IRL: Indy500: Mario Andretti Knew Only One Speed at Indy -- Fast

INDIANAPOLIS, Thursday, May 11, 2000 -- You'd think that at age 60, with all the races that he's won, and records that he's set in auto racing, maybe Mario Andretti could rest on his laurels. Huh! The only thing Andretti...

INDIANAPOLIS, Thursday, May 11, 2000 -- You'd think that at age 60, with all the races that he's won, and records that he's set in auto racing, maybe Mario Andretti could rest on his laurels. Huh! The only thing Andretti has known in his life is to charge. Rest? No way. For instance, only a couple weeks ago he was in France qualifying his Panoz LMP-1 for another 24 Hours of Le Mans attempt. He qualified sixth fastest but wasn't satisfied with the car's balance. Hey, sixth isn't first. As soon as Andretti returned to America, he was at the Watkins Glen road course in upstate New York to do a testing session in his 1971 Lotus for a Road & Track magazine feature. He had the car up to competitive speeds by the end of the day, he said. On May 18, Andretti returns to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway to be saluted as one of the Legends of the Speedway. It will be his first appearance at the track since 1995. He will drive his 1967 Dean Van Lines car that he drove to the Indianapolis 500 pole with a record 168.982-mph speed average. They better have the checkered flag out that day, because he just might try to get up to competitive speeds then, too. "It made a huge change in my life," he said about his recent absence from the track. "May at the Speedway is something I miss terribly. "Winning the '500' (in 1969) represents the crown jewel of my career. To be back and mentioned as a legend makes me feel very special." Andretti drove in the Indianapolis 500 29 times, winning only once but coming so close several other times while leading 556 laps, third all-time. He finished third in his first race in 1965 and 32nd in his final one in 1994. He was able to race at Indianapolis with sons Michael and Jeff and nephew John in the same field in 1991 and 1992. Mario rates highly his victories in the 1967 Daytona 500 and the 1978 Formula One World Championship among his many other achievements during a brilliant auto racing career. He came a long way after arriving in Nazareth, Pa., with his twin brother, Aldo, and family in 1955 as a 15-year-old immigrant from Italy. Ten years later, he was a rising star in auto racing who knew only one way to drive: flat out. He came to Indy for the first time in 1965 in the Al Dean machine. "Indy, you know what it represents to a driver," he said of his rookie year. "It was the mecca of auto racing. Quite clearly, it was the defining stage of a career of a lifetime." Andretti came with a good car in '65, a year loaded with impressive newcomers, but there was drama involved with his success. The car arrived late, but fortunately it was race-ready off the trailer. "I took it from there and never looked back," he said. Andretti qualified on the inside of the second row and drove to third behind future fellow Hall of Famers Jim Clark and Parnelli Jones. He was hands-down winner of the Rookie of the Year award. In 1966, Andretti set a track-record qualifying speed of 165.899 mph to gain his first pole, but a faulty valve in the engine knocked him out in 18th. He returned in '67 once again to win the pole with a record speed, but a lost wheel ended that race for him. In all of his starts at Indy, Andretti considers the 1968 race as the only one he didn't have a chance of winning. "I had no feel for winning," he said. "Ford had that new turbo-charged engine. I never felt out of it as much as I did that year." Andretti felt a bit lost and jinxed again in 1969 when he crashed his primary wedge car during practice, suffering facial burns. But mechanics Clint Brawner and Jim McGee hauled out the backup Brawner Hawk. For once, luck turned his way at Indy. He qualified second and beat Dan Gurney to the checkered flag with a record winning speed of 156.867 mph. The biggest smooch he got in Victory Lane came from car owner Andy Granatelli. "I was more determined," Andretti said about his effort in the second car. "I felt our main shot went out the window, but we were not out of it. "I thought after that I would win a bunch. No question, I thought now that I've got one under my belt it will be downhill; if I stayed around I'd win a few more." It never happened. Mario finished second in 1981, then was advanced to first when Bobby Unser was penalized a lap for a blending rule infraction. However, that decision was reversed the following October by a 2-1 vote of an appeals panel. In 1985, he finished second to Danny Sullivan in the famous "spin and win" race. Mario led 107 laps but thought that conservative gear selection during car setup let Sullivan catch and pass him. "Probably the biggest disappointment was '87," said Andretti, who led 170 laps of that race until the ignition quit and brought his car to a halt seven laps from the checkered flag. "Every time out I always was quickest. When we packed up with 23 laps to go, I was trying to take it easy. Later they found if I had run 600 rpm faster, I probably would have won." Andretti ran seven more races after that and had a seventh- and fifth-place finish after he turned 50. During his career, the qualifying lap speeds climbed nearly 80 mph from 161 to 239. He feels that the current range of the Indy Racing Northern Light Series cars at close to 225 is about right for the Speedway. But he said the search for an extra mph or two is the carrot that drivers like himself and long-time rival A.J. Foyt always chased. "It's what keeps us ticking," he said. Mario estimates he may have done 20,000 laps total on Indy's 2½-mile oval. "Testing for Firestone kept me really sharp. I knew this track as well as anyone. I spent a lifetime on it. A lot of people say you only won once, but I have no regrets. For sure, I would have liked more checkered flags, but my memories of Indy are excellent."

-IMS/IRL-

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About this article
Series IndyCar
Drivers Mario Andretti , Jim Clark , Bobby Unser , Parnelli Jones , Danny Sullivan , A.J. Foyt