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Super Mario had speed to burn

Wednesday, November 19, 2003
Andretti's only Indy 500 win came in 1969
By Nick Acocella
Special to

Signature Race
May 30, 1969 - In his fifth attempt, Mario Andretti finally won the Indy 500. And he did it in a backup car!

Ten days earlier, Andretti had wrecked his Lotus-Ford in a practice run. Andretti, chief mechanic Clint Brawner and the rest of owner Andy Granatelli's team worked around the clock to prepare the backup vehicle, a Hawk-Ford.

In today's race, Andretti, starting from the No. 2 position, sailed past pole sitter A.J. Foyt on the first turn to take the lead, a spot he held for 116 of the 200 laps. Victory was virtually assured when his strongest challengers -- Lloyd Ruby (after 105 laps), Roger McCluskey (157) and Foyt (181) -- all were forced to drop out.

Andretti's biggest concern came on the No. 2 turn of the 150th lap when he got caught in the draft of another car, turned sideways, and almost hit the wall. However, he straightened out in time and, running at a record average of 156.867 miles per hour, cruised to victory by two laps over Dan Gurney. The only reason Andretti didn't finish even farther ahead was that his car had a tendency to overheat and therefore consumed inordinate quantities of gas, so he had to slow down several times.

This would be Andretti's only Indy 500 victory in 29 attempts.

Odds 'n' Ends

  • Despite its Italian cultural heritage, Montona, where Andretti was born, and the rest of the Istrian Peninsula became part of Yugoslavia after World War II. Montona was renamed Montovun.

  • Andretti remembers seeing a movie about racing, "To Please a Lady," with his twin brother Aldo and being impressed by how debonair Clark Gable was. But his boyhood hero was Alberto Ascari, an Italian driver.

  • In 1959, four years after coming to America, Andretti completed his high school degree through a correspondence course and planned to become a welder.

  • But that same year, the 19-year-old Andretti falsified a drivers license so he could pass for 21 and enter an amateur motor race.

  • It took years for Mario and Aldo's father Gigi to find out they were engaged in amateur racing because he understood little English and couldn't read the local newspapers.

  • Gigi, who disapproved of racing, found out only because Aldo was in a serious accident in 1959; afterwards, their father refused to attend either of his sons' races until 1964.

  • In 1961, Andretti joined the United Racing Club and raced sprint cars on the eastern circuit until mid-1962.

  • In 1963, as a member of the American Race Drivers Club, he drove midgets up and down the East Coast.

  • He caught the eye of Clint Brawner, chief mechanic and car designer for racing enthusiast and sponsor Al Dean of Dean Van Lines, who provided Andretti's first professional support.

  • By 1964 he was a member of the U.S. Auto Club and racing in top competition.

  • Andretti became a U.S. citizen in 1964.

  • During a practice lap before the qualifying sessions for the 1977 Indy 500, Andretti became the first driver to top 200 miles per hour at Indianapolis.

  • Andretti remained relatively injury-free during his long career: His worst injuries were a separated shoulder in 1985 and foot injuries at Indianapolis in 1992.

  • Also in that 1992 race, Mario's son Jeff suffered severe injuries to both feet, legs and ankle. He was in rehabilitation for three months before he could walk again.

  • An animal lover, Mario has kept exotic birds, but his most famous pet was a pig named Martini.

  • Andretti married his hometown sweetheart, Dee Ann Hoch, who had tutored him in English, in 1961. They have three children -- racing car drivers Michael and Jeff and daughter Barbra Dee.

  • Like their father, both Michael and Jeff were Indy 500 Rookies of the Year -- Michael in 1984 (along with Roberto Guerrero) and Jeff in 1991.

  • As a child, Barbra Dee drove dirt bikes but settled on a less dangerous career as singer and songwriter.

  • The birth of his first grandchild in 1987 and the death of Dee Ann's parents in 1988 mellowed Andretti and led him to reassess his need for fierce competition.

  • In 1996 he climbed back in a racing car to star in the IMAX film Super Speedway.

  • Andretti says the last time he got a speeding ticket was in 1968.

  • Andretti's retirement is unlike that of most celebrities. He still lives just north of his hometown of Nazareth, Pa., he still plays video poker at the Holy Name Parish Hall and he still eats at the local diner.

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