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Mario Andretti on IndyCar 2016: “It’s better than I’ve felt in years”

Valvoline 200

Mario Andretti of the United States makes a pit stop in the #6 Newman Haas Racing Lola T93/06 Ford XB Cosworth during the PPG CART Indy Car World Series Valvoline 200 on 4th April 1993 at the Phoenix International Raceway in Avondale, Arizona, United States. (Photo by Pascal Rondeau/Getty Images)

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Yesterday, Mario Andretti turned 76.

Of course, age is just a number for one of North America’s greatest ever racing drivers, who remains one of this sport’s living legends and continual true ambassadors.

And, considering he’s seen so many seasons of IndyCar racing, over more than 50 years dating back to 1964 and then to his memorable rookie test at Indianapolis in 1965 taking over for a one Roger Penske, for him to be pretty optimistic about the 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series season speaks volumes.

Andretti joined son and Andretti Autosport team owner/CEO Michael Andretti and grandson and driver Marco Andretti at this week’s Test in the West at Phoenix International Raceway, not just observing but also driving one of the two-seater IndyCars.

He seems to like the direction the series is going, and some of the recent management changes made by the INDYCAR organization.

“I’m very happy with what I’m seeing right now. It’s been a long time coming,” Andretti told NBC Sports in an interview during the test.

“The staff that’s in place right now is really good, in my opinion. It’s experienced, and I see a lot of common sense. I think we’ll be great.

“Going into this season this year, it’s better than I’ve felt in years. That’s my personal opinion. You know I’ve been very critical in the past. But good things are happening.”

Just in the last two weeks, INDYCAR has hired Bill Pappas as Vice President of Competition, Race Engineering, and confirmed the three-person steward group of Chief Steward Dan Davis and additional Stewards Max Papis and Arie Luyendyk. Jay Frye has also been promoted to President of Competition and Operations this offseason.

The “critical” line Andretti refers to may be an indirect reference to his well-reasoned and memorable critique of Hulman & Co. CEO Mark Miles, with the shortening of the IndyCar season.

In speaking to Andretti at the 2013 United States Grand Prix in Austin, Andretti told me then that the decision to shorten the 2014 season from ending in mid-October to early August was “not plausible.”

Two years later, Andretti’s been proven correct, and with paddock consensus generally agreeing with the point, the 2016 season will end in mid-September instead. Granted, TV ratings have gone up, but the tradeoff was the condensed calendar.

The schedule’s also more spread out this year so it isn’t necessarily a week-to-week thrash, as it was last year from before NOLA Motorsports Park in April through Toronto in June.

Andretti is also particularly keen on the return to Phoenix, where he won his 52nd and last race of his career in 1993 (pictured above).

“It’s huge for the series, because these are some of the venues that have been such a part of the series for so many years,” Andretti explained.

“Phoenix was so good for us. It was so good for IndyCar. It’s too bad we missed it for 10 years or more.

“But to be back is wonderful; we belong here.”

Follow @TonyDiZinno