When Mario Andretti turned pro
Fifty years ago this month, Mario Andretti quit his day job to become a professional racing driver. Mario had built his reputation in the north-eastern USA throughout 1962 and ’63, winning a bunch of races aboard his own Triumph-powered three-quarter midget, as well as the Kurtis-Offy midget of Bill and Ed Mataka (above). He drove the Mataka brothers’ midget in more than 50 races during those two seasons, winning six times (and taking the first road course victory of his career, when he beat Mark Donohue at Lime Rock in July ’63).
Andretti’s good work with the Mataka midget resulted in an offer to drive Rufus Gray’s Gapco sprint car. Gray paid him $175 a week and Mario considers this to be one of the biggest breaks of his career. The Gapco ride came as May – Indy 500 time – rolled around, so Mario decided to spend the month nosing around the Speedway’s garage area. At the same time, he’d be settling in with Gray’s team for the series of spring and summer USAC sprint car races in the Midwest.
Mario finished fourth first time out for Gray at New Bremen, Ohio, but at the start of the race Chuck Hulse ran into Mario’s tail, crashing hard and breaking his back. Hulse was driving Indycars that year, for Clint Brawner’s Dean Van Lines team, and Brawner decided to replace him with the promising Andretti.
But Brawner told Mario he wasn’t ready for Indianapolis, or the next race at the infamous Langhorne one-mile dirt track. He believed Langhorne was too dangerous for such a spirited, raw youth and made a temporary agreement with the more experienced Bob Mathouser to drive at Indy and Langhorne.
After watching that year’s Indy 500, Mario finished second in Gray’s sprint car in another race at New Bremen and was second-fastest qualifier at Terre Haute a few weeks later. Then came an offer to drive Lee Glessner’s dirt championship car at Langhorne, in his USAC Championship debut. Langhorne’s D-shaped configuration featured the infamous Puke Hollow, which had claimed many lives (including that of Jimmy Bryan in 1960).
“I had never raced at Langhorne, but had been there and seen several fatalities,” Mario says. “Preparing for that first time made me feel as though I was a soldier on the front line, facing battle the next day. It’s the only time in my career that I remember feeling, the night before, like maybe I won’t come back..”
Unlike most of the front-runners, Glessner’s car lacked power steering – and that made Mario’s job even more difficult. To negotiate Puke Hollow it was necessary to pitch the car sideways three or four times, which was extremely heavy work without power steering.
Mario qualified eighth and hung on to finish in the same place. “I was the first finisher without power steering and my hands were like hamburgers,” he says. “I had so much adrenaline I didn’t feel it until the end.”
The week after Langhorne, Mario finished second at Indianapolis Raceway Park in the Gapco sprint car. At Williams Grove soon afterwards, however, he spun one lap after passing AJ Foyt for the lead and was hit by Don Branson, taking both out. Brawner warned his young charge that any further wild driving would cost him his ride.
Mario made his debut in Brawner’s roadster at Trenton the following day, working his way up to sixth before losing two laps after spinning on oil. He finished 11th, beginning a five-year marriage that would result in three USAC titles and 29 wins, including the ’69 Indy 500. By then Andretti had become not only a racing superstar, but a household name.