Mario Andretti (b. 1940)

Send This Page To A Friend
Fade To White
Mario Andretti (b. 1940)

Mario Andretti
During his hey-day, not every American enthusiast would have granted Mario Andretti the accolade of being America's greatest racing driver, but few would have disputed his outstanding versatility.


The Italian-born, naturalised American, who they affectionately dubbed 'SuperWop', was one of a rare breed of driver who had not only tried many diverse forms of motor sport, but had the even rarer distinction of having been successful in all of them.

Andretti scored victories in almost every branch of the sport, from saloon racing to Indianapolis and from sports cars to Formula One. He raced anything and everything - 'because I don't know how to do anything in life apart from race cars'.

By any standards, Andretti's career was spectacular. His ambitions were in Grand Prix racing and the World Championship. During the long haul towards breaking into the European-dominated 'circus', he was three-times United States Automobile Club Champion and, in 1969, he realised the great American dream, winning at Indianapolis.

For all the prestige that the Indy win brought, perhaps the most personal tribute came from the people of his home town, Nazareth, Pennsylvania. The street in which Andretti lived was renamed Victory Lane. The great Andretti trademark was determination, as the road to the top had not been easy.

Mario Gabriele Andretti was one of twin brothers born on 28 February 1940 to a farming family in Montona, Italy. His early life was hard: German troops occupied his homeland and, with thousands of compatriots, the Andrettis were herded into a camp for displaced persons. With the end of the war, the family moved South to Lucca and there, like all good Italian boys, the Andretti twins developed a passion for motor racing.

Andretti Is Taken To The Mille Miglia

Their early teenage years were spent learning to drive, parking cars for a local garage-owner. The same garage-owner sowed the seeds of addiction to motor racing by taking the brothers to see the Mille Miglia. By the time they were fifteen, they had convinced a wealthy local businessman that they should drive his Formula Junior car; before their father announced his decision to emigrate to America, Mario and brother, Aldo, had scored over twenty victories in local races. It was difficult for the boys' father to realise that he was upsetting his sons' plans for stardom as they had omitted to mention their racing to him.

The Andrettis moved to Nazareth in 1955, and the brothers immediately set out to rebuild their racing careers. They earned their living in their Uncle's garage, mainly so that they could be near to cars. Their first competitive outings were at Nazareth Speedway in 1959 with an eleven-year old Hudson saloon. Aldo won on the first outing and Mario took the honours the following week. It took Mario until 1963 to become really established as a racing driver. In the intervening years, Aldo had faded from the scene after surviving a huge accident at Hatfield, PA. The accident fractured his skull and finally revealed the boys' secret racing to their parents.

Victories in Sprint and Midget Races

Mario, however, worked his way through the ranks, scoring strings of victories in Sprint and Midget races. He drove anything available, to gain experience and to pay the bills. That experience meant he often had to turn an uncompetitive car into a winner simply to pay his expenses, was the foundation for much of his future success. In 1964, Mario broke into big-time racing with his first regular drive on the USAC championship trail. To most Americans, motor racing means something very different from the European style of racing on 'road' circuits. The American way was much more flamboyant and, with the exception of the two annual US Grands Prix and a handful of domestic road races, American races were held exclusively in purpose-built stadiums on simple oval, or tri-oval, courses.

Two main bodies sanctioned the races, the United States Automobile Club - whose championship was for single-seater racing cars to a strictly governed formula - and the National Association for Stock Car Racing, which governed racing for highly-modified production, or 'stock' saloons. These two organisations provided some of the most spectacular motor sport in the world, with cars battling wheel to wheel, at average speeds approaching 200 mph, for huge prize funds.

USAC Racing

Mario's first USAC drive came after Chuck Hulse, regular driver for the Dean Van Lines 'team, was injured at New Bremen, Ohio. Andretti scored thirteenth place at Terra Haute, Indiana, and a week later he raced again to fourteenth posmon, For 1964, he made his biggest break, driving for sponsor Al Dean in the USAC championship. Dean's faith reaped its reward the following year when 'SuperWop' carried off the first of his three USAC champion- ships-albeit with only a single victory and a string of second and third places. In the same year, Andretti made his debut at the American 'Holy of Holies', Indianapolis. In Dean's car and under the watchful eye of veteran mechanic Clint Brawner, Andretti drove the team's Brabham- based Hawk to third place and the 'Rookie of the Year' title.

Also in 1965, Andretti had a meeting which changed the whole pattern of his future racing. Connecticut Ferrari dealer, and ex-racing driver, Luigi Chinetti invited Andretti to drive one of his North American Racing Team Ferraris in a World Championship sports-car race at Bridgehampton. Although Mario was completely new to this type of car and racing, he improved his lap times by 27 seconds before the clutch failed. In 1966, he again won the USAC championship, capturing pole position at Indy but not finishing the race. He finished first in eight races out of fifteen in that year. More significantly, he began to develop his enormous talents in the direction of road racing: with the late Pedro Rodriguez, he took fourth place for Ford at the 1966 Daytona 24-hour race and from then on he was set on becoming the all-round-racer.

Mario Andretti first entered Formula One in a Lotus
Andretti first entered Formula One in a Lotus.

Andretti's First Le Mans

1967 saw his first major road-racing victory with the late Bruce McLaren at Sebring. He also raced for the first time at Le Mans, but was injured in the infamous accident which eliminated all but one of the Ford team's cars. Under- lining his versatility, he won the Daytona 500- most famous of all the NASCAR classics-and a victory which, he admits, gave him great personal satisfaction. In 1968, Dean died and Andretti and Brawner took over the team.

Although without major successes, Andretti was again second in the USAC standings. Perhaps the most important race of his 1968 programme was one in which he did not even finish. For that year's US Grand Prix at Watkins Glen, he was drafted into the Lotus Formula One team and astounded the establishment by snatching pole position at his first attempt. The end of 1968 saw the start of a major phase in Andretti's career, when STP chief Andy Granatelli bought the whole of the Andretti racing operation. Mario rewarded them in 1969 with his third USAC crown and the biggest prize of all-victory at Indy.

In his four years with Brawner, he had matured from Rookie to winner. He scored 27 championship victories and earned over $750,000 in prize money, but his ambitions lay in Europe. 1970 should have seen his big break into Formula One, with his STP sponsors buying Mario a seat in the embryonic March Grand Prix team. He soon found the impracticability of trying to combine racing on opposite sides of the Atlantic and both projects foundered. For 1971, he realised a dream when he signed to drive Formula One and sports cars for Scuderia Ferrari. His first race for the Maranello team was a sensation, as he won the South African Grand Prix to lead the World Championship. The rest of the season, unfortunately, was all downhill and, again, split schedules effectively ruined his chances.

Andretti scored fourth place in Germany and thirteenth in Canada to finish in eighth place in the Championship. His USAC record was even worse and his best result was a second place. To finish what had started as a most promising season he finally ended his long-time association with the STP Corporation. As occasionally happens, a phoenix rose from the ashes and Andretti joined former USAC champions Al Unser and Joe Leonard in the Vels-Parnelli Jones USAC team. The contract left him free to race for Ferrari when time permitted. Again his conflicting schedules caused both programmes to suffer; his best Grands Prix results were fourth in South Africa, sixth in the United States and seventh in Italy. He won with the all-conquering Ferrari sports car at Brands Hatch and Watkins Glen, co-driving with Jackie Ickx, but his major achievement of the season was in committing the Vels-Parnelli team to a future in Grand Prix racing.

Gaining Road Racing Experience With The American Formula 5000 Championship

While the team spent 1973 designing and building the car for their attack on the World Championship, Mario gained valuable road-racing experience in the American Formula 5000 championship. Despite winning several races, he was beaten into second place in the series by Englishman Brian Redman. For the final two races of I974 the first of the Parnelli Formula One cars appeared. Andretti managed a promising seventh place in Canada, but retired from his home Grand Prix. 'Every winter I weigh out the situation and see which way to go', said Mario before the 1975 season, 'I've always wanted to drive the Grand Prix circuit full time and I'm glad my chance finally came with an American team'. With those words, Andretti embarked on a full season of Grand Prix racing with Vel Miletich's ambitious organisation, giving himself three years for a full-scale-attack on the World Championship. Unfortunatelv, the team suffered teething troubles and Andretti had another frustrating year. After retiring from the Argentine Grand Prix and finishing seventh in Brazil, Andretti put the new Parnelli into the lead of a Grand Prix for the first time in Barcelona.

Andretti's moment of glory lasted for only nine laps before he crashed. He managed nine more laps in Monaco before retiring with his engine in flames. He missed the Belgian Grand Prix to take part at Indy and the Dutch to race in the Pocono 500, which he won. His best result of the year came in Sweden, where he just beat fellow American Mark Donohue to fourth place. The rivalry between Parnelli and Donohue's First National City Bank-Penske team was a feature of the season, but sadly it ended in Austria, when Donohue crashed heavily during practice and died soon afterwards.

Andretti scored a fifth place in France, after a stirring drive from fifteenth place on the grid and that was his last Championship point of the season, giving him a total' of five points and fourteenth place in the drivers' list. 1976 will be remembered as the year when Andretti really became a consistent front runner on the Grand Prix trail. At the beginning of the year, the wheel had turned full circle and Andretti was back, for one race, the Brazilian Grand Prix, in a Lotus-the marque in which he had made his debut. It was a brief return, which lasted only as Top: Andretti returned to Lotus in 1976 Above: his first taste of Formula One was with the Lotus 49 far as the second lap, when he collided with his team mate Ronnie Peterson; however, he was happy with the team and they with him. After two last abortive efforts in South Africa, where they scored a single championship point, and in the US Grand Prix, West, the under-financed Parnelli team finally quit.

Re-joining Lotus

Andretti did one non-championship race for Frank Williams' team at Silverstone and then, in a blaze of publicity, rejoined Lotus. After that he began to show exactly why he is so respected by the Grand Prix circus, taking what was essentially a very difficult car and, by concentrated testing, making it behave well enough to lead the Swedish Grand Prix for 45 laps before retiring. He scored his first points for Lotus with a fifth place in France, but otherwise his performances up to the German Grand Prix were more promising than rewarding, ending in a string of retirements.

In 1977, at Long Beach, Andretti became the only American to win the United States Grand Prix West, and the last American as of 2008 to win any US Grand Prix. The Lotus 78 "wing car" proved to be the most competitive car of 1977, but despite winning four races, more than any other driver, reliability problems and collisions with other drivers meant Andretti finished only third in the championship. The following year, the Lotus 79 exploited ground effect even further and Andretti took the title with six wins. He clinched the championship at the Italian Grand Prix. There was no championship celebration because his teammate and close friend Ronnie Peterson crashed heavily at the start of the race; he was hospitalised and died that night from complications resulting from his injuries.

Andretti would find little success after 1978 in Formula One – he failed to win another grand prix. He had a difficult year in 1979, as the new Lotus 80 was not competitive, and the team had to rely on the Lotus 79 which had been overtaken by the second generation of ground effect cars. In 1980, he was paired with Italian Elio de Angelis, and briefly with the young Nigel Mansell, but the team was again unsuccessful. Andretti had an unsuccessful 1981 with the Alfa Romeo team. Like other drivers of the period he did not like the ground effect cars of the time: "the cars were getting absurd, really crude, with no suspension movement whatever. It was toggle switch driving with no need for any kind of made leaving Formula One a lot easier than it would have been." The next year Andretti raced once for the Williams team, after their driver Carlos Reutemann suddenly quit, before replacing the seriously injured Didier Pironi at Ferrari for the last two races of the year. Suspension failure dropped him out of the last race of the season, but at the Italian Grand Prix at Monza he took the pole position and finished third in the race.

Andretti had continued to race, and occasionally win, in the USAC National Championship during his time in the Formula One world championship. In 1979 a new organization, Championship Auto Racing Teams, had set up the Indycar world series as a rival to the USAC National Championships that Andretti had won three times in the 1960s. The new series had rapidly become the top open wheel racing series in North America. It was to this arena that Andretti returned full time in 1982, driving for Patrick Racing. In 1983 he joined the new Newman/Haas Racing team, set up by Carl Haas and actor Paul Newman using cars built by British company Lola. Andretti took the team's first win at Elkhart Lake in 1983. He won the pole for nine of sixteen events in 1984, and claimed his fourth Champ Car title at the age of 44. He edged out Tom Sneva by 13 points. It was the first series title for the second year team.

Mario's son Michael joined Newman/Haas in 1989. Together, they made history as the first father/son team to compete in both IMSA GT and Champ Car racing, as for the former, it was their fourth time in an endurance race together as co-drivers. Mario finished seventh in points for the 1991 season, the year that Michael won the championship. Mario's last victory in IndyCar racing came in 1993 at Phoenix International Raceway, the year that Michael left Newman/Haas to race in Formula One. The win made Mario the oldest recorded winner in an IndyCar event (53 years, 34 days old). Andretti qualified on the pole at the Michigan 500 later that year with a speed of 234.275 miles per hour (377.029 km/h). The speed was a new closed course world record. Andretti's final season, in 1994, was dubbed "The Arrivederci Tour." He raced in the last of his 407 Indy car races that September.

Andretti won once at the Indianapolis 500 in 29 attempts. Andretti has had so many incidents and near victories at the track that critics have dubbed the family's performance after Mario's 1969 Indianapolis 500 victory the "Andretti Curse". Mario finished all 500 miles (800 km) just five times, including his 1969 Indianapolis 500 victory. Andretti was the first driver to exceed 200 miles per hour (320 km/h) while practicing for the 1977 Indianapolis 500. Andretti finished second in the 1981 Indianapolis 500 by eight seconds behind Bobby Unser. The following day Unser was penalized one lap for passing cars under a caution flag, and Andretti was declared the winner. Unser and his car owner Roger Penske appealed the race stewards' decision. USAC overturned the one lap penalty four months later, and penalized Unser with a $40,000 fine.

In the 1985 Indianapolis 500, he was passed by Danny Sullivan in Turn One. A moment later, Sullivan spun in front of Andretti, pitted on his own caution to replace his flat-spotted tires, and then passed Mario again - this time without incident - to go on for the win. Andretti dominated the 1987 Indianapolis 500 testing, led for 170 of the first 177 laps of the race, but his race was ended with electrical failure on lap 180 of 200. Andretti suffered broken ankles in the 1992 Indianapolis 500 when he crashed hard in turn four during the race. Andretti's last race at Indy was the 1994 Indianapolis 500.

After retiring, Andretti was testing for his son Michael's IndyCar on April 24, 2003 in place of the injured Tony Kanaan at Indianapolis. At 5:58 pm – two minutes before the scheduled end of the session – Andretti powered out of the first turn onto the "south chute" of the circuit. In his path lay a chunk of debris from Kenny Bräck's car, which had crashed seconds earlier. The object forced the nose of Andretti's car to become airborne, and Andretti's car went into a rapid double reverse somersault at speeds estimated to be above 200 miles per hour (320 km/h). Television footage from a local TV station's helicopter showed that the car was nearly high enough to clear the debris fence mounted atop the circuit's outer retaining wall. Andretti's car fell back to earth, having been slowed by its mid-air tumble, and slid to a stop. Luckily, the car landed right side up and Andretti walked away from the crash with very minor injuries.

Mario Andretti in a Lotus John Player Special
Andretti returned to Lotus in 1976, seen here driving a John Player Special.
Latest Classic Car Classifieds