Thursday, August 14, 2008

Mario Andretti's "Educated Right Foot"

Mario Andretti will be the Guest of Honor at the 35th Anniversary Rolex Monterey Historic Automobile Races. The event takes place on August 15-17 at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca and will salute the Alfa Romeo, the first marque to be featured at the Historics in 1975. “We are extremely pleased to have Mario Andretti join us at the Rolex Monterey Historic this year. He is a living legend for all of us, and we’ll join together to celebrate the anniversary of his winning the World Championship in 1978,” said Steve Earle, President of General Racing Ltd., the event founder and organizer. Andretti will drive a few demonstration laps in his Formula One Championship winning Lotus 79 and participate in autograph sessions on both Friday and Saturday.

Andretti said, “The Rolex Monterey Historic is the premier historic auto racing event in the country. I am pleased to be a part of these festivities and look forward to spending time with fans and enthusiasts from across the country who travel to Monterey for this wonderful event. Laguna Seca has always been one of my favorite tracks. For a driver, it’s a truly technical and challenging course that provides immense satisfaction. For a spectator, it’s phenomenal because of the many vantage points to watch the action.”

Andretti coined the phrase "the educated right foot" and he did some PhD level work with that appendage during a career that spanned five decades and included four Indy Car national championships (1965-66, 69, 84), an IROC series championship (1979) and a United States Auto Club (USAC) national dirt track championship (1974) plus victories in several of the world's most storied motor racing events: the Daytona 500 (1967), the Indianapolis 500 (1969), the Pikes Peak Hill Climb (1969), the 12 Hours of Sebring (1967, 1970, 1972) and the 24 Hours of Daytona (1972). Andretti is the only driver to win the Indy 500, the Daytona 500 and the Formula One World Championship and the only driver to be named Driver of the Year in three different decades (1967, 1978, 1984). In 1992, a panel consisting of previous Drivers of the Year plus 12 journalists voted him Driver of the Quarter Century. The Associated Press and RACER magazine separately named him Driver of the Century and RACER later named him Greatest American Driver Ever.

Rapid Rise to Prominence

Andretti started out racing on dirt tracks as a 19 year old in 1959. He quickly moved up to the USAC midget and sprint car ranks. Andretti made a big splash in 1965, winning Rookie of the Year honors at the Indianapolis 500 after qualifying fourth and finishing third in the race. He also had a fateful encounter in the pit area with legendary team owner Colin Chapman. Andretti told Chapman that he wanted to drive Formula One cars someday and Chapman replied, "When you're ready, call me." Andretti became the youngest Indy Car national champion that year and he defended his crown in 1966, winning eight out of 16 races.

Andretti had an insatiable appetite for racing: "It seems to me that there was a period in my life, a long period, where I just couldn't get enough, couldn't get enough of it. My wife would say--never complain--but she would say, 'Geez, can't you take a weekend off?' And if you look back, not for one year or a couple years but for many, many years, I just would not. I would run sprint cars, I would run sports cars. A lot of the guys would have the weekend off and usually you had the lull in between, even in Formula One. And I'd be up and away from Zandvoort to Atlanta and all that sort of thing. I did that for years and years. Teo Fabi did that for six months. What I'm saying is that some guys try that and either burn out or it doesn't make any sense. I don't fault them. I think they are smart. I think I was probably the stupid one. But for me, it worked."

Amazing Versatility

In 1966, Andretti drove 14 different cars in 51 races at an astonishing variety of circuits, including Indy Car, NASCAR, Can-Am and endurance events, claiming 14 victories in four different rides. "I never had any difficulty moving between disciplines. You get in a car, you switch off everything else and you focus on what you're at," Andretti once said. "Like I'm doing the Sebring 12 Hours on a Saturday, I fly out Saturday night, Sunday I'm racing a sprint car on a dirt oval. World of difference in the skills required but the passion's the same."

Andretti won a series-best eight out of 21 Indy Car races in 1967--including four in a row and five out of six in the middle of the season--but missed out on capturing a third straight national championship when he had to make a pit stop to refuel with three laps left in the final race of the season. Despite the failed attempt at a "three-peat," Andretti had much to be happy about in 1967: he won the first of his three Driver of the Year awards after wrestling a poor handling Ford to victory in the Daytona 500 and capturing the first of his three wins at the 12 Hours of Sebring.

In 1968, Andretti made his Formula One debut, driving for Chapman's Lotus team and setting a track record at Watkins Glen, becoming the first Formula One driver to earn the pole position in his first race. Andretti did not finish the race due to mechanical problems but at one point he was running second behind Jackie Stewart, who would win the first of his three Formula One World Championships in 1969.

Bobby Unser narrowly outpointed Andretti (4330-4319) for the 1968 Indy Car title but in 1969 Andretti dominated the circuit, winning nine of 24 races and claiming the national title 5025-2630 over Al Unser. One of Andretti's nine victories came at the Indy 500, his first and only win in that event.

Andretti only won one Indy Car race in 1970 and dropped to fifth in the national championship standings but it was still a memorable year for him. He earned his first Formula One podium finish, third place in the Spanish Grand Prix. Andretti's victory in the 12 Hours of Sebring in 1970 was particularly special, as he explained to Motor Sport magazine's Keith Howard in 2007: "What motivated me more than anything was the fact that the leading Porsche was being driven by Steve McQueen, although Peter Revson did most of the driving because Steve was so slow. I figured, 'Jeez, we can't have a Hollywood star winning the race.' I didn't really fit in the coupe--I had to reach for the pedals a bit...I drove like a madman to catch him and pull out a cushion, then sure enough the reserve light came on. There was no speed limit in the pits so I came in real quick. In those days you had to turn the engine off and get out of the car so I threw myself on the ground...(After refueling) I just buckled my lap belt and blew out of the pits again...It was the most satisfying endurance win of my career because I drove really hard and I don't think the car would have won otherwise. It was incredibly satisfying."

Andretti earned his first Formula One victory in the 1971 South African Grand Prix. Andretti drove part time for Ferrari's Formula One team in 1971 and 1972 but he still participated in most of the Indy Car races in addition to winning several endurance sports car events. He further displayed his versatility by winning the 1974 USAC dirt track title and finishing second in the Formula 5000 standings in 1974 and 1975. Andretti had a brief and unsatisfying stint with Vel's Parnelli Jones Formula One team but when they pulled the plug on their operation early in the 1976 season Andretti joined forces again with Chapman's Lotus team and decided to commit fully to pursuing his dream of winning the Formula One Championship.

Although Andretti's partnership with Chapman would prove to be very successful it was not without a certain degree of creative tension. Andretti told Motor Sport's Nigel Roebuck, "When we first got together, Colin says, 'Mario, I always want to make a car as light as possible.' I says, 'Well, Colin, I want to live as long as possible. I guess we need to talk.'" Andretti added, "Working with him was no trip in Paris but I guess you're always going to have problems with a genius, right? All in all Colin was a wonderful chapter in my life--he was such a maverick."

The Lotus cars had some reliability issues in 1976 but Andretti finished the season on a very strong note, placing third at both the Dutch and Canadian Grands Prix before capturing the pole in the season finale at Japan and then lapping the field in a driving rain to win the race. Andretti placed sixth in the driver standings. In 1977, Andretti earned seven poles and won four races en route to a third place finish in the driver standings.

Capturing the Formula One World Championship

Andretti almost ended up racing for Ferrari in 1978. Ferrari officials told Andretti that they couldn't put a price on his ability, which Andretti later said was "very flattering but also very clever, because it puts the ball right back in my court." Andretti wanted Chapman to increase his salary to $500,000 a year (Chapman had offered him $350,000 plus $10,000 per championship point), so Andretti started the negotiations with Ferrari by asking for $750,000 per year. They agreed without blinking--Andretti later said that maybe he should have asked for $1,000,000 per year--so Andretti told Chapman about Ferrari's offer and Chapman put together enough sponsorship money to match it.

Everything came together for Andretti and Lotus in 1978. Driving a pioneering "ground effects" Lotus 79, Andretti earned eight poles and six wins in 16 races to claim the Formula One Championship. This success was marred by tragedy in the Italian Grand Prix, the third to last race of the season, when Andretti's teammate Ronnie Peterson suffered critical injuries in a fiery crash and died the next day. Peterson was running second in the championship chase and, in a cruel irony, his death clinched the title for Andretti.

Andretti and Lotus were not able to maintain the momentum from their dream 1978 season. Andretti started out the 1979 season reasonably well--with one third place, two fourth places and a fifth place in the first five races--but then his unreliable rides retired from seven straight events, killing his chances to repeat as champion. After similar problems plagued the team in 1980, Andretti switched to Alfa-Romeo for the 1981 season. He had just one top five finish and eight DNFs in his final full Formula One campaign.

In 1982, Andretti ran the full Indy Car schedule for the first time since 1974 and finished third in the driver standings. When Ferrari needed a driver for the final two Formula One races, Andretti took the pole at the Italian Grand Prix and finished third. Then, in his Formula One swan song, Andretti qualified seventh at the Las Vegas Grand Prix but retired after only 26 laps due to mechanical problems.

Frustrations at Indy, 24 Hours at Le Mans

During Andretti's great career only two goals eluded him: a win at the 24 Hours at Le Mans and a repeat win at the Indy 500.

A young Mario Andretti must have thought that he was absolutely going to rewrite the Indy 500 record book. He followed up his strong rookie performance in 1965 by winning the pole position in 1966 and 1967, setting track qualifying records each time. Although he only finished 18th and 30th respectively in those races, he qualified second and won the Indy 500 in 1969, just his fifth appearance in the Greatest Spectacle in Racing. However, as the years went by Andretti would prove to be consistently fast in qualifying and early in the race only to suffer some kind of mishap that thwarted him from winning. Between 1970 and 1980 he qualified in the top ten seven out of 10 times (he skipped the 1979 race because the Monaco Grand Prix was held the same day) but he only finished in the top ten three times--never higher than sixth--and on six occasions he placed 20th or worse.

His heartbreaks at Indy--which came to be widely known as "the Andretti curse" or "Andretti luck"--only became more painful in the 1980s. He moved up from 32nd position to second place by the time the checkered flag fell in 1981 and the day after the race he was awarded the win after Bobby Unser was penalized for passing during a caution period. For five months Andretti was a two-time Indy 500 champion but Unser successfully appealed the ruling and was once again named the winner. In 1982, Andretti ran well all month and qualified fourth but Kevin Cogan got anxious during the final warmup lap and swerved wildly, wrecking four cars--including his own, Andretti's and A.J. Foyt's. Foyt was able to compete, though his car did not finish the race, but Andretti's day was over before it began. Andretti's teammate Gordon Johncock, who had been slower than Andretti all month, won the race. In 1985, Andretti qualified fourth and led more laps than anyone during the race but Danny Sullivan performed his famous "spin and win": Sullivan spun out but Andretti deftly avoided him and soon took the lead; later, Sullivan passed Andretti and led the final 60 laps, while Andretti finished second. When asked about finishing second, Andretti later remarked that to him second place is merely "first loser."

Andretti completely dominated the month of May at the Indy 500 in 1987: he easily won the pole position and he led 170 of the first 180 laps. With just 25 laps remaining, Andretti led Roberto Guerrero's second place car by a full lap and he enjoyed a nearly two lap lead over Al Unser. Then, Andretti's car slowed down on lap 177 due to electrical problems. Unser, a three-time Indy 500 winner who did not even have a ride at the start of the month and was replacing the injured Danny Ongais, took advantage of Andretti's misfortune and became the oldest winner in Indy 500 history (47).

Andretti put together good runs that came up just short in 1989 and 1991 (finishing fourth and seventh respectively) but the worst heartbreak happened in 1992. It seemed like it could be a glorious day for the Andretti family as Mario, his sons Michael and Jeff plus his nephew John all qualified for the race. However, Mario crashed on the 73rd lap and broke several toes, Jeff suffered serious leg injuries after a crash on the 115th lap and then Michael--who led 160 laps in a performance reminiscent of Mario's in 1987--dropped out of the race on the 189th lap due to mechanical problems. In 1993, Andretti led 72 laps--more than twice as many as any other driver--but finished fifth. Mario Andretti raced at Indy for the final time in 1994, qualifying a solid ninth at the age of 54 but completing just 23 laps before being sidelined by a fuel system problem.

Andretti ranks third in Indy 500 history in laps led and fifth in laps completed and he is one of just six drivers to lead each of the different 200 laps at least once at some point. Unfortunately, he only led lap 200 one time.

Andretti raced at Le Mans nine times between 1966 and 2000, when he was 60 years old and had been retired from all other forms of racing for six years. In fact, four of Andretti's runs at Le Mans came after he retired as an Indy Car driver. Andretti and co-driver Lucien Bianchi did not finish in both 1966 and 1967. Andretti's numerous other commitments kept him away from Le Mans for 15 years. In 1982 he returned to the race with his 19 year old son Michael. Their car passed the initial inspection but when it was lined up on the grid a technical violation was found and since it was too late to fix it the car never ran in the race. In 1983, the two Andrettis were joined by Phillippe Alliot and that trio finished third. Five years later, Andretti teamed up with sons Michael and Jeff to finish sixth despite losing a cylinder near the end of the race. Andretti, Bob Wollek and Eric Helary finished second in 1995; they had dropped back to 25th place after Andretti crashed into a slower car that braked sooner than he had expected but they battled back from six laps down to get back on the lead lap. Mechanical problems relegated Andretti and his teammates to a 13th place finish in 1996 and in 1997 Andretti crashed a noncompetitive ride, did not finish and was classified 27th. In 2000, Andretti's team briefly ran at the front before finishing 15th.

Competitive Until Retirement

After Andretti returned to the Indy Car circuit full time in 1982 it did not take long for him to reclaim his place at the top. He placed third in the series standings in 1982 and 1983 before winning his fourth national title in 1984. During one stretch in 1984-85, Andretti won nine out of 21 races, placed second in three others and captured 10 pole positions. He won three of the first four races in the 1985 season (and placed second in the Indy 500) but his car was running at the finish in only three of the remaining 10 races and he dropped to fifth in the final national championship standings. Andretti did not win another national championship but he ranked in the top 10 in the standings--usually placing in the top six--until his final season (1994), when he ranked 14th.

Andretti claimed his final Indy Car victory at Phoenix in 1993 at the age of 53, becoming the oldest winner in series history. That year he also set a closed course record (since broken) by taking the pole at the Michigan 500 at 234 mph. When he retired from Indy Car racing he had won 52 of 407 races, earned 67 poles and led 7587 laps. He ranks second all-time in Indy Car wins, first in pole positions, first in laps led and first in wire to wire victories (14). He is the only Indy Car driver to win races in four different decades and the only driver to win races (in any discipline) in five decades. He had at least one top three finish in an Indy Car race for 31 straight years! Counting all forms of motor racing, his career record includes 111 wins and 109 poles in 879 races.

Post Retirement Racing

As noted above, since his retirement Andretti has participated four times in the 24 Hours at Le Mans. In 2003, he stepped in for the injured Tony Kanaan with the idea of qualifying Kanaan's car at the Indy 500 and possibly even driving in the race if Kanaan did not recuperate in time. Andretti had not driven an Indy Car for nine years but he did more than 50 practice laps on April 23, posting a best one lap speed of 225.4 mph, which would have ultimately been good enough to qualify for the field if he could have maintained that pace for four laps. However, Andretti's practice session ended when his car struck some debris left behind from Kenny Brack's accident moments before; Andretti's car spectacularly flipped end over end but fortunately landed right side up and Andretti emerged unscathed. The mishap was not Andretti's fault and could have happened to anyone but the 63 year old wisely announced the next day that he would not be attempting to qualify for the race.


Various issues of Motor Sport magazine

"Mario Andretti Retires" by Bruce Martin, 1994 Indianapolis 500 Yearbook

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