L&T Motorsport

Motorsports most versatile drivers – Mario Andretti

We move onto part three today with one of the most famous names in world motor sport, Mario Andretti. The Italian-American’s career spans around 40 years and a multitude of championship titles and wins. Could he be the most versatile driver?

¬†Andretti’s career is one that if well known to most motor sport fans. An F1 and Indy car champion amongst others he also raced in NASCAR, Le Mans and Sports cars during his long and varied career, winning almost anywhere he went. Born on 28th February 1940 in Montona, Italy (which is now part of Croatia). The early years seen World War and come the end of the war Montona was now part of Yugoslavia and meant the family were stuck in a communist country. They tried to stick it out but after three years they left and ended up in Lucca, Italy in a refugee camp in 1948.

Andretti and family would be here for seven years, sharing one room with other families with only blankets to separate each families space. Finally in 1955 the family were granted visas to move to America and they set up in Nazareth, Pennsylvania with just $125 to their names and speaking no English. Mario and his brother Aldo were just 15 at the time.

The seeds of motor sport however had been laid while back in Italy however. The brothers had seen Alberto Ascari and Juan Manuel Fangio fighting it out at Monza in 1954 and also seen a stretch of the Mille Miglia, seeing the drivers and cars fly past. Ascari was Mario’s idol at the time as well.

The bug followed them to America and within a few days Mario and Aldo found a half mile oval dirt track not far from their new home. They were hooked and set about getting sorted to go racing. They built their own car, a 1948 Hudson Hornet Sportsman, and raced it for the first time in 1959, just four years after arriving in America. Aldo wasn’t as successful as Mario who won 20 races in the sportsman stock car class in his first two seasons as a driver.

Andretti during a dirt track meeting in 1961

Over the following years Mario progressed to midget and sprint car racing, even winning three midget feature races in one day in 1963. He joined the United States Auto Club (USAC) in 1964, finishing third in the points standings including a dramatic win in a 100 lap race at Salem. that same year Andretti took part in his first Indy Car race, starting 16th and finishing 11th, earning him $526.90 on his professional debut.

It did not take long for Mario to start winning in the series and by the following season he won his first race, finished third and thus earning rookie of the year at Indianapolis 500 and winning the championship as well, the youngest driver to do so at just 25 years old. He would replicate the championship success the following year in 1966 along with pole position at Indy and eight race wins. He was showing himself to be quite a talent already.

Victory Lane at Indianapolis 1969

Showing his versatility Andretti took part in, and won, the Daytona 500 in 1967 as well as taking another pole at Indy and the first of three career wins at the 12 hours of Sebring. Andretti showed this even more taking part in a drag race event in a Ford Mustang in 1968 before getting the shout to race in Formula One at that years US Grand Prix at Watkins Glen. The debut was short lived due to clutch issues but it wouldn’t be long till he was back in mix in Formula One.

Before that thought Andretti added to the CV by winning the Indy 500 in 1969, leading 116 of the 200 laps on his way to Brickyard success. He would also win his third Indy Car title that season ending the season champion with nine wins. His record at this point in Indy Car’s was stunning, 30 wins with 29 poles from 111 starts, 27% win rate.

The 1970s was to be a boom year for Andretti. He started the decade concentrating on his career in America with sporadic races in F1 for the likes of Lotus, March and Ferrari. In fact on his debut for Ferrari at the 1971 South African Grand Prix he took his debut win before winning his second race three weeks later in a non championship race.

1972 was Andretti’s endurance year so to speak. He took his third and final Sebring 12 hour win along with the 6 hours of Daytona, BAOC 1000km at Brands Hatch and the Watkins Glen 6 hours. Before going full time in F1 he also took part in Formula 5000, coming second in the title in both 74 and 75 as well as the USAC National Dirt Track title in 1974.

His first full season in F1 was 1976. Joining Colin Chapman and Lotus. That year was to be a tough season with retirements in six of the first eight races he contested. By the end of the season however he was an F1 winner again, winning the season ending Japanese Grand prix in horrendous conditions. The following season was more successful with four wins, seven pole positions and third in the championship, setting up for 1978.

Andretti at the Belgium GP in 1978, Championship year.

Lotus had created the ‘ground effect’ car and it all came together in 1978 for the team and driver. Driving the Lotus 78 and then the upgraded 79 as well mid season Andretti took six wins on his way to becoming the first person to win both Indy Car and F1 titles. He was, and still is, the second American to win the F1 championship after Phil Hill in 1961. However the title win was tainted with tragedy as Andretti’s team mate Ronnie Peterson lost his life at Monza, the day the title was won.

Formula One was to prove difficult after the title success, in fact Andretti never won another Grand Prix after winning the 1978 Dutch Grand Prix. He would only score two podiums in F1 from 1979 to his last ever F1 race in 1982 for Ferrari. Andretti returned to Indy Cars full time in 1982 having competed in races in between on and off including runs at Indianapolis, albeit without further winning success. He would win the International Race of Champions (IROC) series in 1979.

Andretti’s last F1 appearance in 1982 brought up a record of 12 wins, 18 poles over 128 starts and one championship title, a decent return in a competitive era. He had taken part in Le Mans in the 60s but with two DNF’s. His first finish at Le Mans was at the wheel of a Porsche 956 teaming with Philippe Alliot and his son Michael in a third place finish in 1983. His best Le Mans finish would come in 1995 in a Corage C34 Porsche where he, Bob Wollek and Eric Helary took second overall and first in class with his final appearance coming in the year 2000 for Panoz at the age of 60 years old.

Andretti would win his final Indy Car championship in 1984 in a season that included ten track records on the way with six wins. He was also crowed Driver of the Year in the series for the third time, the only driver to win it in three decades (1969, 1978 and 1984). As the years went on he would have the first ever father son front row and also team with Michael in 1989. Family records continued when Mario, Michael, Jeff (his second son) and nephew John all competed in the same Indy Car race at Milwaukee in 1990.

In fact the family shared the grid once more at Indianapolis in 1991, the same year Jeff won rookie of the year. This means that Mario (1965) Michael (1984) and Jeff (1991) are the only three members of the same family to win the award. Mario would continue to set records in what would be his final Indy Car years. In 1992 he would become the oldest pole sitter as well as setting the record for the most pole position in series history with a front row start at the Michigan 500 and he would finish with over 400 starts in the series.

Mario in the Newman/Haas Lola Ford in 1994

In 1993 he would also win his 52nd and final race win at Phoenix as well as becoming the only driver to win in four decades in Indy Cars and the first driver to win races of any sort professionally across five decades. 1994 was his final season in Indy cars with his only appearances after being at Le Mans as he chased that final, elusive trophy that never came.

A career spanning just over five decades from 1959 to 2000 when he made that final Le Mans appearance, no one can say Mario doesn’t deserve the plaudits and the awards he received and continues to receive, including into the International Hall of Fame in 2000. Even today he is still involved with racing and is the offical ambassador for the Circuit of the Americas in Texas. Andretti also dabbles in win, gas station, dealerships and much more and is still seen on occasion at Indy Car series races to watch grand son Marco race for his son Michael’s team, continuing the family tradition.

The case for Mario is over the numerous cars he raced across all the years. From dirt track and midget racing to Indy cars, F1 and Endurance racing there are few to have turned their hand to, and been as successful, as Mario Andretti.

Andrew Campbell
Photo Credits: Main: F1 Weekly.com
Dirt Track Pic: grand prix history
Indy 500 win: Pintrest through google images
Indy 1993: TrackForum



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