The United States claims him as one of it’s own, but he spent the first fifteen years of his life in Italy. Born in Montona in 1940, it wasn’t until 1955 that his family migrated to the United States. Many recognize him as the most versatile racing driver in the sports history. Both Associated Press and RACER magazine have named him as the greatest of all time. He raced in Formula One, Champcars, Sportscars, Speedway, Stock Cars, Hill Climbs and Drag Racing. Front or rear engined, wet or dry, dirt or tarmac, turbo or normally aspirated, open or closed cockpit, it didn’t matter, the Chequered Flag was always waiting for him. He is Mario Andretti.
Andretti began his motor racing career in 1959, competing in dirt track events in his adopted home state, Pennsylvania. Driving a 1948 Hudson Hornet, Andretti took victory in his first event. Success in speedway racing flowed freely with victories in Midget and Sprint Cars.
In 1964, Andretti made his Champ Car debut, driving to eleventh place from sixteenth on the gird at Trenton. Lacking experience, he declined an offer to take part in the Indianapolis 500 of that year, preferring instead to wait until the following season. It was a mature decision, and one that netted third place on his Indy 500 debut.
Andretti won the 1965 Champ Car title, taking his first win along the way at the Hoosier Grand Prix. At twenty-five years old, he was the youngest champion ever.
Eight race wins, pole position at the Indy 500 and a second title followed in 1966. Andretti couldn’t make it a hat trick in ’67, losing out to AJ Foyt, but he did win the Daytona 500 NASCAR race, and the Sebring 12 hours, a race he would again win in 1970, and ’72.
1968 would see Andretti make his Formula One debut. With Stock Car, Speedway, Sportscar and Champ Car success under his belt, Andretti was certainly no rookie, and it showed, as he put the Gold Leaf liveried Lotus 49 on pole position at Watkins Glen, for the United States Grand Prix, much to the surprise of his competitors. The car fell apart in the race, but he had done enough to convince the regulars he was a threat.
Three further Formula One races followed in 1969, but once again Andretti failed to finish in the fickle Lotus 49. This disappointment was overshadowed by a fine win at the Indianapolis 500, and a third Champ Car title. A win at the Pikes Peak hillclimb also added to the trophy cabinet.
March gave Andretti his next chance at Formula One in 1970, but once again retirements plagued the season, including at the French Grand Prix, where a spectacular roll ended his race. He was lucky to escape injury. In five appearances, only in Spain did he see the Chequered Flag, taking a fine third place.
For 1971, Andretti raced in Formula One and Sportscars for Ferrari, alongside his Champ Car program. The South African Grand Prix at Kyalami saw Andretti take his maiden Formula One victory. His experience on ovals saw a further win at the non-championship Quester Grand Prix for Formula 5000 and Grand Prix vehicles.
After Firestone, to whom he was contracted, pulled out of Formula One, Andretti concentrated on Champ Cars and Formula 5000 with Parnelli. His limited European race program was also centered around Parnelli.
It was with Parnelli that Andretti tackled Grand Prix racing full time in 1975, as opposed to the sporadic entries he made in previous years. The car was not very competitive, and he could only score a handful of points. In 1976, Parnelli ended its Formula One activities, and Andretti joined Lotus.
The Chapman-Andretti combination would yield Lotus its first championship in half a decade. After using the ineffective 77 to win the final event of 1976, Andretti won four times in 1977 with the revolutionary ground effects Lotus 78. By 1978, Lotus had a car capable of winning the world championship, the Lotus 79. Together with Ronnie Peterson, Andretti dominated the championship. The ‘Mario and Ronnie’ show won half of the sixteen races on offer.
At the Italian Grand Prix, Andretti secured the world championship, but his joy was short lived with news the following day that Peterson had died in hospital. The Swede had been caught up in a terrible accident at the start of the previous days race. His injuries were serious, but not life threatening. Sadly his condition worsened overnight. It was a hollow championship.
Andretti never repeated the success of 1978, as his Grand Prix career wound down. Lotus failed to produce a car quick enough to defend the championship, and in the next thirty races for the British team, he scored a disappointing fifteen points. For 1981, Andretti shifted his attentions to Alfa Romeo. The car had some pace, but was bulky and unreliable.
It would have been misrepresentative of his skills to sign off from Grand Prix racing on such a note, so it was with great delight that Andretti returned to Ferrari for two races in 1982, replacing the injured Didier Pironi. To the delight of the tifosi he put the car on pole at Monza, but, not familiar with turbo starts, he started slowly and struggled with a broken motor on his way to third. His final appearance was two weeks later at Las Vegas, but the car broke down. Many choose to forget Las Vegas, and think of Monza as Andretti’s true finale in Grand Prix racing. It was a perfect send off, in a Ferrari, in front of the tifosi, at the track he visited as a boy in 1954.
“The passport changes, but the blood doesn’t,” says Andretti.
His time was up in Formula One, but Andretti would race on for over a decade in Champ Car racing, winning the title once more in 1984. But amazingly, the Indy 500 would continue to elude him, and he would never add to his solitary success of 1969.
After making 407 Champ Car starts, Andretti finally hung up his helmet in 1994, at the age of fifty-four. Competitive until the end, he set the world record for fastest speed on a closed circuit in qualifying for the 1993 Michigan 500, taking a record 67th Pole Position in the process.
With a World Championship, wins at Daytona, Indianapolis, Sebring and Pikes Peak, Le Mans was the obvious success absent from his resume. On eight occasions he has taken part in the grueling 24-hour event, most recently in 2000 with Panoz. Peaking with second place in 1995, Mario still wants that win. Will we see him back? “Oh yes! I am not giving up on that idea, not yet!”
Seemingly retired at this point in time, he plays an important role in the future of the Champ Car World Series, reeling from several bad decisions and the loss of numerous competitors to the rival IRL in recent years. With Mario Andretti on their side, Champ Car fans have nothing to fear.
A race winner in the nineteen fifties, sixties, seventies, eighties and nineties, he was a complete driver. It is unlikely anyone will ever match Mario Andretti, the legend who raced everything and nearly won everything.
Mario Andretti’s achievements:
- Formula One World Champion (1978)
- Champ Car Champion (1965-66, 1969, 1984)
- IROC Champion (1979)
- USAC National Dirt Track Champion (1974)
- Indianapolis 500 Winner (1969)
- Daytona 500 Winner (1967)
- Sebring 12-Hour Winner (1967, 1970, 1972)
- Pikes Peak Hill Climb Winner (1969)
- Indianapolis 500 Polesitter (1966-67, 1987)
- Le Mans 24-Hour Runner Up (1995)