THE ONE THAT GOT AWAY
SHOULD TRY HARDER
MARIO ANDRETTI 1987 INDIANAPOLIS 500 ANDRETTTS LUCK AT INDY WAS ATROCIOUS, BUT NEVERMORE SO THAN IN ’87, WHERE HIS ENGINE FAILED BECAUSE HE HAD BEEN TOO EASY ON IT HE RUES ANOTHER ‘500’ DNF TO ADAM COOPER FOR MORE THAN TWO DECADES, THE COMMENTATOR’S
urgent shriek of “Mario Andretti is slowing!” was the most famous catchphrase at Indianapolis. Indeed, it was heard almost as often as “Gentleman, start your engines”.
Mario’s bad luck at the Speedway is part of the race’s folklore. After twice sitting on pole, he won at his fifth attempt, in 1969, but despite making 24 more appearances, had failed to register a second victory by the time he called time on his career at the end of 1994. Apart from his solitary win, only four of his other 28 starts ran the full 200 laps, picking up a couple of seconds, a fourth and a fifth. For the most part it was a tale of mechanical carnage as he either
got caught up in accidents or suffered frustrating failures — usually on the back straight.
“I think I led more laps than all but one of the four-time winners,” says Mario, who is actually third on the all-time list behind Al Unser Snr and 1915 winner, Ralph de Palma. “So I always had a good time there. I don’t think I ever felt totally out of it, and I always felt I had a fairly good chance. If the race had been 400 miles I think I would have won it six times! “When I won in 1969 it was only the second time I had finished. In 1966 and ’67, if my car would have lasted, I think I could have won two of the easiest races of my life, because I had so much of an advantage in the car. In 1980, my Penske was
really quick — and we had an electrical short. In ’81, I started last and initially they gave me the race when Bobby Unser was penalised. But then he was given a $40,000 fine instead of the normal penalty.”
And so it goes on. But none of the disappointments hurt more than that of 1987, when his Newman-Haas Lola was the class of the field. “That was the best package lever had. The Ilmor engine was at this time fairly new, but I had made a decision to use it. Roger Penske was very much involved with the project, but he was not yet committing 100 per cent with that engine. But we did. We won Long Beach just before Indy, and I did a successful 500-mile test. Adrian Newey was my engineer that year, and we dominated that month
at Indy. Every single day we were on the track, we were quickest.”
Mario is quick to attribute much of his good form to the talents of Newey, who had returned to CART after a brief spell with the disastrous Beatrice/Haas Formula One team. “I’m a big Adrian fan. Over the years I worked with some really interesting people, like Colin Chapman, but Adrian is head and shoulders above anyone I’ve ever worked with. He’s theoretical, but practical. And he totally understands the full spectrum. He can design a car, but he can also race engineer a car. As a driver, you have an exceptional confidence because of the way he reasons. He
gets it You know he’s riding with you.
“Also, Adrian always has a second option, a solid back-up plan in case the weather changes. At Indy, we had three subtly different set-ups, which was enough to make the most out of any of the conditions. And I never had that with anyone else. You’d think that you would have enough knowledge yourself, but you don’t. You need to have the other engineering mind to give you confidence.
“That’s why, wherever he goes, I know that he’s going to be a winner, because he brings that extra.” Mario took pole at 215mph, ahead of Bobby Rahal and Rick Mears. He
was utterly dominant on raceday, losing the lead only briefly after pitstops, as Roberto Guerrero gave vain chase. It seemed like the drought, then running at 18 years, was over.
“I had that race so wired. I was only worried about bringing the car home. You know you have it, and you know that it’s in your hands. On raceday, we led 170 [of the 200] laps. And then it broke a valve spring. “I couldn’t believe it. You know you can do it, and all you have to do is have the piece under you to stay with you. I’ve been accused of being too tough on the cars. But if you get something like a short in the electrical system how can you be
too tough on the car? You find that you have to defend yourself from things you haven’t done.
“Mario Mien will-tell you that they did a simulated run with the revs that I was using. I was using very conservative revs, but if I would have run 600rpm higher, the engine would have lasted. The reason I dropped a valve was because I was running within the bad harmonics of the engine, and there was a vibration. And I could hear that it was really labouring. “If I would have been pursued, I would have been compelled to go faster, I would have been okay. Between fifth and sixth gear we had a 400rpm split I was running sixth, and if I had been running fifth
all day, it would have lasted.”
Guerrero took the lead but stalled at his final pitstop. Outsider Al Unser Snr, who didn’t have a ride at the start of May, swept past to win. His Penske March had been retrieved from show car duty to replace a crashed chassis!
Mario made seven more appearances in the Indy 500, and retired on five occasions. His final outing lasted just 23 laps and he was classified 32nd.
“I knew it was going to be the last one in 1994 and I just really wanted to finish. I always went there with the attitude that it’s a new day, a new race. I never dwelt on the past. But if it’s not to be, it’s not to be.”