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Andretti's only Indy 500 win came in 1969

Chat wrap: Mario Andretti

Super Mario had speed to burn
By Larry Schwartz
Special to

"I remember somebody said at the time [late sixties], he's the hottest driver out of Italy since Ben Hur. And he drove like Ben Hur drove a chariot, too. It was always full bore with Mario. Pedal to the medal and, and go, go, go," says newspaper columnist Bill Lyon on ESPN Classic's SportsCentury series.

Vroom! That sound you hear is Mario Andretti speeding around the track. Whether it was Indy, Formula One, Formula 5000 or Sprint cars, he proved himself a winner at all levels of competition.

Mario Andretti
Mario Andretti is the only person to be named Driver of the Year in three decades - 1967, 1978 and 1984.
Let's look at Andretti's record:

  • Only driver to win the Daytona 500, Indy 500 and Formula One world title.

  • Only person to be named Driver of the Year in three decades - 1967, 1978 and 1984.

  • Four-time Indy car national champion.

  • One of only three drivers to win races on paved ovals, road courses and dirt tracks in one season, a feat he accomplished four times.

  • At 53, he set the then-world closed-course speed record of 234.275 mph in qualifying at the Michigan International Speedway in 1993.

  • With his 52nd (and final) Indy car victory (also his 100th major career victory) at the Phoenix 200 in April 1993, Andretti became the first driver to win Indy car races in four decades and the first to win races in five decades.

    Mario and his twin brother Aldo were born on Feb. 28, 1940 in the tiny village of Montona, on the Istrian Peninsula on the northeastern tip of Italy. Their mother Rina said that when they were two, they would take pot lids out of the cupboards and run around the kitchen, going "Vroom, vroom," like they were driving cars. And they'd never seen cars before.

    "I don't remember as a kid wanting to do or be anything else but drive something, be a race driver," Andretti said.

    When World War II ended, the borders were in dispute, and the Istrian Peninsula fell under Communist rule, swallowed up by Yugoslavia. Essentially, the Andrettis lost everything, and in 1948, when the Tito regime of Yugoslavia allowed residents of Italian heritage to leave Istria, the family of five (there also was an older daughter, Annamaria) moved to a displaced persons camp in Lucca, about 45 miles from Florence.

    It was here that Andretti's interest in racing, the most popular sport in Italy in the 1950s, blossomed. He was not yet a teenager when the bug hit him as he read racing magazines and was fascinated by film clips of Formula One racing that were shown during movie intermissions.

    Granted a U.S. States visa, the Andrettis began their new lives in the U.S. in June 1955. Settling in Nazareth, Pa., the family had $125 and didn't speak English. To the surprise of the twins, Nazareth was home to a half-mile dirt track. Soon the boys found work in their uncle's garage and poured their earnings into fixing up a car.

    In 1959, they began racing a 1948 Hudson Hornet Sportsman. They took turns behind the wheel, and in the first four stock-car races, each won twice. In the season's last race, Aldo, the wilder on the twins, crashed, fracturing his skull and going into a coma. Though he recovered and returned to competition a year later, his career failed to take off. He retired in 1969 after another crash, when he smashed into a fence and suffered 14 fractures in his facial bones.

    Meanwhile, Mario's career flourished from the start, as he won 21 of 46 races in the modified stock class in 1960 and 1961. His first Indy car appearance came in 1964. A year later, he won his first Indy car race (the Hoosier Grand Prix), earned Rookie of the Year honors at the Indy 500 (he finished third) and the first of his four Indy car championships.

    Andretti repeated as champion in 1966 before branching out to test his skill in other forms of racing. He won NASCAR's Daytona 500 in 1967, averaging 149.926 in his Ford.

    The next year, he entered the Formula One Grand Prix racing circuit, capturing the pole position in his very first race, the U.S. Grand Prix at Watkins Glen. However, he was forced out of the race early by clutch trouble. His first win on the Formula One circuit came in 1971 in South Africa.

    After finishing second in the Indy car championships in 1967 and 1968, he regained the title in 1969. He won nine races, including the Indy 500 when he averaged a then-record 156.867 mph in his STP Oil Treatment Special. But that would turn out to be Andretti's only win in 29 starts at Indy as, for the rest of his career, he was haunted by one frustration after another.

    "If anybody was ever unlucky at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, it was Mario," said two-time Indy 500 winner Gordon Johncock. "So many times Mario should have won the race and his car would break down."

    From 1966-69, Andretti won 29 of 85 Indy car starts. Then he sought to juggle Indy car, Formula One, Formula 5000 and Can-Am racing. While he didn't have much success in Indy cars (he won only three of 111 starts from 1970-82), he captured the USAC dirt track championship in 1974 plus several Formula 5000 races, finishing second in the Formula 5000 series in 1973 and 1974. He also won the grueling 12 Hours of Sebring endurance race three times (1967, 1970 and 1972).

    From 1975-81, he focused primarily on the Grand Prix circuit, winning 12 races and earning 16 pole positions. The highlight of his international career was in 1978 when he won six Formula One races and became the second American (Phil Hill was the first in 1961) to win the world championship.

    Andretti clinched the title at the Italian Grand Prix, but he suffered a dear loss that day when his close friend Ronnie Peterson died from injuries suffered in a crash.

    "It was so unfair to have a tragedy connected with probably what should have been the happiest day of my career," Andretti said. "I couldn't celebrate, but also, I knew that trophy would be with me forever. And I knew also that Ronnie would have been happy for me."

    Mario Andretti
    From 1966-69, Mario Andretti won 29 of 85 Indy car starts.
    Probably the most bizarre race in Andretti's career was the 1981 Indy 500. Bobby Unser beat him by eight seconds, but the following day Unser was penalized a lap for passing cars illegally under a yellow caution flag and Andretti was declared the winner. Unser and car-owner Roger Penske appealed the race stewards' decision. Four months later, the U.S. Auto Club's three-member panel overturned the ruling, saying the penalty was too harsh. It fined Unser $40,000 for violating pre-race instructions, but gave him back the victory.

    Andretti returned to Indy car racing fulltime in 1982 and two years later, the 5-foot-6 racing giant won his fourth championship, edging out runner-up Tom Sneva by 13 points. He captured the CART title by registering six victories and had nine poles in his 16 starts.

    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 nephew John, making it the first time four family members raced together in the same series.

    Andretti's farewell season, in 1994, was dubbed "The Arrivederci Tour." He ran the last of his record 407 Indy car races that September. His 52 Indy car victories are second to A.J. Foyt's 67 and his 67 pole positions remain tops.

    The winner of $11,552,154 in Indy car competition plus more than $1 million on other circuits, he is enshrined in four Halls of Fame -- the International Motorsports, the Motorsports of America, the Indianapolis 500 and the Sprint Car.

    Retirement from racing hasn't slowed down Andretti. His name is on a winery in Napa Valley, a car dealership, a chain of gas stations and a distributorship, a clothing line, a coffee-table book, car washes, go-kart tracks, car-care products, an IMAX movie, video games and replica cars. He also continues to make numerous speaking engagements before corporate audiences.

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