Mario Andretti's Daytona 500 win 50 years ago one for the ages

Mario Andretti was just 26 when he won the second Daytona 500 he had entered. Getty Images

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Mario Andretti may well be the most versatile driver the world has ever seen.

In a career that spanned 30 years at the top level, he was a force to be reckoned with wherever he raced. And he raced all over the world.

In 1967, Andretti competed in 45 races across nine categories. He scored 12 wins in Indy cars, stock cars and sprint cars, and he shared the winning Ford in the 12 Hours of Sebring with Bruce McLaren. He also ran midget and Can-Am races on the side.

But what Mario accomplished on Feb. 26, 1967, stands out. Two days short of his 27th birthday, the two-time defending USAC Indy car champion defeated NASCAR's best drivers in a straight fight to win the Daytona 500.

Even though he was a relative newcomer on a national (and increasingly international) level, Andretti already relished stepping out of his comfort zone to test himself against the best competition the world had to offer. He had already experienced incredible success in Indy cars, winning the USAC title as a rookie in 1965 and backing it up in much more dominant fashion a year later.

So he tested the waters outside of Indianapolis. He dreamed of Formula One, so he joined Ford's sports car program to hone his road-racing skills. The Ford connection also landed him in a Holman & Moody Fairlane for selected NASCAR races, starting with Daytona.

"I didn't just do it for the hell of it," Andretti recalled. "I did it to really challenge myself, and I was curious to see the feeling that different race cars gave you back. The bottom line is that I would be inspired by A.J. Foyt, by Dan Gurney, by people like that who would move around and do other things, and I loved my driving so much that I just wanted to be driving. I didn't look forward to a weekend off.

"I'd go from Argentina to DuQuion, Illinois, from Monza to the Hoosier Hundred," he marveled. "You know, from Formula One to a dirt car. How opposite is that? And I used to love that opportunity. I wouldn't trade that part of my career for anything, quite honestly."

Andretti wasn't a rookie at Daytona; he started the race in 1966 in a Chevrolet entered by Smokey Yunick, but crashed out after 31 laps. A Holman & Moody Ford was a much more competitive proposition, but Mario struggled to get up to speed in practice until he figured out that he had a sour engine that was down 400 rpm.

Equipped with a motor built by Waddell Wilson, Andretti was much more competitive in his qualifying race, leading laps before finishing sixth. He also made an important discovery: Having set his car up with a smaller than ideal spoiler to compensate for being down on power prior to qualifying, his car was extremely loose in race trim. But it was also really fast, as long as the No. 11 Ford was in the lead. He adopted an unusual line for Daytona, entering the turns on a high line, then diving down to the apex of the corner in a controlled four-wheel drift.

The locals were not all impressed.

"A lot of the drivers and some NASCAR officials said he was dangerous, and that he was going to crash driving a car so loose," said Parnelli Jones, acknowledged as one of the top drivers of the era. "What they didn't know was that loose was the fast way around Daytona, and Mario had great car control. We already knew how good he was."

Throughout his career, Andretti's innate feel for a car helped him adapt quickly to whatever he happened to be racing that weekend. Armed with a competitive stock car, Daytona was no different.

"When you get in a stock car from a single seater, the first thing you do is overdrive it," Mario said. "That is the biggest thing I saw with [Juan-Pablo] Montoya going to stock cars a few years ago. In a single seater, you're on it all the time. In a stock car, you find the limit halfway there, and in a jiffy.

"At Daytona, the car was loose, but it was a very manageable loose," he added. "I learned to deal with it. I don't know if I ever drove another 500-mile race where I had to concentrate as hard as I did in that one. For 500 miles I never turned left."

Andretti took the lead on the 23rd lap and enjoyed a fierce battle with David Pearson until the engine in Pearson's Dodge blew up after 159 laps.

That made it a two-man race between Andretti and Fred Lorenzen, his Holman & Moody teammate. Mario was leading when the duo made their final pit stops on Lap 163, but much to his displeasure, he exited the pits in second place.

Andretti believes he was held on the jack for an additional 5-10 seconds in an effort to give the advantage to Lorenzen, whom he described as "Ford's golden boy."

While Mario is reluctant to say that Ford tried to throw the race in Lorenzen's favor, Jones is willing to do so.

"I don't think I've ever seen a team not want its driver to win, but Holman & Moody wanted Fred to win that day, and they tried to keep the win from Mario," Jones remarked. "Mario was not a Southern boy like Fred or most of the other NASCAR drivers in the race.

"When he won, it was pretty much a one-man win," Jones added. "He just outdrove them, and he won it on his own, with no help needed."

Andretti caught and passed Lorenzen within five laps, and by the time the caution flag few on Lap 198 for Richard Petty's blown engine, he held a 20-second lead. The race ended under yellow, with Andretti having led 112 of the 200 laps.

At the time, it was the biggest win of Andretti's career, though he would eclipse it a couple of years later by winning the Indianapolis 500. He later added 14 Formula One victories and the 1978 F1 world championship.

Although he is most famous for his F1 title and 52 Indy car race wins (second to Foyt on the all-time list), Mario's victory in the 1967 Daytona 500 is still one of his most impressive achievements. In 1972, Foyt became the only other non-full-time stock car driver to win NASCAR's biggest race as the sport has trended toward drivers specializing in a single form of motorsport.

"Daytona then was like it is now -- the crown jewel of NASCAR," Andretti said. "It was maybe even more special then because you didn't have a lot of the other superspeedways. It was very prestigious just to be part of it, and it was particularly satisfying to do it someplace that wasn't my specialty. I represented the open-wheel guys down there in a good way, and I loved that aspect of it."

For Andretti, memories of his Daytona victory cause him to lament the way drivers have become so one-dimensional in the modern era. When NASCAR star Kurt Busch ran the Indianapolis 500 a couple of years ago, it was a huge story. In the 1960s and '70s, it was commonplace for F1 drivers and even a few NASCAR aces -- including Cale Yarborough and the Allison brothers -- to try their luck at Indy.

Al Unser Jr. was the last full-time Indy car driver to qualify for the Daytona 500, and that was in 1993.

"I'm personally glad that I had that opportunity as part of my career, and there are a lot of reasons why that doesn't happen anymore," Andretti said. "As the sport became more commercialized and more sophisticated, the owners became a lot more proprietary. They pay some pretty big contracts to some of the drivers, and they don't want them to get hurt doing anything else. But a lot has to do with the drivers, too.

"I look back on the days in Indy car when USAC started going road racing, and they still had the dirt tracks," he continued. "Hoosier Hundred, DuQuoin, Springfield, Sedalia, Sacramento ... I used to love that part of it. In '69 I won on the dirt, on pavement, on a road course, and I even won at Pikes Peak on the way to my championship. Those were glory days to a certain degree because that will never be duplicated, to have that many really different cars to drive for the same championship. I used to thrive on that, personally."

Mario competed in the Daytona 500 only once more, failing to finish in 1968. He ran a total of 14 races in his NASCAR career, with Daytona 1967 representing his only victory.

He was a frequent competitor in endurance races on the Daytona road course, scoring a victory in the shortened 1972 event, and he maintains warm memories of the town of Daytona Beach and the track that made it famous.

He particularly enjoys one story from 1965, when he submerged a rental car in the Atlantic Ocean after sharing a NART Ferrari with Pedro Rodriguez in the 2000-kilometer Daytona Continental sports car race contested on his 25th birthday.

"In those days, we had one driving suit for a 24-hour race," Andretti recounted. "We stank. Anyway, we finished the race, and our hotel was a few miles up the road in Ormond Beach. So I drove right down to the beach with this beautiful Hertz rental car, a brand new Fairlane or something. I was weaving around on the beach, just taking in a little bit of the wake, running in the water, and, finally, we were just sucked right in. We had water up to our knees.

"I was really ashamed, but at least we were getting washed up a little bit," he added with a laugh. "So then I had to go find a pay phone, and, of course, I looked all scruffy and had to ask people for a dime so I could call Hertz.

"Avis was really a good company after that!"