-time record the in 2013. That was a rough one. I don’t know where my backhand went. I had a forehand and a serve. That was it. It was weird – it was like my backhand had completely deserted me. James won 7-5 in the third set and broke Ball’s record.

Most surreal moment at Public Courts?

In 2014, when Ryan Massinople beat James in the semifinals after James was up 5-2, 40-15 in the second set. Ryan came back and shocked everyone by winning in the third set. I beat Chris Pratt in the semifinals that year, and then beat Ryan in the finals. That’s when I started to feel old, because I’d taught Ryan when he was younger.

The James Kent / Patrick Walker rivalry has come to define the Public Courts tournament.

We’ve had an amazing run. From 2005 to 2019, James and I have won all of the titles except for one, so we’ve pretty much had it locked up. This year I wasn’t sure if I would be able to play Public Courts. Thankfully my boss let me come back to Charleston to play, and I was able to beat James and tie him with ten titles.

You have a beautiful wife, Mary Carol Liberatore Walker – or, as we all know her, MC.

When I met MC, I didn’t know where it was going. We played Public Courts and we kind of hung out, we even went out to dinner a couple of times. I remember her calling me and saying, “Hey, I’m going to play singles, can you hit?” So we hit, and I asked her if she’d ever considered changing her forehand grip. She looked at me and said, “Are you crazy? I’ve got a match coming up.” Then she thought about it and said, “What would you change it to?” I said I would change it to a Semi-Western grip. We started getting together and hitting more often after that. From there we started hanging out afterwards, and before long we started seeing each other. I felt like I had a real chance after I’d survived the forehand grip debate [laughs].

Patrick Walker and his better half, Mary Carol Liberatore Walker

Like James Kent, you now have a daughter in your life.

MC is a natural mother and is doing great with it, but in some ways I was more ready for parenthood than she was. It started with my little brother, Jordan. We adopted him when he was two and I was fifteen. I learned how to wipe a butt, I learned how to change a diaper, and I learned how to entertain a human being younger than the age of three [laughs]. He was my little Mini-Me. As he got a little older, he pretty much went with me everywhere that I went. We did everything together. We played miniature golf three days a week, we went to the driving range twice a week, we went bowling, we played basketball, we jumped on the trampoline. So I helped raise Jordan, which gave me experience for what I’m doing today raising Vivienne.

You’re now the head pro at Windmill Harbour’s South Carolina Yacht Club. What’s the move been like for you?

I was excited to move to Hilton Head. I am the head pro at Windmill Harbour. I am also the head of the junior tennis camp. I have a new clinic, which is called Patrick’s Power Zone. I’ve never moved this far away before, but I have always been independent and I’ve always been able to fight through adversity and learn how to survive. Now that I have a family, it’s all about the challenge of getting settled in down here. MC is teaching. Vivienne is three, and she doesn’t really have a set group of friends yet. So things have worked about pretty well so far. I’m excited about the opportunity, because I want to give Vivienne the life that she deserves.

Final Thought: You are missed in Charleston.

Huntington and Charleston will always be home. I have so many friends and family back there, and a lot of them are either already visiting us or planning visits to Hilton Head in the near future. And we’ll always be back. Hopefully James and I can renew our rivalry next summer. We’re both getting older, and we’ve each got a lot going on. I just hope we both can play in 2020, and we both make it back to the finals. It would be the best way to break the tie. By the way, as much as it hurt losing to James, I am happy for him and what he has achieved. Me as a competitive person, I was obviously disappointed whenever I was the one he beat [laughs].


Mark Cassis on Patrick Walker
Pat has been a role model, coach, and friend to me over the past 10+ years. I’ve been fortunate enough to not only be a student of his, but also an opponent on the opposite side of the net – which usually was not so fortunate for me.  There’s no denying how incredible Pat is as a tennis player, but it’s who he is as a person that makes him all the more impressive.  Both on and off the court you can see that Pat loves life and what he does.  He has a positive attitude about everything and that energy rubs off on everyone around him.  He’s done so much for the tennis community in Charleston, especially the youth, and I know he’ll have the same impact anywhere he goes.

Ryan Massinople on Patrick Walker
Pat was what took my tennis game to the next level. I was always a competitive junior player in the area, but it was training with and being coached by Pat that elevated my game to be able to play Division 1 tennis. As we began to train together daily by my senior year in high school, I became much closer with Pat. I saw him not just as a coach and training partner, but as an incredible friend.

Pat has been and always will be one of the most influential people in my life. He never let the circumstances surrounding him sway his passion or positivity for tennis and life in general. Once we stepped on the court and started playing, it was as if nothing else mattered. He was there to help me get better in any way he could.

Patrick Walker and Ryan Massinople: Rivals for a day, friends for life

After sharing many highs and lows throughout my tennis career with Pat, I think my favorite one probably would have to be the year I played in Public Courts. When I was playing James Kent in the semifinals, Pat was playing on the court beside me. I remember not playing very well at one point and looking over at Pat, where he was standing a few feet from me in between a point. I remember all he said was, “Just loosen up bro, you look like you’re not having any fun out here! Look at this crowd, have some fun man!” It was advice like this that I always received from Pat, which helped much more than advice about point structure or match specific tactics. Pat always reminded me to relax and enjoy the moment. Looking back, I couldn’t be more thankful for this and all of his advice along the way.

I am so lucky to have had Pat in Charleston when I was playing junior tennis. He is much more than my former coach, he is and always will be one of my greatest friends.

Marshall Dagostine on Patrick Walker
I have been fortunate enough to have Pat as a coach for most of my tennis career and I would not have become the player or person I am today without Patrick Walker and his family. Pat worked with me and was able to help me develop the skills needed on and off the court to pursue my dream of going to IMG Academy. Then, after coming back home to West Virginia, Pat helped me further develop my skills to achieve my dream of being a Division 1 tennis player at Clemson University. Pat even came down to see me at Clemson while I was playing there. He instilled discipline, hard work, but ALWAYS having fun. Pat was able to make things enjoyable for me when times got really hard. He was always pushing me to be better on and off the court. I am so thankful for everything he was able to teach me through the years and Pat, MC, Viv, and I now have a friendship that will last a lifetime. It is impossible to look back at all of the time we spent together and not smile. I miss them very much in West Virginia, but at the same time, I am so happy that they are able to spread their tennis and life knowledge to more people. Patrick is truly an amazing person and tennis coach, but more importantly, he is my brother forever.

George Bsharah on Patrick Walker
Patrick played a large role in the growth and success that we had at The Charleston Tennis Club during my tenure there. Pat not only grew as a teaching pro, but I enjoyed watching him grow into the family man and father he has become. Not only is he a special teacher and player, but he has become a special friend.

Scott Zent on Patrick Walker
I remember the first time I heard the sound of the ball being struck by one of Patrick’s forehands. It was different – heavy, powerful – the ball seemed to explode off his racquet. I’ve also enjoyed watching Patrick and James play at Public Courts through the years, because Patrick Walker and James Kent are two of the best tennis players to play in Charleston. I’m glad I can call both of these guys my friends!

Tim and Mona Dagostine on Patrick Walker
Pat is truly a special person and someone who means so much to our family. He has devoted an incredible amount of time on and off the court to assist in the development of our son, Marshall, both as a tennis player and a person. Pat took a good player and created someone who could compete at a high level. He developed skills that lead our son to train at the IMG Academy for 2 years. When Marshall came home to Charleston, Pat continued to help him develop as a person and a player, training him daily, traveling with him to tournaments, and being the mentor every parent prays their children will have. Pat’s role as our son’s coach enabled him to sign to play Division I tennis at Clemson University.

Former George Washington standout Marshall Dagostine would go on to become a four-star recruit, attend the IMG Academy, and play Division I college tennis for Clemson University. The Dagostines credit Patrick Walker for helping lay the foundation for the player their son has become.

A coach’s relationship with a player and his family is unique, it brings that person inside the family and makes them a critical part of all that happens. You have so many good and tough situations to deal with and work through, but we could not have asked for better person than Pat to play that role. He is truly part of our family, and now so is MC and Vivienne. We are so very grateful for all that he has done. We have a bond that will always remain. We know that they will have great success in their new roles, and he will continue to impact people’s lives in an incredible way, just like he has here in West Virginia. We wish Pat, MC and Vivienne the best and give them all our love. – Tim and Mona Dagostine

Written By:  Michael D. McClellan | Bill Walton wins an NBA championship, an NBA Finals MVP Award, and an NBA Most Valuable Player Award before vanishing into rumor, missing three full seasons and playing only 14 games in another, the one-time “Next Great Thing” undone by feet not designed to support a man his size, the pain taking him on a decades-long journey that includes 37 orthopedic operations and an inner-dialog dominated by thoughts of suicide. In his darkest moments, Walton lay prone on the floor, unable to move, his spine having collapsed, wishing only that he had a bottle of pills, or a bottle of whiskey, or a gun. He can think of nothing else but the radiating nerve pain, pain so severe that no life is the better alternative to the one in which he finds himself trapped. This is a side of Bill Walton the public never sees, at least not until he pulls the curtain back in his 2016 memoir, Back from the Dead, giving readers a backstage pass to three hellish years spent on the floor of his house, eating his meals flat on his stomach, crawling to the bathroom, barely able to hoist himself into bed.

“I’m getting back into the game of life,” Walton says, smiling. “Before I had my spine surgery, it got to the point where my life wasn’t worth living. I was useless. I can’t describe the pain—people who haven’t experienced nerve pain can’t relate. It’s debilitating, excruciating, unrelenting. Today, I’m pain-free.”

Walton’s story unfolds with an idyllic childhood in La Mesa, California, transitions to a counterculture lifestyle that’s alien to mid-70s NBA, and descends into an injury-ravaged abyss that undercuts his vast potential. It’s a long, strange voyage filled with contradictions.

“I had the most wonderful childhood,” Walton begins. “We had nothing, but I had everything. My mom was our town librarian, so I had an endless supply of books. That was my life. I’ve never been a television watcher—I’m not really much of a spectator, I like doing things. I had a transistor radio and a basketball. I also had a bike and a skateboard, so I could go places on my own. But that was nothing compared to the places I could visit through the books that my mom brought home daily. The mental travels from those books, and from reading the LA Times in those days, were my form of escape.”

It’s his mother who sets Walton on his path to basketball greatness.

“In 1964, my mom brought home the first sports book that I ever read, which was Go Up For Glory, written by the incomparable Bill Russell. She said, ‘Billy, this book just came into the library, and I know that you have been outside playing basketball, whatever that is, so I thought this might be of interest to you.’ I devoured every aspect of that book, and I never gave it back to her. I read it over and over and over again. When I joined the NBA, one of the first checks that I ever wrote was to the San Diego library for the book that I never returned.”

Walton’s passion for basketball begins not at the playground with other children but as a solitary endeavor.

“I loved playing basketball by myself. I was very awkward and shy, so I was by myself all of the time. There was Little Billy with his red hair, and his freckles, and his big nose, and his goofy, nerdy looking face, and this horrendous speech impediment—I couldn’t speak at all without stuttering horribly. But I could play basketball, and I could practice by myself. I would be playing these imaginary basketball games out in the backyard, with legendary Laker broadcaster Chick Hearn transporting me to the NBA where I’d play games as a member of the Boston Celtics. I was 12 at the time and never in my wildest dreams thought that I might one day be doing it for real.”

Walton pauses, his mind on constant fast-forward and rewind.

“It is impossible to understate the importance of the Boston Celtics in my life. They were my favorite team as a young boy chasing the dream of being part of the NBA. I’m from San Diego, but I developed my love for the Boston Celtics because of Chick, who spoke with such awe and respect for the Celtics. He was so complimentary of Red Auerbach, Bill Russell, and of all of the players on those great championship teams of the ’60s, even though his job was to sell everything Lakers. So here was Little Billy in San Diego, with his transistor radio under the covers, listening to Chick talk about the incredible accomplishments of the Celtics. That’s what I wanted to be a part of, so it was the perfect situation.

Bill Walton, Sports Illustrated cover boy: Two-time NCAA Champion. Two-time NCAA Final Four Most Outstanding Player. Three-time national college player of the year. Three-time consensus first-team All-American. Two-time NBA champion. NBA Finals MVP. NBA Most Valuable Player. NBA Sixth Man of the Year. NBA 50th Anniversary Team.

“I love all things Boston.”

Little Billy continues to grow, and it’s hard not to notice his potential. Walton attends Helix High School, where he grows into the most coveted basketball player on the planet. Helix captures the California Interscholastic Federation High School title two years running, all while winning its final 49 games. He’s 6–10 when he graduates in 1970, setting the national record for field goal percentage (79 percent), but some of Walton’s favorite high school memories are created away from the court.

“I went to my first Grateful Dead concert when I was 15 years old and immediately fell in love with them. There’s this great community and tribal spirit that comes with being a Dead Head. Going to the concerts was the most fun in the world. Everybody’s happy, everybody’s dancing, and everybody’s jumping up and down. The music is phenomenal. The whole experience is one of joy and love.”

Walton enrolls at UCLA in 1970, following in the sizable wake of Lew Alcindor (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar). It’s an impossibly high bar to clear, but Walton matches Abdul-Jabbar as a three-time Consensus First Team All-American, and as a three-time recipient of the NCAA Player of the Year Award. It’s during Walton’s freshman season that UCLA starts a mind-boggling win streak that spans four seasons. It begins on January 30, 1971, with a victory over UC Santa Barbara. He joins it 15 games later, his brilliance helping stretch the streak to 88 straight, including two consecutive 30–0 seasons and three national championships.

Bill Walton: A three-time Consensus First Team All-American, and a three-time recipient of the NCAA Player of the Year Award

“January 19, 1974,” he says, when asked what he remembers most about the streak. “The loss at Notre Dame. We wanted a third undefeated season, but it didn’t happen. That loss was a punch to the gut.”

The disappointment is easy to understand. As a sophomore, a Walton-led UCLA rolls to a 30–0 season by outscoring its opponents by 30.3 points a game, an NCAA record that still stands. A year later, Walton and the 1972–73 Bruins again go undefeated and again cut down the nets. By his senior season, the streak and the chase for perfection becomes a national preoccupation.

The loss to Notre Dame was a harbinger of things to come,” Walton says. “At any other program, finishing 26–4 and reaching the Final Four would be a cause for celebration. But, like those great Celtics teams, we wanted to win every game we played, and we wanted to go out on top.”

Doesn’t happen. The Bruins lose two more regular season games, and then, on March 23, 1974, North Carolina State beats UCLA 80–77 in double-overtime in the National Semifinal at the Greensboro (NC) Coliseum, in what is widely regarded as one of the greatest NCAA tournament games ever. The loss marks the end of the Bruins’ seven-year national championship run.

Coach Wooden never talked about the streak,” Walton says. “He never mentioned winning, period, because that was a byproduct of everything else that went into preparing to play the game. He kept us focused on doing things the right way. That’s why losing to North Carolina State in the Final Four was so difficult for me to overcome.”

Bill Walton and his legendary head coach, John Wooden

Along the way, Walton becomes not only one of Wooden’s favorite pupils, but also one of his biggest challenges.

“I knew I was Coach Wooden’s worst nightmare because I fought him on everything. I always wanted to know why,” says Walton, who finishes his college career as a three-time Academic All-American. “Why were we in Vietnam? Why did I have to cut my hair? Why did I have to shave? Why was Nixon president? I was never satisfied.”

Walton has countless stories like these. Some have morphed into urban legend.

John Wooden used to place a lucky penny in the corner of the locker room each year and pretend to find it as he was giving a pregame speech,” he says, smiling. “Well, I ended up stealing John Wooden’s lucky penny. One day I received an anonymous letter stating that there was a curse on me, and that the only way to break the curse was to go to the Philippines and see this witch doctor. Trust me, when you’re the most injured athlete in the history of sports, you can’t say it doesn’t cross your mind.”

The Next Great Thing’s fairytale ride starts hitting potholes in Portland. Selected by the Trail Blazers with the first overall pick of the 1974 NBA Draft, Walton’s first two years are marred by a constant string of injuries, causing him to miss 78 of 164 games.

Bill Walton, Portland Trail Blazers

Walton misses time with a broken nose and then follows that indignity with injuries to his wrist, leg, and foot. When healthy, he redefines the center position with his vision and passing. In his third season, Walton plays in a career-high 65 games, spearheading the Blazers’ run through the playoffs. He refuses to be singled out for his greatness, instead crediting everyone else as the difference makers against Philadelphia in the 1977 NBA Finals.

“It was a total team concept,” Walton says of Portland winning the championship. “We trusted each other, and we trusted the system. I played my part, and I tried to play it well, but the truth is, we had Maurice Lucas, and nobody else did. We had Jack Ramsey, and nobody else did. And, just as importantly, we had the Blazermaniacs, and nobody else did.”

An avid biker, Walton endears himself to those Blazermaniacs by biking to Memorial Coliseum on game days. His counterculture lifestyle, seen by many around the country as strange and off-putting, is right at home in Portland.

Bill Walton’s counterculture lifestyle fit perfectly in Portland

“The crowd made me better; the crowd made me high,” says Walton. “They knew they made us better, and that drove them to give us even higher levels to delirious celebration and support.”

It’s in Portland that Walton’s love affair with the Grateful Dead reaches new heights when he’s recognized at a concert. It’s a memorable affair for all involved.

Walton wins the NBA MVP Award following the 1977–78 season, even though he only plays in 58 games. By the All-Star Break the Blazers are 40–8, and winners of 44 straight at home, but on March 5, Walton has surgery on the nerves in his right foot. That foot heals, but now something is wrong with the left. He misses 22 straight games, returning to play 34 gutsy minutes in the playoff opener against Seattle, scoring 17 points and grabbing 16 rebounds in a losing effort. It’s clear to anyone watching that Walton is not healthy.

“The beginning of the end in Portland,” he says.

Walton’s recurring foot injuries cut years off his career and derailed a potential dynasty in Portland.

Still in pain, Walton faces a dilemma; rule himself out for a must-win Game 2, or take an injection of Xylocaine, an anesthetic. Walton takes the shot. He plays. And while the Blazers win to even the series, Walton’s season, and his career in Portland, is over.

I played on a broken foot,” Walton says. “I didn’t want to let my coaches down, or let my teammates down. It turned out to be the wrong decision, because it was based on immediacy. We needed to win that game to avoid a 2–0 hole against the SuperSonics. I wasn’t thinking about my long-term health.”

The injury leads to legal action and finger-pointing, with Walton sitting out the entire 1978–79 season in protest. After the season he signs with the San Diego Clippers, returning home but playing in just 102 games over five years.

And then, just when he considers walking away for good, Red Auerbach and the Boston Celtics come calling.

The Trade goes down during the summer of ’85.

Auerbach, unhappy with Cedric Maxwell’s injury rehab, swings a blockbuster deal that delivers Bill Walton to Boston. The feud between Auerbach and Maxwell goes public, with both sides taking the low road; Auerbach strikes mention of Maxwell in an upcoming book, while Max leaves town throwing shade.

Rebirth: Walton joins the Celtics in the Summer of ’85, the final piece in one of the greatest teams of all-time.

With Red, loyalty was a two-way deal,” Walton says. “Red created a culture of trust, family, loyalty, pride, all the things that we love and mean so much to us. He expected us to be wholly vested in his vision, and the temporary falling out with Cedric Maxwell was, in Red’s mind, a violation of that trust. He felt that Cornbread hadn’t worked hard enough at rehabbing his knee injury, and Red considered it an affront to the Celtic Way. I’m just glad that they were able to get past their differences because Cedric was a special player who helped the Celtics win two championships.”

For Walton, who grows up idolizing Bill Russell, The Trade is a dream come true.

“The Celtics didn’t give me my career back, they gave me my life back,” he continues. “To be able to go from the bottom to the top in one plane ride was just staggering. I had early success in my career, but the endless string of injuries destroyed everything. The Celtics gave me a chance to be a part of something special, which has always been my dream in life.”

Walton’s medical history is of prime concern, but it isn’t the only concern; the media and the fans immediately wonder whether Walton and starting center Robert Parish can coexist.

Walton battles Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

“Meeting with Robert Parish was the very first thing that I did when I arrived in Boston,” Walton explains. “When I got off of the airplane, M. L. Carr was there to pick me up. M. L. wasn’t going to be on the team that season because he’d transitioned to something else, but he was still part of the Celtic family. We hadn’t left the airport yet. I said, ‘M. L., take me over to Chief’s house, I’ve got to talk to him.’

“I went over to his house, and I looked at him, and I said, ‘Robert, I just want you to know that I’m only here to help you. I’m not here to take anything from you. I’m here to add to what you’ve already done, to what you’re currently doing, and to what you are going to do.’ I’m a team guy. That’s what I’m all about. I needed Robert to hear that come from me personally because that’s the way a team is supposed to work. And Robert could not have been nicer. It was so fun to play with him. I love that guy so much.”

Once training camp starts, a healthy and reinvigorated Bill Walton falls in love with his sport all over again.

“I had played against Robert Parish, and I knew he was excellent. I had played against Dennis Johnson, and I knew that he was fantastic. I didn’t know how good Larry Bird and Kevin McHale truly were. Larry was the best player that I ever played with. Kevin was the second greatest low-post player that I ever played against, after Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. It was just so much fun. I’m sitting here today, 30-plus years later, and I’ve got this big, giant grin on my face thinking about how fun it was to get up every day, and to go and spend the day with those guys. It was that way with everybody on the team. Danny Ainge—who should be in the Hall of Fame: Scott Wedman, Jerry Sichting, Rick Carlisle, Greg Kite, Sam Vincent, David Thirdkill . . . KC Jones and the assistant coaches, Chris Ford, Jimmy Rodgers, and Ray Melchiorre. It was an incredible experience. It was better than perfect.”

Mutual Admiration Society: Bill Walton and Larry Bird celebrate, while Kevin McHale looks on.

For the first time in his career, Walton doesn’t feel the burden of carrying a team on his shoulders. In Boston, he can simply fit in.

“It was a championship team before I ever got there,” he says. “I was just lucky to be in a Celtics uniform. My job was to remind the guys of what the schedule was [laughs]. KC Jones would put a variety of combinations out there. Sometimes he would have Larry, Kevin, and Chief on the court doing their thing. And then it might be Larry, Kevin, and me…or Robert, Kevin, and me. He also had Scott Wedman, who was a fantastic talent coming off the bench. Everybody could do everything, including think. There were a lot of interchangeable parts.”

In Portland, Walton becomes famous for riding that bike to games. In Boston, he relies on another mode of transportation.

“I hate traffic, and I hate to wait,” he says. “The T was the fastest way to get to the games; I remember riding the Red Line and the Green Line to get to the Boston Garden because the traffic was just so awful. The fans would be rocking the cars, just like they did in the Garden, with chants of ‘Here we go Celtics, here we go!’ And then you’d get there, and the fans were so fired up. They were the best fans in the world. People would buy tickets just to be in the arena, even though they could even see the game. I don’t know how many people actually bought tickets because if you knew anybody, you could get in for free. They had that backdoor on the Causeway Street entrance, where some guy was just standing there waving people through. It was just so fun, it was a dream come true. The world as it could be and as it should be. What could be better than that?”

The most famous Dead Head in the world wastes little time evangelizing his favorite group to his new teammates.

Standing Tall: Bill Walton attends a Grateful Dead show at the Greek Theatre in 1985 – photo courtesy Susana Millman

“When I came to Boston, my love for the Grateful Dead was well-known,” Walton says. “Larry and Kevin came up and asked me if they could go to the show, because they’d never been and didn’t know any of the songs. And my reaction was one of immediate excitement. I was like, ‘Yeah, okay, let’s go!’ And so we put together a road trip, and we all went—well, everybody except for Danny Ainge because his wife wouldn’t let him go with us [laughs]. It was a fantastic time! When the show was over, they looked at me with the Kaleidoscope eyes of somebody who’s just seen something for the very first time. I don’t know that they ever embraced the Grateful Dead. I can’t speak for them. But afterward, they said, ‘Wow! Can we come back tomorrow?’ So we went back again the next night.”

With Walton finally healthy and Bird at the top of his game, the Celtics roll to a 67–15 record, best in the NBA. The players are alike in many ways—consummate teammates, brilliant passers, intense competitors. The friendship that develops is immediate.

Spending time with Larry Bird is like being on a tropical island,” Walton says. “There is so much heat, and so much life, and everything is happening at warp speed. I don’t know if you have ever been to Maui, but you can sit there in a chair and see the plants get bigger because everything is happening at such an extreme level. That’s what life with Larry Bird was like. There was so much fun, and so many things going on. I’m the luckiest guy in the world to have been a part of that.”

The connection with Robert Parish is equally rich.

Dave Cowens, Robert Parish, and Bill Walton

“I love Robert Parish. Away from the spotlight, Robert is very funny. That’s the way that he is. On the bus rides, in the locker room, in the hotels, in the airports . . . he was just so much fun. Imagine the honor that I had when Chief went into the Hall of Fame, and he called me up and said, ‘Bill, would you be my presenter?’ Are you kidding me? I am the luckiest guy on earth. Playing behind Robert Parish, that is akin to following a Brinks truck down a bumpy road and they forgot to close the back door.”

Walton anchors the second unit, and the Celtics roll to the ’86 NBA championship. For a student of the game, following in the footsteps of the great Bill Russell is the ultimate “pinch me” moment.

Bill Russell became my favorite player ever, on and off the court. The way he always carried himself epitomized everything that I wanted to be. The way he stands up for a better world. To see someone like Russell stand up to the nonsense, to the indignities, to the injustices . . . he’s a beacon of hope, he’s a shining star. He’s who I aspire to be, knowing full well that I could only hope to be but a tiny fraction of the towering pillar of humanity that he has always been. Bill Russell is a towering giant in a world of shriveling midgets.

“There is this incredible moment in Bill Russell’s last game,” Walton begins. “It’s Game 7 of the 1969 NBA Finals, and the Celtics are playing the Lakers in Los Angeles. The game’s on national TV, the Celtics are huge underdogs, it’s being played in the Forum. Jack Twyman, who is one of the announcers, goes into the Celtics’ locker room before the game. Russell is sitting there. He’s got this scowl on his face, and he’s ready to go. Sam Jones has already shown him the letter that Jack Kent Cooke wrote to all of the Laker season ticket holders, about how the championship would be celebrated at the end of the game. Russell has also heard about the purple and gold balloons suspended in the rafters and how the Lakers will be releasing them when the final horn sounds. He knows about the champagne chilled in the Lakers’ locker room. Jack Twyman says to Bill Russell on camera, ‘What’s going to happen tonight, Russ?’ Russell just glares at Jack, and he says simply, ‘We’re going to win.’ Jack is taken aback, and he asks how he knows that the Celtics are going to win. Russell looks at him and says, ‘Because we’ve done this before.’ I was so pumped up when I heard him say that. I was sitting there, watching Russell on TV, and I was like, ‘Yeah! Let’s go!’ And we all know what happened. Russell played the entire 48 minutes and walked into the sunset a champion.”

Steer the conversation in any direction, and all roads eventually lead back to the Grateful Dead. Walton has jammed with the Dead, toured with them, and seen more of their concerts than just about anyone. He’s so close to the band that they often stay at his home, rather than a hotel, when visiting San Diego. He even met his wife, Lori, through friends of the band.

“She’s a fan of the Grateful Dead, and she went to UCLA, which were two very important attributes,” he says, laughing.

Walton, who keeps count of his concert tally, certainly doesn’t see himself scaling back anytime soon.

Still standing: Walton attends another Grateful Dead concert, one of 889 shows (and counting) that he’s seen since the ’70s

“I didn’t count the first 12 years that I went to Grateful Dead concerts—nobody ever thought of counting back then, we just went all of the time. It was during the late ’70s or early ’80s that I started to count my concerts. Today the count is 889, but it’s not important how many. It’s important that we were there, that we are there now, and that we hope to be there tomorrow. I used to care where they played and what they played, now the only thing that I care about is that they play at all, and how they play. I want more shows.”

Walton sees endless parallels between basketball and the Grateful Dead and moves seamlessly between his two favorite subjects.

“From the very beginning with the Grateful Dead, I looked up on that stage and shouted from the top of the highest mountain, ‘I am with those guys!’ From the earliest days listening to Chick Hearn, I said the same thing about the Boston Celtics: ‘I’m with those guys!’ I’m with Red Auerbach. I’m with KC Jones. I’m with Bill Russell. I’m with John Havlicek. And then the ’70s came, and the love affair never stopped, because then I’m with Dave Cowens. I’m with Jo Jo White. I’m with Paul Westphal. I’m with Paul Silas. I’m with Don Nelson. And then I’m traded to Boston, and my dream comes true. I’m with Larry, Kevin, Robert, DJ, Danny, Rick, Scotty, Jerry, and all of the guys. I’m with those guys.”

Winners of 15 world championships before he arrives, ‘those guys’ now includes this guy, the oft-injured redhead who resurrects his career in a Boston Celtics uniform.

“I was drawn to those great Celtics teams by the way that they played,” Walton says. “Those great teams in the ’60s were so fast, and the ball never seemed to touch the floor. You had Sam Jones with his patented bank shot, KC Jones with the great defensive steal leading to transition offense. You had Bill Russell blocking a shot or grabbing a rebound to ignite the fast break. You had Tommy Heinsohn with the running hook shot, John Havlicek doing everything imaginable on earth and never getting tired. And then you had Dave Cowens, who was so fabulous in the early ’70s and who was just so fun to watch. And then later you had Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Robert Parish, and DJ doing their thing . . . To be an admirer of that tradition, and then to be a part of it, you couldn’t possibly hope for anything else.”

Unfortunately, Walton’s injury woes return. He plays in a career-high 80 regular season games during the championship run but appears in only 10 during the 1986–87 season. He’s on the bench when Larry Bird makes his famous steal during Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals, and he retires shortly after the Celtics fall to the Lakers in the ’87 NBA Finals.

Mission Accomplished: Bill Walton is interviewed following the Celtics’ 1986 NBA Championship

“Being part of a band is the same as being a part of a team,” Walton says. “That spirit of, ‘Yeah, we’re going to get this done,’ or ‘Let’s go, we’ve got a show to put on,’ or ‘We’ve got a game to play.’ It all translates into the same thing: ‘We get to go do this today, and we get to go do it together.’ The teamwork, creativity, improvisation, and imagination that goes into being a great musician also goes into being a great basketball player. Those are the things that I knew I was going to miss when I decided it was time to retire from basketball.”

Walton has long ago accepted his lot in life.

“My story is one of a meteoric rise to the top, and then immediately followed by catastrophic orthopedic health problems. I’m the most injured player ever. I missed more than nine full seasons of my 14-year NBA career. I could never sustain. I’m on Bill Walton 17 right now.

“I wanted to be the best, but my body would not carry me where I needed to go or where I wanted to go. I spent half of my adult life in the hospital, endured 37 operations, and never achieved the ultimate dream of being the best. I’ve learned to appreciate the things that I’ve accomplished, like being a part of two of the greatest basketball teams in the world, the Bruins and the Celtics. It doesn’t get much better than that.”

One thing is clear: Bill Walton 17 is happy to be back.

“When you are old like I am, the driving emotions in your life are pride, loyalty, and gratitude. Pride: The satisfaction with your choices. Loyalty: Do we care, and is this worth it? Gratitude: The appreciation and the respect and the acknowledgment of the sacrifice that has gone for you to create what we have today.”

Walton pauses. His smile releases a row of perfect teeth, thoughts of suicide nowhere to be found.

“I try to learn from the past, dream and hope for a better tomorrow, and live for today. Today is what I can go for, and that sense of going for it is what excites and motivates me. There’s a song by the Grateful Dead, called Saint of Circumstance. Listening to it reminds me that when you have dreams, and then the dreams come true, and then the reality is better than a dream, there’s nothing like that in life. That’s happened a lot in my life. The Boston Celtics are such a big part of who I am, and a big part of the life that I have today.”

Written By: Michael D. McClellan | Stephanie Peterson has arrived, and in more ways than one. The model, represented by the prestigious Wilhelmina modeling agency, has splashed down in Miami for Swim Week 2019, the annual 6-day event that showcases the latest in swim and resort wear. Jam-packed with runway shows, trade shows, pop-up shops, and pageants at select venues throughout Miami, Swim Week is the Super Bowl of aquatic fashion, drawing designers and models from around the globe, creating a swimwear tour de force unmatched in the industry.  Peterson, from Brainerd, Minnesota, brings a unique blend of radiance, mystery and allure to both the runway and her photo shoots, turning designer swimwear into pieces of art that draw the eye and tug at the heart as if inspired by the brush of French master Henri Matisse.  There’s also a hint of danger involved when soaking in Stephanie Peterson at work: Stare too long and risk getting lost in some Inception­-like dreamscape where time seems to stand still; dare look away and risk a case of whiplash, the gravitational pull of her beauty impossible to escape.

Spend any time at all with Peterson and you realize that, as beautiful as she is, her real super power lies within. Friendly and funny, she places great value in relationships – her family, her friends, associates in the modeling community – and she is quick to give credit where credit is due, from those at Wilhelmina who protect her image and lovingly guide her career, to the photographers who transform Peterson from Upper Midwest beauty to Instagram goddess.  Peterson also eschews the superficial in favor of good, old-fashioned substance, drawing strength on the positive energy of others and then paying it back with interest.

“I enjoy the company of genuine, kind people,” she says without the slightest hesitation. “It’s important to surround yourself with people who focus on the positive, even when faced with trying times or difficult circumstances.  Optimism is the only way to go.”

Minnesotan Stephanie Peterson at work, Miami Beach, Florida

Swim Week is the premier event in the world for the swimwear industry, and the resulting images an important part of any model’s book. Peterson thrives on the energy as easily as she soaks up the South Beach sun.

“There’s not another event like it,” she says. “It truly is the epicenter of swimwear-related fashion. It’s a great opportunity network, reconnect, and grow your brand as a model. It’s a whirlwind week.”

While modeling keeps Peterson on the go, she balances a hectic business schedule with an uncomplicated approach to her personal life.  She’s just as apt to lounge in comfy clothes like the rest of us, throwing on her favorite sweatpants and sweatshirt and curling up with a good book.  Her approach to diet and exercise is also refreshingly straightforward, as is her hair and makeup routines. And while she emotes a smoldering, high-fashion vibe in front of the camera, she is equally quick with a smile away from it.

“I’m a pretty chill person,” Peterson says. “Modeling keeps me busy, so I like to keep things as simple as possible, whenever possible. It’s all about being balanced.”

Let’s talk about Miami Swim Week 2019!

Swim Week starts on Monday with the castings, and then I believe the shows start on Thursday. It’s a jam-packed experience. You have castings, fittings, and fit-to-confirms that run through much of the week, and even on Saturday for some shows. The clients can also request certain models directly. There’s never a dull moment!

It sounds like a lot of work, but in a good way.

Very much so!  We are basically running all over South Beach in Miami all week, so you really don’t have a reason to complain. It’s like a big reunion, honestly, if you’ve worked in the Miami market. Girls fly in from Los Angeles and New York, while some are flying in from Europe and Australia. You get to see a lot of familiar faces and renew friendships with people you haven’t seen in a while. It’s very busy, and it’s also stressful at times, but it’s super fun, too. Everyone just wants to have a good time. Swim Week is a great experience.

Stephanie Peterson – Swim Week 2019

Are you ready?

I’m doing a lot of castings, and I have a few fit-to-confirms scheduled. I’m also walking in a few shows, so there is a lot of preparation involved.  There’s also a lot of networking that goes on during the week as well, which is almost equally important in terms of building your career.  This is my second Swim Week – last year was my first – so I know what to expect a little bit better now.  I’m very excited and ready for the week to start!

Please take me back to the beginning – how did you get your start in modeling?

I grew up in Brainerd, Minnesota. A lot of people back home encouraged me to get into modeling, but I wasn’t convinced that I wanted a modeling career at that time. I went to college with aspirations to be a doctor instead, but, after completing my first year of school, I realized that chemistry really wasn’t my thing. That’s when I took some time to reassess my goals and decided that I would look into the modeling thing.

How long before you realized you were on the right career path?

That summer, actually. Too Faced Cosmetics and Wilhelmina were conducting a model search as part of the Too Faced 20th-Anniversary Celebration Campaign. I knew that Too Faced was a super big player in the cosmetics market, and my friends were encouraging me to apply, so that’s how it all came together. I entered the competition not really expecting anything from it, but I made the Top 10 and ended up getting flown out to Los Angeles with nine other girls. I didn’t win the competition, but Wilhelmina signed me apart from the competitions being conducted in New York, Miami, and Los Angeles. That was a magical feeling, because all I ever wanted to do was to get a modeling contract.

Stephanie Peterson

Wilhelmina Models is one of the premiere modeling and talent agencies in the world  What’s it like to be part of the Wilhelmina family?

Being in the modeling business is pretty intense, but my agents are amazing people who’ve made the process very smooth for me. They are like my family, honestly. I’ve only worked in the Miami and L.A. markets, so I haven’t met the agents in New York yet, but I’m super-stoked to get up there and meet them soon.

For me, Wilhelmina is the perfect fit because everyone has been so sweet and they are genuinely good people. It’s unique in that respect. I feel like, in this industry, it is very hard to find agents that care about you as a person, and the agents at Wilhelmina really mother you in a big way. They develop you, they care about you, and they want the best for you, so I feel very fortunate to be with Wilhelmina. They have been absolutely amazing.

I’ve heard that not all agencies subscribe to that same culture.

When I was in high school I dabbled in modeling a little bit, and was briefly engaged with an agency based in New York. It was primarily a men’s agency at the time, but they were trying to get their women’s ward up and going. I remember meeting with them…they were talking about all of these wonderful clients that they had, which was true because they did have good clients, and their girls were working. It looked very promising, but, before I went to New York, they said they weren’t going to market me to clients until I lost ten pounds. I was already pretty slim at the time, so it was an eye-opener for me in terms of the modeling industry. I learned very quickly that there are agencies that don’t really care about your well-being, that don’t want you to be healthy, that don’t really want the best for you. At that point I decided that I wasn’t going to sacrifice my own health for this industry. And with Wilhelmina, I’ve never had problems when it comes to stuff like that. I feel very fortunate to be a part of the Wilhelmina family.

Let’s talk healthy lifestyle.  Please tell me a little about your diet.

I really love food, and I try to be health conscious about it, so my diet secret is that I basically do everything in moderation. My mom taught me that growing up. She stressed that you can’t be too restrictive in your diet, otherwise it just leads to unhealthier habits elsewhere, so from an early age I’ve eaten what I’ve wanted, as long as I do so in moderation. I don’t really consume a lot of dairy products, and I don’t consume a lot of meat products, just because it’s not the best for me.

Stephanie Peterson

What about your exercise regimen?

As far as working out, I like a little bit of everything.  I like to switch it up, otherwise I get bored. I do a lot of Pilates and weightlifting, and that’s what I’ve really found that transforms my body. And I also like to walk everywhere, just to get some miles in.

How important is water to your beauty regimen?  And what about sleep?

Water is super important, although I must admit that I’m not the best at drinking a lot of it. But for skin and over all energy levels, and just flushing out toxins, staying hydrated is a vital part of a healthy lifestyle, and not just as it relates to beauty. I sleep all of the time, so I don’t have a shortage on that [laughs].

Are you a wine drinker?

Yes, I love a good rosé wine. I’m not big on red wine, because it ends up giving me a headache.

What is your definition of beauty?

I think that beauty is the love that comes from within a person. To me, it’s all about the positive energy that they have, and how magnifying they are because of it, so it doesn’t really matter what someone looks like. I don’t judge people on external beauty when it comes to making friends. I’m able to admire external beauty, but internal beauty is 100% way more important to me. It’s all about how someone makes you feel. Are they a good friend? Do they give you something that makes you want to keep coming back? Can they change the mood in a good way, just by walking into the room? I think that’s what makes someone truly beautiful.

I recently interviewed Pharrell Williams, who has his own unique fashion sense.  How has your style evolved over the years, and what are you wearing in 2019?

My style in 2019 is pretty much comfort-based. I’m not super into designer labels or anything like that. My style actually leans more to the boho side, but I like to switch it up for sure, it just depends on my mood that day and how I like to look. I’m like a lot of other models you might see but not recognize on the street, because I’m not wearing designer labels when I walk past you – I’m wearing sweatpants and a sweatshirt [laughs].

Stephanie Peterson

Your hair is always beautiful, and is shot in so many different and interesting styles.  What’s your secret to great hair care, and what’s your go-to style when you hit the town?

For hair care, I’m pretty simple. I use Herbal Essence because I think it smells the best and it works really well with my hair. I always use a hair oil after I shower, so I use Kérastase or anything by IGK. I always wear my hair curled if I’m going out. I discovered a really cool way that the makeup artists and hairstylists do my hair, and I’ve tried to copy them.

Makeup is a big part of any female model’s utility belt.  What are your makeup dos and don’ts, and do you have any makeup advice for other aspiring models?

My makeup don’t is non-negotiable: Don’t underline the eyes in black eyeliner. I absolutely avoid that at all costs. To me it’s not a good look. When makeup artists do that to me, I’m like, “Oh my gosh, you just made me so ugly [laughs].”

To me, a do is to always have fresh, glowing skin. I think the skin 100% makes or breaks the look. And so, for aspiring models, I think that figuring out what is best for your skin and your facial type is so important. And to me, less is more. When you go in to see an agency, they don’t want to see you caked up with makeup. They want to see you and what they can do with you.

Your Instagram feed is amazing.  How hard is it to get the right shot, and how much of it depends on the photographer that you’re working with?

Honestly, the photographer is everything. It’s important to note that they can really make or break the shoot. They know the best angles, how to work with the background, how to leverage the lighting, things like that. Post-editing is critical. If they are not good at that, it can definitely ruin the images. I’ve seen some images, and I was like, “Oh my God, I’m the ugliest human alive.” And others make me feel like a goddess. There’s a crazy range out there, and the quality varies from photographer to photographer.  You quickly learn the ones you can trust on a shoot, and you try to work with them every chance you get.

Stephanie Peterson

Have you ever felt self-conscious in front of a camera?

Absolutely. Especially if my skin isn’t doing the best, or if I had maybe too much risotto that week then yeah, I do get self-conscious.

Do you ever get nervous when you walk the runway?

I do get butterflies. It’s a little bit nerve-racking right before you go out, but everyone is feeling the same energy. You are mostly stoked and you’re thinking, “Don’t trip out there, just work it.” The runways are usually pretty short, so you get in, you get out, and when it’s over you realize that that it wasn’t so bad. The rush you feel is incredible, because when you first walk out there because everyone is looking at you. If you let your eyes drift to the audience you’ll see some people smiling, or some sitting straight-faced, or whatever the case may be, but all eyes are on you in that moment. It’s a really cool feeling. It’s hard for me not to smile when I’m going down the runway.

Which are your favorite brands of swimwear, and why?

Luli Fama. I’d worked with them a few times, and although I had never purchased their swimwear, whenever I was shooting it I’d fall in love with the brand. You get to try on something like twenty pieces of swimwear for a shoot, so you really get the feel for how they fit, as well as the styles and the colors. Luli Fama just fits so well with my body. The quality is amazing, the prints are beautiful. I love Luli Fama.

You’re part of the first generation of models for whom social media is a key part of the job. Could you ever imagine a career in fashion without social media?

I really can’t imagine having a career without social media. When I starting modeling, everyone was providing the same advice – work on building my Instagram presence. At the time I had about 4,000 followers, and I didn’t really know what to do. There was a lot pressure to grow my base, but I’ve been able to do that and it’s created a lot of opportunities for me as well.

In what ways can social help or hurt a modeling career?

I’d say you definitely have to be really careful about what you say on social media, because, even if you mean it to be completely innocent, it can be misconstrued and turned into something that can be really harmful to your career. Because people interpret things a lot of different ways, I’m always really very careful about what I say. I always try to send out a positive, uplifting message, and I don’t really get into anything that could be too opinionated, just because I don’t think my opinions are part of my career at this point. I don’t really have the platform to truly speak out yet.

Does Wilhelmina help you navigate the social media world?

Yes, Wilhelmina guides me a lot in terms of my social media. I might post a caption that may be too personal, and if it’s work-related they might advise me to take it down. I’m cautious not to go too deep into my own personal life, but it’s hard to find the balance between wanting to show people that I’m a real person and just showing them my book.  Wilhelmina provides me with a lot of guidance in this arena. I respect them and I trust them.

Modeling seems to foster both close bonds and intense competition among those in the profession.  Is this an accurate assessment?

Yeah, I would say that’s pretty accurate, I’ve only really bonded with some of the best girls, and you can definitely pick up on the energy of other models. I think that the only reason you would feel super competitive against someone is if it comes from within, and you feel that there’s something missing. That’s not how I approach it. For me, I’ve developed a mindset that there are plenty of jobs out there, and that there is a job for every single girl. That thought of abundance helps keep me grounded and keeps me from becoming insecure. That’s why I really don’t feel like that the other girls are my competition. I see them as my friends. We’ve gone through the same things, and they understand my life better than anybody ever could. So you really develop a special bond with them. With that said, the industry as a whole is definitely competitive. I just try to tune that out.

Every model is different in their ability to project certain feelings or emotions. How would you compare and contrast yourself with someone like Australian model Natalie Roser?

I’ve met Natalie in person, and she projects super good vibes. She’s smiling all of the time, and she’s always super happy, and I think that comes across a lot in her images. By contrast, I’m someone who is very laid back, very chill. I know how to have a good time, but I wouldn’t say that I’m stoked all of the time. I’d rather do more high-fashion shots where I’m not really smiling, and that comes across a lot easier for me in the images that I shoot. Emotion is hard to get on camera. If you have the right photographer, the right team, and you are in the right heads pace, then you can really capture the mood.

What do you like to do for fun?

I’m into reading and writing, but I’m super outdoorsy since I grew up in Minnesota. I love the ocean, and just being out on the water – boating, swimming, and snorkeling.

Stephanie Peterson

What are your secrets to healthy skin?

That’s hard. It took me a while to figure out what works for me, and I think that that’s what everyone deals with. I’ve found that the Jan Marini skin care system works the best for me, but it’s hard being a girl because your hormones are always changing, and I’m dealing with hormonal breakouts right now. So I think drinking a lot of water, having a balanced diet, and taking care of your skin the way you feel best about it is so important.

What’s the one quality that matters most to Stephanie Peterson?

Kindness. It’s all about the energy that someone has – how kind they are, how they treat people, how they respond to situations of stress or negativity. I really admire that quality and I look for it in my friends and my relationships. It helps determine who I want in my life.