Vito Pugliese · Thursday May 24, 2007
Birthdate: February 28th, 1940
Hometown: Nazareth, Pennsylvania
Top 5s: 1
Top 10s: 3
There are two names that are synonymous with auto racing in this country. One is Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the hallowed grounds of racing that were once paved with 2.5 miles of bricks. The place where Kyle Petty once questioned if NASCAR should be racing there because, "they don't run dogs at Churchill Downs". The other is Mario Andretti. If James Brown is the Godfather of Soul, Mario Andretti is the Godfather of Speed. While Mario Andretti is synonymous with "The Biggest Spectacle In Racing", many are unaware that he too made his mark at The Great American Race. This is the biggest weekend in racing, with the Grand Prix of Monaco being run Sunday morning, while the Coca-Cola 600, NASCAR's endurance race is run on Sunday evening. In between these two events the eyes of the racing world, at least for one day, will be intensely focused on the IRL and the 91st running of the Indianapolis 500. With that, this week we profile a driver who although made only 14 starts in a stock car, captured NASCAR’s biggest prize in only his seventh start.
Mario Andretti was born February 28th, 1940 in Montona d’Istria, Italy. He and his twin brother Aldo were not always viewed as racing royalty. The part of Italy where they lived would later be today what is part of Croatia, which at the time was occupied by Yugoslavia. He and his family were forced to live in a refugee camp from 1948 to 1955. Following their exile, they high-tailed it out of there, and headed for The United States of America, eventually settling in the town of Nazareth, Pennsylvania.
Mario and Aldo had a love of cars at an early age. In our stock car-focused world, we have seen several pictures of drivers in their formative years behind the wheel; Jeff Gordon at 5 years old at the wheel of a quarter-midget and Jeff Burton's go-kart tied to an iron pole in front of his house with a length of rope so he wouldn't leave the yard. Mario and Aldo would race wooden carts up and down the street of their village in Italy, laying the groundwork for what would be a life-long obsession with going fast.
Aldo and Mario got their start in what at the time was the Monte Carlo SS of stock car racing, a 1948 Hudson Hornet owned by their uncle, unbeknownst to their parents. Each won two races after only four starts. As with most newcomers to NASCAR today, they got their start in open-wheel and on dirt. Aldo, the more aggressive of the two drivers, was involved in a violent wreck that left him severely injured and in a coma. In the process, it tipped their father off to what they were doing at their uncle's place.
Mario would make his first start in a stock car at Riverside, CA in 1966 for owner Bobby Long, later driving for Smokey Yunick at Daytona in the 500, and for Cotton Owens at the July event. As a Ford Factory driver, he would also compete in the 24 Hours of LeMans in the Ford GT40, a car that ironically was born of Henry Ford's spite for a fellow Italian, Enzo Ferrari, and his refusal to sell his company to the blue oval. Although the GT40 would end up winning what at the time, along with the Indy 500, were considered the most prestigious races in the world, Mario would not win. The winning entry was driven by Bruce McLaren and Chris Amon, while Andretti and teammate Lucien Bianchi would suffer engine failure. The big Ford 427 Holman-Moody, after scaring the brie out of the French, succumbed to the strains of the Mulssane straight and would not make it to the end.
That would not be the only chance at racing greatness he would experience in a Ford. In the mid-late 60's, Holman-Moody was the equivalent of Roush-Yates today. In 1967 they, along with Ford, tabbed a 26 year old Italian kid to drive their car in the Daytona 500. The Ford Fairlane they were campaigning wasn't the slipperiest thing to ever circulate Daytona, but at the time it was the best there was. Plymouth's Belvedere was a bit boxy, and Dodge's fastback Charger had roughly zero rear downforce. The Holman-Moody operation also had another hot young fast driver in the race with Fred Lorenzen.
Darrell Waltrip is fond of saying that young drivers are fast because they don't know what they aren't supposed to be able to do. This proved very true during the 1967 Daytona 500. At the time, the fastest way around Daytona was in the Richard Petty groove, the high line, right up against the guardrail. There weren't inner-liners back then in the tires, so the less of a running start you had at the guardrail should a tire fail, the better chance you had of staying inside of the racetrack, and not launching yourself out of the complex. The cars didn't have much in the way of rear aerodynamic aids back then, so as always with a loose car, you run it up high if you can, using the banking to your advantage. That day, Mario did things his way, running the low line, and circles around the competition.
Andretti dominated the race, leading 112 of 200 laps. A late race caution erased Mario's insurmountable lead of over 20 seconds, driving the car around the bottom of the track, the back end stepping out at every corner exit. The car had a radical set-up under it courtesy of "Suitcase" Jake Elder at their driver's request, and a tweaked Waddell Wilson 427 on orders from Ford that was driven overnight to Daytona from Charlotte for race weekend. The race would finish under caution when towards the end of the event, a spin involving two cars blanketed Turn 4 in a cloud of smoke. Andretti, blinded by the fog, finally got off the white line for the first time all day, and put the No. 11 Ford nearly against the wall, eyes closed, hoping and praying nothing was going to be there. He made it through, and took the yellow. No Green/White/Checker circus finish, just a Green/White/Red finish for one of NASCAR's original diversity drivers, Mario Andretti, from Montona d’Istria, Italy. The win helped him to earn Driver of The Year honors in 1967.
Later in 1967 he would again fail to finish the 24 Hours of LeMans in the Holman-Moody powered GT40. The car spun after a front brake locked up, sending the car spinning into the trees. Another Holman-Moody GT40 was the next car on the scene, and spun to avoid the car which was blocking the track. Yet another GT40 was next in line, and collected the remains of Andretti's car. Seconds earlier he had scrambled from the damaged machine, and narrowly made it over the safety barrier before the other cars crested the hill.
In 1968, Andretti would finish the Daytona 500 a disappointing 29th after crashing, and lasted all of two laps in the Indianapolis 500 with engine failure. Andretti would compete in two more NASCAR events, his final race being the 1969 road course race at Riverside, CA, won by Richard Petty. Andretti led seven laps, but failed to finish due to a blown engine.
In 1969 he would win the Indianapolis 500, and spend the next 35 years trying to duplicate the feat, only to find utter frustration, as a series of broken 10 cent parts, accidents, and events not of his doing thwarted any further success at the Speedway. The same year he won Indy, his brother Aldo was involved in another violent wreck where he was seriously injured, effectively ending his driving aspirations. Mario's final episode at the Speedway was in 2003 when at 235mph, the car ran over debris, got airborne, and executed a series of aerobatic tumbles and spins that put Bobby Allison's exploits at Talladega in 1987 to shame. It was at this point Mario reasoned, "I have a feeling somebody is telling me to get out of the car."
Mario will be on hand for the Indianapolis 500 this weekend to support, cheer on, and coach his son Michael, grandson Marco, and nephew John. While he most certainly earned his reputation at a track in Indianapolis, he first established himself at the track in Daytona Beach. Mario's career accomplishments are almost too numerous to mention: Indianapolis 500. Daytona 500. Formula 1 World Champion. 4-time USAC Champion. IROC Champion. 24 Hours of Daytonaâ€¦..the list goes on. While he only competed in a handful of events, he certainly chose wisely which events to enter. Mario, along with AJ Foyt, holds the distinction of being the only drivers to win the two biggest races in the world: The Indianapolis 500 and The Daytona 500. He still is the only driver to win a Daytona 500, Indy 500, and The Formula 1 World Championship.
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