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50-YEAR ANNIVERSARY: MARIO ANDRETTI SAVORS HIS 1969 INDIANAPOLIS 500 VICTORY

Mario Andretti … the name rolls off the tongue, like that of royalty.  Which, essentially, he is. More than two decades after retiring from a decorated racing career, …“I felt, you know, what a package!” Andretti tells Autoweek today. “The balance of the car was there … the potential winning quality was there, no question.

I think at that point we were the envy of the field because we had, definitely, something that was superior.”  The opinion put him at odds with his mechanic, and not for the first time. Indeed, “fragile” and “temperamental”—two more words Brawner used to describe the Lotus—applied equally to the 19-year Speedway veteran himself. “In some ways, Clint was a maddening kind of guy, kind of sorry for himself,” Andretti told Nigel Roebuck in 1979. “Don’t ask him what time it is or he’ll tell you how his watch was built!” 

When Brawner overheard Andretti telling a reporter the Lotus was “the finest car, by far, I’ve ever had at Indianapolis,” he took it as an insult to his own Brawner Hawk, the latest evolution of the car Andretti had driven to two USAC championships and very nearly two more. The Hawk was as conventional as the Lotus was radical, but it was a proven winner. Andretti “running down the Hawk like that hurt my feelings,” Brawner wrote, “and at the same time made me mad.”

 Examining the Lotus wreckage revealed the cause of the accident. Sure enough, the right rear hub had failed. Brawner had been right, but it brought him little satisfaction. His driver had nearly been killed, for one thing. And now there was precious little time to prepare the Hawk for battle. But we’ll get to that.

Marco Andretti will seek to break the so-called Andretti Curse in the Indianapolis 500 by running a throwback livery that pays tribute to grandfather Mario’s triumph in the 1969 Greatest …This time 50 years ago, Mario Andretti was having himself a regular one—the kind of year that had, for him, become routine. “I started the season at Riverside,” he recalls, “NASCAR, the Motor Trend 500, you know, the Holman & Moody car.”

The Holman-Moody car was a Ford Torino he wrestled around the California road course, battling Foyt, LeeRoy Yarbrough and eventual winner Richard Petty, twice leading before his engine failed 132 laps in. That was in February. The following month found him in a different hemisphere. “My second race was Formula 1, in South Africa.” That was in a Lotus 49, a 1,100-pound, 31-inch-high aluminum monocoque missile.

At Kyalami, Andretti qualified on the second row and was pressuring teammate Graham Hill for second place when transmission problems forced him to retire.  “The third race was a Midget race,” Mario says, chuckling now, “in Houston, indoors at the Astrodome.” Because of course it was. On a 1/5-mile track made out of clay trucked in from a nearby construction site, he placed second and seventh in successive heats.

“Gran Turismo 6” debuted for PlayStation 3 a little more than a week ago with the tagline, “Your legacy begins here.” Gamemaker Polyphony Digital and Sony created a short film …“My fourth race was the 12 Hours of Sebring in a Ferrari with Chris Amon,” Andretti continues, citing the endurance race where their 312P prototype earned them an enormous lead before overheating problems forced them to slow in the final hours.

They ultimately had to settle for second, behind Jacky Ickx and Jackie Oliver in the Ford GT40. USAC races in Phoenix and Hanford, California—Champ cars on paved ovals—followed Sebring and in late April, the 1000 km Monza, another sports car enduro with Amon. It seems unimaginable now, but for Andretti, 29 years old, this bizarre mix of events was business as usual. “I was curious, and I was looking for every opportunity,” he says. “I just loved it, and I think, quite honestly, that made me a better driver.” 

For someone who had come up hurling sprint cars around the Pennsylvania and New Jersey dirt tracks, competing in such wildly diverse arenas was not only invaluable in developing his skills, it was also a way of measuring them. “What actually motivated me to do a lot of these things,” Andretti explains, “was, you know, Dan Gurney; he was doing a little bit of everything as well … and A.J. was very versatile, and I said man, I want to do that and more!  “To be able to compete in the same arena with champions of that caliber … those are your ultimate goals, that’s where you wanna be.”

But now it was May, and May meant Indianapolis. The Lotus a write-off, attention was now turned to the Brawner Hawk, a car that, according to Andretti, “was entered basically just to get an extra garage.” The second qualifying weekend was two days away. For a second-stringer, Brawner’s car was still competitive. Andretti had won with it at Hanford a month earlier. But it wasn’t “at the level of the Lotus, for sure,” he remembers, “and for me to get back in the Hawk all of a sudden—I said, ‘Oh, man.’ I knew what I was missing. I mean, it was a totally different animal.”

 Nevertheless, it put him on the front row. The surprising result spoke to the level of trust and professionalism the team had established over five seasons together, even if they hadn’t been on the same page lately. If Andretti criticized Brawner in the past, today he credits the man who brought him to the high-profile Dean Van Lines team in 1964 with much of his success. “Clint sort of recognized the fire that I had in my belly. I realized later on that all he wanted to do was somehow try to keep me alive, in a sense.

Just to put me at ease—he knew that I was out there trying to prove myself a bit too early, and he tried to calm me down. … Looking back, between he and Jim, I couldn’t have had a better, more perfect setup.” 

It is utterly impossible that you’re on this website and you don’t already know Mario Andretti. Everyone knows Mario Andretti. Ask any old lady or young kid or anyone in between to name a …Jim McGee was the crucial third leg of the stool, the bridge between Brawner and his young charge. The assistant mechanic had joined the team around the same time as Andretti, and the two quickly forged a tight bond.

“Jim was more, you know, close to my age, more of a modern thinker,” Andretti says. That provided a critical counter to the old-school Brawner. “I had the best of two worlds with the two of them. … It was just a perfect balance. It all worked.” What wasn’t working at the moment, however, was the Hawk’s cooling system. Andretti explains: “The Hawk needed an exterior oil cooler because the aerodynamics, the way it was designed, it was very inefficient for oil cooling. So we had this ugly oil cooler sticking out, and on the shorter tracks, with the power we had, it didn’t matter.

But to qualify, we decided to take it off, to streamline the car … and then all of a sudden we realized we had to race the car the way we qualified.” That realization came courtesy of pole sitter Foyt, who pointed out to USAC officials the offense when Brawner’s crew tried to remedy the hot-running Hawk by reinstalling the radiator after practice. Undeterred, Brawner took the Hawk back to the garage that night and mounted the cooler underneath Andretti’s seat, hidden from view. It wasn’t an ideal location aerodynamically—nor from the standpoint of driver comfort, for that matter—but it’d have to do.

  After finishing third and being awarded Rookie of the Year in his first Indianapolis 500 four years earlier, mechanical maladies ensured that Andretti hadn’t finished the race since. With growing dissension within the team and the siren song of Formula 1 beckoning him from without, this year wasn’t shaping up much differently.

Dee Ann Andretti, the wife of world-famous racing driver Mario Andretti and matriarch of one of the most prominent families in motorsports, has died.She was 76.Andretti died Tuesday, a few weeks after …Formula 1 had been calling all of his life. “In the ’50s, Ferrari, Maserati, Alfa Romeo, you know, they were very prominent in Formula 1, and (we) had our own heroes: Taruffi, Farina, Ascari.”

Andretti recites the names slowly, relishing their musicality. “My twin brother Aldo and I, for some reason or other, we were captured by motor racing. I said a million times, the family didn’t even own a car! As kids, we just gravitated to that. That’s how the flame really started, you know, and then the flame grew until it became a wildfire.” That passion was also an escape, a mechanism for coping with the harsh realities surrounding them. Mario and Aldo Andretti were born in Montona, in northeastern Italy, in 1940. Which is to say, in fascist Italy—later Nazi-occupied Italy—during World War II. 

“It’s certainly not what you would consider a normal childhood,” Andretti allows, with some understatement. “As you can imagine, in the first five years of my life, there was just nothing but turmoil—the political arguments, the confusion; sometimes it (was) disturbing. And then as you grow and understand things a little bit better, then you figure, oh, well no wonder, you know? My poor parents, what they went through.”

 When borders were redrawn after the war, the Andrettis found themselves living in communist Yugoslavia. “Probably 90 percent of the inhabitants of that region opted to just leave,” Andretti says—an episode historians call the Istrian exodus—“and we did as well. And we became refugees in our own country.”

 Mechanics can sometimes get overlooked when it comes to racing, and the scores of mechanics who prepare cars for the Indianapolis 500 are no exception. One chief mechanic who rose above the …They spent the next seven years in a refugee camp in Lucca, in Tuscany. If life was far from easy, it wasn’t all bad, either. “In 1954, age 14, we used to hang out at a garage right across from where the refugee camp was,”

Andretti recounts. “(The owners) knew we loved racing, so they took Aldo and I to Monza to see the Italian Grand Prix.” Juan Manuel Fangio won the race in a Mercedes, but not before the brothers were treated to the spectacle of their hero, Alberto Ascari, leading much of the way in his Ferrari before retiring with a dropped valve. Equally remarkable was a trip to the Futa Pass the next year, where they witnessed the Mercedes 300 SLR of Stirling Moss and Denis Jenkinson as it flashed by en route to their historic Mille Miglia victory.

A month and a half later, the boys embarked on another, more uncertain adventure, one they feared would mean the end of their racing passion: The family had been granted visas to the U.S. Together they headed for a new life in, of all places, Nazareth, Pennsylvania. “We arrived on a Thursday. On the Sunday night we were at my uncle’s house, just lounging, and we see lights in the background, and all of a sudden, there’s a huge roar of engines. Aldo and I looked at each other, and we just booked!”

 Fate had deposited them a mile and a half from Nazareth Speedway, a half-mile hotbed of regional stock car racing. The boys were hooked. With the help of friends, they set to work building a race car from an old ’48 Hudson. “The objective was to race by the time we were 21 because you had to be 21 to race legally, professionally,” Andretti says, “but the car was done at age 19, so we had to do something.

We had a local editor of the newspaper fudge our birthdate on our license, and so Aldo and I started racing at 19—although it looked like we were 21. And so 1959 was the year our careers started, and (we) never looked back.”When the 1960s rolled around, all of a sudden every single assumption anyone ever had was open to debate: Who says those guys can’t vote?

Who says that particular half of the population has to …For Mario, it began a career spanning a remarkable five decades and, in 1978, fulfill his original dream of a Formula 1 championship—a path, from the dirt tracks of Nazareth and Oswego to the podiums of Hockenheim and Monza, that seems unlikely ever to be replicated. Asked what he’s most proud of, Andretti briefly mentions that championship, and the satisfaction the previous year of winning both his home U.S. Grand Prix and his native Italian one.

But he quickly pivots to later, shared accomplishments: “With my son Michael, you know that in IndyCar, we had 15 podiums together. Fifteen podiums. And we finished first and second five times. We started on the front row 10 times in Indy cars. How sweet is that, you know, as a father, as a competitor, as a family?” Today, at 79, he hasn’t slowed much either. “I’m still living the dream!” Andretti says—still actively involved in Michael’s Andretti Autosport team and grandson Marco’s career, still very much with “skin in the game,” as he puts it.

If there’s a negative in his life, it’s been the death of his wife of 57 years, Dee Ann, last July.  “I miss her terribly,” he says. “She was carrying our daughter, Barbie, when all of this hoopla was happening in 1969 … and now that we’re celebrating that particular year, I wish that she was here with me. But I’m sure she’s looking down and smiling.”

Mister 500 has died. That was the label Andy Granatelli used in his autobiography, “They Call Me Mister 500,” written on both sides of Mario Andretti winning the Indianapolis 500 in …That hoopla was the improbable conclusion to a Month of May at Indianapolis that Clint Brawner, true to form, termed “a month of disaster and confusion,” but even Andretti admits “was a roller coaster of emotions, all the way.” 

 When the green flag dropped on race day, Andretti beat Foyt to turn 1, but his lead was short-lived. As feared, the Hawk was running hot: “Soon after the start,” Andretti says, “my oil temperature was in the 270–280 range, and that was bringing the water temps up as well. And I tell you what, I thought, you know, here we go again.” Backing off just a few hundred revs, though, coaxed those temperatures down to more sustainable levels. For the next hundred laps or so, Andretti comfortably trailed the leaders—Foyt and Roger McCluskey in their Coyotes and Lloyd Ruby, who’d worked his way up from the seventh row—biding his time as, one by one, they each fell away.

McCluskey ran out of gas on the 48th lap; a cracked manifold sidelined Foyt for 20 minutes on the 79th. When Ruby attempted to leave the pits with a fuel hose still attached on lap 108, it left Andretti in the lead, all by himself. “I just couldn’t wait for the end,” Andretti says. “I was feeling a lot of things in the drivetrain—and you know, everybody says, usually if you’re leading comfortably then you start hearing noises … but this was for real; the drivetrain was very rough.

We found out later that the bearings in the gearbox were all shot, and McGee says (we) probably would not have done more than another lap or two. “And so I guess it was all meant to be, you know, when you look at everything. We used up every inch of that car, I’ll tell you that,” Andretti says with a laugh. “We didn’t leave anything on the table, but it brought us home.” After a record three hours, 11 minutes and 14.71 seconds, Mario Andretti—refugee and immigrant, husband and father, son of Montona, Italy, and Nazareth, Pennsylvania—had won the fastest Indy 500 ever.

  It was the moment that made him a household name, the first a generation of cops would reach for when asking, “Who do you think you are … ?”  Andretti went on to win his third USAC championship that season, but it was his last with Brawner and McGee, who, disgruntled with Granatelli’s management style, set off on their own the next year. 

The parting precipitated what Andretti calls “a lull” in his career. Brawner remembered it more ruefully: “The following year, Andretti, without McGee and I helping him, won a single race. And McGee and I, without Andretti driving for us, won nothing at all.” But all that came later.

In the aftermath of the race itself, at the center of a raucous celebration in victory lane, Andretti was set upon by his gleeful team owner, as Granatelli planted a wet one on his cheek—an image that has become one of the most iconic in racing. It doesn’t look in the photo as if Granatelli is being particularly careful with the face of a guy whose burns are still fresh. Asked if that famous kiss actually hurt, Andretti pauses for a second, perhaps savoring the memory. “Nothing hurt at that time,” he says quietly. “Nothing hurt.” 

Source: Story by Peter Hughes Autoweek. Images: LAT images