Nigel Roebuck's legends

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The sad thing is, winning Indy – the driving part of it – is out of all proportion to the fame and fortune

The last time I went to the Indianapolis 500, in 1993, there was a particularly popular T-shirt in evidence. Relatively plain on the front, the legend on the back read, ‘And Mario’s slowing down’.

Spectators at the Speedway had heard veteran track announcer Tom Carnegie say those words many times. On countless occasions Andretti led the 500 in the late stages, only to have something fail on his car: in 1987, for example, he dominated the whole month of May, and with 20 laps to go had everyone covered, a full lap ahead – when the engine let go. “No warning, nothing,” Mario says. “Everything was perfect – and then everything was finished.”

Andretti’s relationship with the Indianapolis Motor Speedway had started well. In 1965 he finished third behind Jimmy Clark and Parnelli Jones and was named ‘Rookie of the Year’, but the following year was a more accurate pointer towards the luck Mario – and his progeny – would ‘enjoy’ at The Brickyard: after starting from pole, he was soon out, piston holed; in ’67 he was on pole again, and this time lost a wheel; in ’68, another piston, only two laps in.

The breakthrough came in 1969 – and at a moment when few expected it. Andretti had been down to race a new four-wheel-drive Lotus for Andy Granatelli. He loved the car from the outset, setting record times in practice and establishing himself – yet again – as the clear favourite for the race. “Shoulda remembered it was a Lotus…” Mario laconically recalls.

A couple of days before the first qualifying weekend he was out in the car, running hard, when a hub sheared in Turn Four and the right-rear wheel flew away. The Lotus hit the wall hard and erupted into flames.

“Thank God I wasn’t stunned by the impact,” Andretti says. “We were all wearing open-face helmets back then; I covered my face with one hand and popped the belts with the other. I was quickly out of the car – before it came to rest, in fact – but the heat around my face was almost unbearable. Art Pollard, who had been running behind me, came over, and I asked him how my face was. ‘Not too bad,’ he says. ‘It’s starting to blister, so that’s a good sign. I’d say first degree, maybe second in some places.’ It was pretty painful, but somehow I wasn’t even shaken up – not really.”

Once Andretti had been checked over at the infield hospital, he got straight into the debate about a back-up car. “Colin Chapman offered us Jochen Rindt’s car. We thought it over, but I was inclined to pass – after all, I’d just been bitten by a Lotus.”

Thus his crew set to work on the team’s spare car, the Hawk raced by Mario in the regular USAC races. Amazingly, he qualified second, and when AJ Foyt was delayed, and Lloyd Ruby retired, Andretti was left with a 100-lap cruise to victory. “It was the easiest 500 I ever had,” he says, “and the only one I ever won.” In 29 attempts.

“Winning Indianapolis was always a major goal. But in some ways Indy is very overrated. To me, the guy who wins there is no better than the guy who wins at any other big oval. But there is a certain mystique about Indy. Believe me, you’d go a long way in a single day to achieve more satisfaction than you do when you cross its line first.

“The sad thing is, winning Indy – the driving part of it – is out of all proportion to the fame and fortune. It needs no more ability than any other place, and certainly less than, say, Pocono. It’s just a matter of everything hanging together on a particular day. I can’t say that my win at Indy was one of my brilliant races. It was a consistent race, but I can’t pat myself on the back that I did a real heart-stopping drive.

“In terms of the record, though, it was always so important in the States. Just like everyone in Europe remembers Stirling Moss as the guy who never won the world championship, so there are guys in America who never got their name on the Borg Warner Trophy: Ted Horn, Tony Bettenhausen, Lloyd Ruby… you sure as hell can’t say they weren’t capable of putting it away. And what about Michael?”

Same surname, same luck. In 1991 he seemed to have finally done it. As usual, his father had led for a while, but the younger Andretti was in front for most of the way. After a late yellow he found himself behind Rick Mears, but as soon as they got the green he passed Mears at Turn One – on the outside. Exactly a lap later the brilliant Mears put the exact same move on Michael. The dream was over for another year.

If ever the Andretti family had an annus horribilis at Indy, though, it was surely 1992, when the weather was untypically cool and the race was pockmarked by accidents. Someone would hit the wall, the field would trail round behind the pace car, tyres would go cold – and on the restart someone else would go off. Mario himself hit the wall and broke a foot – but much worse was to follow. Shortly after half-distance, his younger son Jeff had a hub failure and speared almost head-on into the wall, suffering dreadful leg injuries.

While two Andrettis lay in the track hospital, the third, concerned for his relatives, albeit reassured that their lives were not in danger, pressed on. Michael had dominated the race, but with only 11 laps to the flag his fuel pressure disappeared. The day of misery was complete.

“If he’d won, it would have given us something to smile about,” says Mario, “but, as it was, I didn’t want to talk to anyone, just wanted to be on my own. God, that was a bad time.”

Michael himself retired from driving a few years ago and became a team owner. This May, though, he made a one-race comeback to help shepherd one of his drivers, a rookie, through the Indy experience. They used to say of Michael that the apple hadn’t fallen far from the tree, and clearly that is also the case with his son Marco, just 19. With a couple of laps remaining he calmly went by his father into the lead. He was still in front as they came out of Turn Four on the last lap, but from somewhere Sam Hornish Jnr found the speed to pip him.

So the Andrettis finished 2-3, and their Indy bad luck story continues, 37 years after the family’s one and only victory in a total of 54 starts.

“What do you do?” asks Mario. “You keep coming back, that’s what you do.”

One hopes they never make ‘And Marco’s slowing down’ T-shirts.

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