Andretti was World Champion in F1 and Champion in Indycars but not at the same time!

Mario Andretti


Grand Prix Drivers post 1945

" A real switch-an Italian-born driver who has become an American champion

in 1962

AT DRIZZLY Trenton, N.J., a season and a half ago, rookie Mario Andretti had just been strapped in his car when he tried the brake pedal. It was a shock. "I can't make these brakes work," he protested.

Mechanics readying the old, old Offy-powered dirt rig for him registered little compassion. "Aw, don't worry, boy. You just have to pump 'em a little."

Andretti both qualified and raced his worn-out steed, driving hard on the rain-slick mile oval until the combination of his weakening brake foot and a cloudburst sent him into the wall. It was a minor collision, injuring neither Andretti nor the car. But as Mario was digging himself from the cockpit he discovered - also backwards and stalled the rear-engined Leader Card Special of Rodger Ward.

Ward, the leader of the 100 ml contest, had been directly behind, priming himself to lap Andretti. At 125 mph, it had been impossible for him to miss the melee. After making the appropriate remarks, Ward left, doubtless feeling he'd just confronted another hairy-driving novice who was neither long for USAC nor this world.

If this was indeed Ward's opinion, it was a common one. During the last five years, USAC-faced with a real shortage of top-notch car chauffeurs has had its ranks infiltrated by aspiring youngsters from minor league racing clubs throughout the land: wild steerers with lots of nerve but little experience.

Andretti seemed to fit the mold. A sometimes driver of the infamous, quick-handling sprint cars (best described as being smaller, lighter, and more powerful than the high prestige championship cars) he'd also occasionally driven high-performance outlaw super-modified" cars and RDCA midgets on the tough dirt tracks of Pennsylvania. When Mario ramrodded these machines, it was usually a fence busting fiesta. "Maybe I was a little wild," he concedes.

Still, it was only a few months after Trenton-in July 1964 that Andretti's roughneck, crash-and-burn reputation started receiving drastic alterations. Now, it has been completely blasted away by the noise and force of the Andretti driven Dean Van Lines Specials at any paved track from Phoenix to Langhorne.

Without exaggeration, Andretti has conquered American track racing. Rookie of the Year at Indy, he is point leader in USAC's championship car division by a commanding margin, well on his way to becoming the first rookie to cop title honors since Johnny Parsons in 1949. Further, Andretti is becoming deeply involved in stock car racing, having practically discarded the lethal sprint cars in favor of the fat stocker purses. "He is amazingly talented; an asset to our racing," says Parnelli Jones, one of the best spokesmen for track competition.

Yet the unreal success story of the frail (5-6, 130 pounds), 25-year-old Italian-speaking immigrant really began on no oval, but as a spectator at a road race in Ancona, Italy, when he was 13. Andretti's early inspiration wasn't provided by a Vukovich or Bettenhausen, but by 2-time world road-racing champion Alberto Ascari.

The circle tracks, the V-8 -modifieds and sprinters came later, when Andretti, his parents, twin brother, and sister entered the U.S. in 1958, settling in Nazareth, Pa. In Nazareth, if you wanted to be a race driver, you used a modified or midget.

There was nothing else.

It was Al Dean, driverless in 1964 when his regular pilot, Chuck Hulse, was injured and had to drop out of competition, who assigned long-time tuner Clint Brawner to beat the bushes for a replacement. Brawner had seen the Andretti Trenton fiasco, and also some USAC sprint car meets. Feeling he'd located a treasure, Brawner recommended Andretti to Dean, who signed him to an exclusive 3-year contract. Andretti moved himself, young wife, and year-old son to an apartment in Indianapolis and went to work for Dean.

His first job was driving a specially lightened roadster, with which he was soon able to run down all but the fastest rear-engined machines. Mario's best showing was at Phoenix International Raceway in March of this year where, peering anxiously over the windscreen, he led the 150-mile race until he slid off the track to miss a spinning car.

The roadster was farmed out and replaced with a 4-cam Ford-powered Blawner-buiIt machine that was a close copy of a Brabham. Andretti passed the Indianapolis rookie test, then hustled the car round at 158.849 mph, the first driver of four to break the existing qualifying record. Starting in the second row, far and away the fastest rookie, he chased the leaders all day and finally finished third.

Dean, who formerly had the late Jimmy Bryan chauffeuring his cars and who, more than anyone else, has triggered Andretti's astounding rise to power, says, "He's a racing Mickey Mantle. And the little guy hasn't even come close to reaching his peak. "

Andretti explains, "When. you get in equipment as good as the boss's, and have a mechanic like Clint, away you go."

The pressure on Andretti to take the national championship award as a rookie obviously has caused him to leave his foot permanently on the gas. He. has been entangled in his share of incidents, though he has neither been injured nor had a serious wreck.

A flying rock clipped him on the lace last year during a dirt track race and the small scar it left has. practically disappeared. Since then, however, Mario has shown some reserve while racing on the big dirt courses.

His size is also probably a factor, as. he inevitably ends up arm-weary and sore after a race on dirt. "I prefer pavement," he says.

And the faster the pavement the better. It is significant that his pet venue is the flat-out Phoenix tri-oval, where he set the 120-mph lap record in the Dean roadster and still holds it.

It is also significant that Andretti won the Indy Raceway Park event last June, first-ever road race for the championship cars. He is more than a little affectionate toward this kind of racing, and will soon be attending professional sports car contests, thus finding another mountain to climb. At the Bridgehampton Double 500 he drove a Ferrari until it quit, and is looking forward to a ride in a Lola later.

He has truly overwhelmed American racing-with the same fire and dash that Ascari himself possessed when he was confronting Fangio and the full Mercedes camp at Monza 11 years ago, where a ragazzo named Andretti was in the stands, wide-eyed and thrilled.

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Author: ArchitectPage