If ever there was a 24 carat hall of famer, it’s Mario Andretti. Pulled over in the UK, it’s, “who do you think you are, Stirling Moss?” But for the Smokies in the USA, it’s always Mario.
On the US scene, NASCAR is King, more so now than ever. Thundering stock cars on ovals with constant contact, drafting, passing and re-passing, is what American audiences seem to want. In days gone by, Indycar racing was almost as strong and the Indy 500 drew crowds of 400,000. Road racing never caught on to the same extent. Whatever it was didn’t matter to Mario. If it had wheels, he’d race it.
Andretti is renowned as the most versatile driver there has ever been. He arrived in the USA in the fifties, the teenage son of Italian immigrant parents with two hundred and fifty bucks to their name. Inspired by watching Alberto Ascari in the Mille Miglia, he soon discovered a dirt oval close to home in Nazareth, Pennsylvania, and started racing.
He had Ferrari in his blood. “While I was driving my jalopy stock cars I was thinking about Ferrari,” he says. And even in ’63 when, as a 23-year-old, he won three sprint car feature races on the same day, he was thinking about Dan Gurney in F1.
Mario met Lotus boss Colin Chapman at Indianapolis, mentioned F1 and when he was given a Lotus 49 for the ’68 US GP at Watkins Glen, he put it on pole. In his first Grand Prix for Ferrari, in 1971, he won the South African GP.
Andretti won in F1, Indycars, the World Sportscar Championship and NASCAR. He took four Indycar titles and won the F1 world championship in 1978 in Chapman’s fabulous ground effect Lotus 79. He claimed the Indy 500 in 1969.
Amazingly, when Andretti scored his last Indycar win in 1993, it meant that he had won Indy races in four different decades, finishing up with 52 wins and 66 pole positions from 407 starts!
But it was Andretti’s personality, aura and eminent quotability that made him such a star. As the last American to win a grand prix, at Zandvoort in ’78, it was a year earlier, after a collision trying to overtake reigning champion James Hunt, that Mario memorably vented his feelings.
“He says you don’t overtake on the outside in F1? Well I got news for him. If he blocks me on the inside, I’m gonna try the outside. James Hunt is champion of the world, right? Problem is, he thinks he’s King of the goddam world as well… What’s he want me to do – pick my nose and follow the King?” No F1 corporate speak back then…
Watch Andretti sweep round the outside in his signature move around 2’40”
After three difficult F1 seasons with Lotus and Alfa Romeo following his championship success, Andretti returned to the USA to run a full Indycar programme in 1982. But when Ferrari drivers Gilles Villeneuve and Didier Pironi suffered fatal/career-ending accidents respectively that same year, Andretti got the call to race for Old Man Ferrari once again, at Monza.
“You don’t turn it down, do you?” he said and, at the age of 42, put the car on pole and finished third. He still speaks with awe of the power of those turbos with qualifying boost – well over 1000bhp. “Like sitting on top of dynamite,” he remembers. “Man, I had wheelspin in fifth between the Lesmos…”
Once a racer, always a racer. But has there been a racer like Mario?
CLICK TO ENLARGE