When Michael Andretti started taping the “Celebrity Apprentice” season last October, he did so on 24 hours’ notice.
He was a stand-in for his son, Marco, who the day before, Oct. 16, was involved in a 15-car crash at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway that claimed the life of 2011 Indy 500 winner Dan Wheldon.
Marco, 24, was too shaken to travel to New York, so his dad stepped in.
“I was thrown to the lions,” says Andretti, 49. “It was literally off the plane, put on a mic and ‘Here ya go!’ I didn’t even know what the task was.”
Fans won’t know how Andretti’s luck plays out until the U.S. television season starts, as secrecy is paramount, but from a conversation with the racing driver and IndyCar team owner, it’s clear that he survives the first episode, airing on Feb. 19. Other contestants in a cast of 18 include Clay Aiken, Cheryl Tiegs and Arsenio Hall.
I hope Andretti has better luck than in his decades of racing at Indianapolis. He has led more laps there than any driver who hasn’t won the race -- 431, or 1,078 miles. His family hasn’t fared much better. The great Mario Andretti, his father, won only once at Indy (1969) in 29 starts, and son Marco lost as a rookie in 2006 by 6 hundredths of a second to Sam Hornish Jr., one of the closest races in Indy 500 history.
Clash: What are “Celebrity Apprentice” tapings like?
Andretti: They did 14 episodes. The whole deal is around 30 days, one show every two days. It was draining. We filmed nine hours a day, nonstop, no breaks. We were here in New York, but we may as well have been on a remote island; we had no contact with anybody. I couldn’t even talk to my race team. We would all sit there, look at each other and say, “How stupid are we? We’re not even getting paid. And we’re really putting in the effort.” We wouldn’t do this much in our regular jobs (laughs).
Clash: How is Donald Trump to work with?
Andretti: He’s fine, but he’s all business. He’ll call it the way it is in the boardroom, and it’s hard to argue with what he says. It might tick you off, but it’s like, “He does have a point.”
Clash: How about his hair?
Andretti: It’s unique. I know it’s real. I saw the Barbara Walters interview. He’s just got a good comb-over thing going.
Clash: Which contestants did you get along best with?
Andretti: You watch personalities change as time goes on. Some are fakes, then the real stuff comes out. I didn’t go in with a facade, so what you see is what you get. Dee Snider (Twisted Sister), Penn (Jillette) from Penn & Teller and Arsenio (Hall) are all cool guys. Clay (Aiken) was good, but he had his own mission so you had to watch him. Lou Ferrigno to your face was nice, but he’d throw you under the bus in the boardroom.
Clash: Let’s talk racing. You’ve finished second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth in the Indy 500, but never won!
Andretti: I don’t have any ill-will toward Indianapolis. But you do scratch your head. Of all the tracks on the racing circuit, Indy is one that suits my style. I dominated so much there. Why couldn’t I get to the end (in front)? It just wasn’t meant to be. If that’s all I have to deal with, I’m blessed. I watched my dad lose friends. Me and dad, we are two lucky guys. Even though we were sometimes unlucky at the finish, we got through our careers safely. Dad maybe missed two races. I didn’t miss any. There’s some luck or something there.
Clash: When Wheldon was killed, how did it hit you?
Andretti: We had agreed right before Vegas -- a handshake deal -- that Dan would drive for us this year, replacing Danica (Patrick). We were to sign the contract after the race. So it was hard. That’s the cruel side of our sport. It’s there, and always will be. Anybody who thinks different is fooling themselves. At 220 miles per hour, when something goes wrong, don’t be surprised if something like that happens. It bothers me a little that everybody has sensationalized it. A guy like Dan would have been first to say, “Get your butts back in the seat. I knew what I was getting into.”
Clash: Your thoughts on Andretti Autosport losing Danica Patrick to Nascar?
‘We Wish Her Luck’
Andretti: Our team did a lot to help Danica. We got her her first win (at Motegi, Japan, in 2008), gave her credibility, made her competitive. When Nascar came along she lost focus, and her results showed it. We wish her luck.
I’m not going to get in the way of a driver wanting to do something else. There was life before Danica, and there’s life after.
I also think Danica’s effect on IndyCar has been played out. We’ve gained fans from her, but we won’t lose them all when she goes. Once you follow IndyCar, you follow not just Danica but the other guys too. So I don’t think it’s going to be as big a deal as everybody says. It’s just business.
Clash: Indy 500 champ Helio Castroneves won “Dancing With the Stars” in 2007. You interested in that show?
Andretti: I could never do what Helio did. I admire him, but there’s no freaking way. If “Dancing” comes knocking, it ain’t happening!
(James M. Clash writes on adventure for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own. This interview was adapted from a longer conversation.)