If there are just a few stand-out names in US motorsport then Mario Andretti would be one of them. If there was a stand out Indy 500 race, then I would vote for 1969! That’s the year, and only time, that Andretti won at the Brickyard.
Very few top US drivers have made it in Europe, arguably Andretti has been their greatest. Andretti had started competing in F1 before his Indy win, having met Lotus F1 Team owner Colin Chapman in 1965 who was running Jim Clark at Indy.
It’s reported that Clark gave Andretti a Lotus 49 which he put on pole at the 1968 US F1 Grand Prix at Watkins Glen. He went on to compete in 128 F1 Grand Prix, winning the F1 title in 1978, in a Lotus.
He remains the only driver ever to win the Indianapolis 500 (1969), Daytona 500 (1967) and the Formula One World Championship (1978 with Lotus). He is one of only two US drivers to have won the F1 title, the other being Phil Hill in 1961 with Ferrari.
Hill never competed at Indy but had multiple wins at the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
Such is his fame that his name is often used in everyday life – ‘Who do you think you are, Mario Andretti?’ or ‘Drive it like Andretti’.
Now the NBC Sports Films has produced a documentary ‘Drive it like Andretti’, featuring Andretti’s first-person account as a refugee, immigrant, cultural icon and racing legend. (Here’s Part 1)
There are two recollections I have about Andretti. As a boy, I remember his Indy 500 winning Brawner Hawk race car coming to NZ and being the highlight of a car show in Christchurch. My parents couldn’t understand why I was only interested in this one car? (I expect that tomorrow I’ll get an email saying it wasn’t the real thing, just a copy).
I was mesmerised. It was one of those rare moments you have as a child when you are in a state of bliss, not realising that this is the start of your passion.
The other memory is that I got to meet him in 2005 in the pits at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. His grandson, Marco, was competing in the Menards IRL Infiniti Pro Series (now known as the Indy Lights) on the road course as a support race to the United States Grand Prix. We spoke briefly. He was just like you see him on TV. No pretences, no ego, quite a humble man.
Marco went on to win that Infiniti Pro race from pole, beating Kiwi driver Wade Cunningham.
Andretti’s motorsport career is extraordinary. And deservedly, his name gets such recognition.