Mario Andretti is not given to hero-worship. He will readily concede that Alberto Ascari was the man who fired in him the ambition to race cars, but that was an adolescent thing. In 1954, when aged 14, he was taken to Monza, saw Ascari in a Ferrari, and was forever changed.
The next summer the Andrettis left for the New World, in search of a better life, and as soon as they settled, in Nazareth, Pennsylvania, Mario and his brother Aldo set to finding out about motor racing in the USA.
“One day this guy pulls up at my uncle’s filling station in a pick-up truck — and on the back is a trailer, with a sprint car on it! Man, for us it was like it was a Mercedes W196! I flat fell in love with sprint cars right there and then.”
By the early ’60s, Mario was racing them himself, and his love for that era endures. “They had skinny tyres and no rollcages, and driving them was like a really delicate thing — you steered them on the throttle, you balanced them through a turn. They were lethal, but they were gorgeous. These days they have huge tyres and wings and stuff, and all the finesse has gone.” When Andreth was doing it sprint car racing was horrifically dangerous, and there was little money to be made from it. Traditionally, a driver ran the sprints until he graduated to championship cars, to Indianapolis, but some found sprint cars so addictive that still they kept on with them. “Nothing else in racing,” Mario says firmly, “gave you the sheer animal pleasure you got from pitching one of those things sideways, and holding it there.”
It was a specialised art form, well divorced from anything else in racing, and has its own history and legends. When Andretti harks back to that time, he speaks of A J Foyt and Parnelli Jones, but the greatest of all in this particular craft, he maintains, were Don Branson — a man who never raced a car until he was 26— and Jud Larson.
“They were great pals,” Mario says, “and used to go fishing together, and stuff, but they were very different as individuals. Jud was a guy who liked a party.
“I remember once we were running over in Minneapolis, and I was sharing a room with him. One night he runs into one of his old girlfriends, and he staggers in at four in the morning. He’s got a six-pack of beer, and he wakes me up, and he says, ‘Hey, Andrecld!’ — he always called me Andrecld — `Wanna beer?’ I says no, I don’t, I’m asleep. ‘OK,’ he says, ‘I’ll drink yours, too.’ “Next morning, we’re walking through the State Fair Park to the track, and we pass one of these greasy hamburger stands — and I see his face starting to change colour. You can guess what happened next.
“Over the previous days, he, Foyt and myself had been running quickest, so I figure, ‘Well, that’s one out of the way’. Ha! That sonofabitch qualifies on pole, and the race is a 100-lapper. I’m behind him, and the whole race I hammered him. Towards the end, you know, you’d get tired — I’d give him a nudge, and I’d see his head jerk, but he did not make a mistake.
“Afterwards I says, ‘Why didn’t you let me by? You were holding me up’. And he looks at me with these bloodshot eyes, and he says, ‘Mario, you gotta believe me, nobody wanted to get this thing over with more than I did!”
Brilliant as he was in a sprint car, Larson was something less than dedicated, and in this respect was very different from Branson.
“When I came into it,” Andretti says, “Don was sprint car racing. The driver’s driver.”
By this time — the early 1960s — Branson was into his forties, and by no means in peak health. All his adult life he suffered from low blood pressure, and so tended to tire towards the end of a long race. “He was racing a lot of guys half his age,” Mario goes on, “but he compensated with experience and a beautiful light touch he had with a race car. He was plain quicker over one lap than anyone else.
“We didn’t have mirrors on those things, of course, so you never knew which side the guy behind was coming from. And Don just made that into an art form; I would watch him wrong-footing guys, sending them the wrong way, putting them out of the groove — all that stuff. It was just something else to see the man in such absolute control. If he’d had the strength of a guy in perfect health, no one would ever have got near him. As it was, quite often no one did.”
Andretti concedes that he and Branson did not get off to the greatest of starts. In his youth, Mario was wildly ambitious, and many of the established stars felt strongly he was driving over his head. More than once, he says, “Branson gave me tongue-lashings that nearly peeled the skin off my face. “One time, though, I remember particularly. In ‘641 was just going for it the whole time, and at Williams Grove I spun Branson out — not on purpose, but because I overdid it.
“Couple of days later, I’m having breakfast, and Don’s at another table, and he calls me over —Jesus, I knew what was coming. ‘Mario,’ he says, very quietly, ‘how much money did you make at the Grove the other night?’ Not much, I says. ‘I know, Mario,’ he says. ‘You made about as much as I didn’t make — because you took me out. Now, listen,’ he says, ‘let’s cut out that sort of crap, and we will both get to eat much better, right?’ He never raised his voice, but I was shaking. ‘Do you hear me, Mario?’ he says. And you’d better believe, I heard him; after that we were great pals.” If Branson was supreme on a dirt oval, he was also very competitive in the Indy roadsters, even if he got into them late, racing in the 500 for the first time in 1959, at the age of 39. He was at the wheel of the Bob Estes Special, whose crew chief was Jud Phillips, an Indianapolis mechanic of legend.
“What really sold me on Branson,” Phillips said, “was the way he took to the ‘Hills’ — the half-mile, steeplybanked, paved ovals at Salem and Winchester. Back then, we figured that anyone who could run them consistently fast and not get killed was a legitimate Indy talent That was sort of a blood-stained philosophy, but it was reliable. Most guys coming from the flat dirt were terrified by the ‘Hills’, but not Don.” When the rear-engine revolution came to Indianapolis, in the early ’60s, however, Branson was less at ease. After they paved his beloved Langhorne, he nevertheless ran a front-engined dirt car there in 1966, startling everyone by qualifying it second. In 1966, though, he decided it was time to stop. Goodyear had offered him the job of racing manager and, at 46, he was happy to accept. “They don’t care if I drive at Indianapolis and a few other championship races,” he said, “but, after this year, sprint cars are out Hell, you can’t blame Goodyear — you can get killed real easy in these things.”
Indeed you could. Already that season three drivers had lost their lives in USAC sprint car races, including Branson’s big buddy, Larson, at Reading, Pennsylvania, in June.
What should have been Don’s final race was the last championship event of the year, at Phoenix, but a week before there was a USAC sprint car race at Ascot, California. Foyt, Andretti and the rest were there, and so also was Branson.
It was a track he had always disliked, and this particular Saturday night in November it was especially spooky, with heavy moisture in the air, and fog swirling in from the ocean. There had been a lot of rain, which made track conditions heavy, and plastered the walls with mud, making them difficult to see under the lights.
On the fifth lap Branson hit the wall at the first turn head on, bouncing back into the middle of the track, upside down. Dick Atkins, very much the coming USAC star of the time, hit Don’s car and somersaulted in flames. Almost unbelievably, there was no fire truck at the track, nor even a proper medical crew. Atkins died the next morning; Branson had been killed instantly.
There was talk, of course, that the old man had made a mistake, some even suggesting a heart attack, for he had never started even to get into the turn. Andretti, though, was right behind, and saw it all. “It was very obviously a stuck throttle,” he says. “I knew instantly what had happened. That evening broke my heart, and we all felt the same, because everybody loved the guy, and this happens to him just as he’s about to quit
“You know what? When Branson used to go out and qualify, even A J Foyt would stop what he was doing, and go to watch. He was one fantastic race driver — one of the greatest lever saw.”