x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Mario Andretti on the unlikely legacy of the Indianapolis 500

This weekend, the most famous motor race in the United States is 100 years old. Matt Majendie talks to the one and only Mario Andretti about glories past, present and – possibly – future.

Marco Andretti, left, talks with his grandfather and former Indianapolis 500 winner Mario Andretti before the final practice session for the Indianapolis 500 race in May 2009.
Marco Andretti, left, talks with his grandfather and former Indianapolis 500 winner Mario Andretti before the final practice session for the Indianapolis 500 race in May 2009.

It is billed as the Greatest Spectacle in Racing and, tomorrow, the Indianapolis 500 will celebrate its 100th birthday. The list of winners at the event reads like a who's who of global motorsport. AJ Foyt, Jim Clark, Graham Hill and Emerson Fittipaldi are all on the honours board at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Also there, next to 1969, is Mario Andretti, the Italian-born American who was a resounding success both sides of the Atlantic both in IndyCar racing and in Formula 1, in which he was crowned world champion with Lotus in 1978. He readily admits that the Indy 500 is where it all began for him, the springboard to an illustrious career that also saw him crowned Cart and World Sportscar champion.

He will be in the Indianapolis pitlane for much of the weekend cheering on the Andretti Autosport team and, most notably, his grandson Marco Andretti and nephew John Andretti, both of whom will be competing in the marathon event. The Andretti name has been synonymous with the most prestigious motor-racing event in the United States since 1965, when Mario entered qualifying just a month after making his debut in the Champ Car series.


But he confessed: "The Indy 500 was never my first love. Growing up in Italy, I lived and breathed Formula 1. I went to Monza in 1954 for that year's Italian Grand Prix and I was just hooked on it. That was the year before we left to the United States, and so it was F1 where the passion first burned strongest.

"But I first got to watch the Indy 500 in 1958. I'd been in this country for a few years and was 18 years old and was just blown away. The following year, I was racing."

He steadily climbed up the ranks, and entered his first Indy 500 seven years later. He proved an immediate success by qualifying on the second row of the grid. "That year, it went real good for me. I qualified well and the race went well and I ended up finishing third overall behind Jim Clark, who dominated the race, and Parnelli Jones, and was crowned rookie of the year. It was the perfect year for me. I went on to win the national championship that year and, at 25, I was the youngest person to do that at the time."

Subsequent visits to the track proved less successful in the ensuing years. The following year, a faulty valve caused him to stop just 27 laps into the 200-lap event. His luck failed to improve the following year, when a lost wheel caused him to retire 58 laps in and he assumed he was cursed when he managed just two circuits of the race before his piston broke. However, in 1969 his luck changed markedly for what proved to be his only Indy 500 success.

"There were a lot of remarkable things about that year," he pointed out. "For one, it was only the second time I'd actually finished the race. Secondly, I was actually meant to race a Lotus Ford. It was a phenomenal car that was very quick, and it set all sorts of records in practice. But I crashed it in practice and there was just no time to repair it.

"So my team worked around the clock to prepare a back-up vehicle in the Hawk-Ford, so I lined up in a car that I'd barely driven. In fact, I had just one day to practice. On top of that, I was still burnt a little bit from the practice crash. It looked like another retirement was on the cards, as we had overheating problems in the race but, somehow, we crossed the line in front. I was never confident of winning until the moment we crossed the line. The victory was just amazing."

His Indy 500 success caught the attention of the F1 grid he so desired to be a part of. Not long afterwards, Ferrari came calling and his F1 career took off.

"Winning the Indy 500 changes your career; it did mine," he admitted. "In the course of 200 laps, it can change your career, change your life, and that's pretty magical. I don't really know how to put it into words. The Indy 500 is like winning a world championship, but the fact is that is all rolled up into one single race. It's very special, and for me it's a race that's just got everything.

"For 100 years it has been the motorsport event in the US. When it comes to horse racing, the only one that matters here is the Kentucky Derby. When it comes to 24-hour racing, Le Mans is all that matters. The Indy 500 is the motor race that matters most of all in the States. Sure, there are other big races, but there's nothing like the Indy 500."

Andretti's love affair with the event that effectively sparked his global stardom meant he returned each year to compete despite his commitments to F1. In all, he drove in 29 Indy 500s, but remarkably boasts only a solitary success, although he came mightily close to picking up win No 2 on a number of occasions, most memorably in 1981 and 1985.

The 1981 race, won by Bobby Unser, is one of the most famous in the event's history and one of its darker moments. Unser won the event but illegally passed 11 cars while coming out of the pits under the yellow flag. Despite that, he was allowed to continue to the chequered flag. Unser was then stripped of his title and Andretti, that year's runner-up, was declared the victor and posed for the cameras with the winner's trophy.

The matter was not finished, however, and a lengthy court case ensued in which Unser was handed back the title once more, months after the event. The result still rankles for the immensely affable Andretti.

"I actually started last, as someone else had to qualify for me that year because I was racing in Monaco at the time," he said. "I ended up second, but the fact was that Bobby Unser passed 11 cars under yellows.

"The whole thing was handled very badly. I don't believe the rule book was followed properly and Bobby Unser ended up being reinstated and getting a £40,000 fine instead. I can't change it now so I probably shouldn't go on about it, but the fact is that Bobby Unser did not win that race."

Again, he came close four years later, although in less controversial circumstances, as he had to make do with the runner-up spot behind Danny Sullivan, despite the fact Sullivan spun late in the race. Andretti never quite enjoyed the same success at the venue after that, but continued to enter it until his last outing in 1994. For all the highs of the Indy 500, the challenging track nearly took his life in 2003 when he returned to help one of his son Michael's cars qualify for the race.

In what was his final run of the day, and travelling at top speed, he hit a safety barrier on the track that had been knocked loose by Kenny Brack. It sent Andretti into a series of flips, but he walked away from the wreckage with little more than a cut chin.

"That crash was just one of those things," Andretti said understatedly. "I knew I was going to hit it, but there was nothing I could do. I was travelling at 222mph (357kph). It just launched me into the air and I took off like an F16. I thought 'oh my gosh, this is it'. I felt it was going to be really bad.

"I did three flips and landed on a wheel and all I had was a couple of scrapes. I was very fortunate and I couldn't believe I was still in one piece. I remember seeing my son afterwards. He was pleased I was still alive, but then again I think I lost him about a million dollars that day with all the damage I did."

Despite the litany of star drivers he has competed against at the Indy 500, it is Michael whom he deems as his toughest ever opponent. The younger Andretti boasted three podium finishes, but none on the top spot.

But his father said: "The best driver I ever raced there was probably Michael, and I'm very serious about that. Michael was unbelievable around there. He bossed that race so many times but never quite had the luck. He was leading in 1992 when his engine just let go with nine laps left. He was just a relentless driver around there."

As for predicting a winner for this year, Andretti hopes it will be someone with the same surname but genuinely admits to finding it a lottery in terms of picking a winner. "There really is no clear favourite this year," he said. "It's almost impossible to predict. Let's hope it's my grandson or my nephew."