Living fast ’n loose: Mario Andretti's dirt racing apprenticeship

Mario Andretti was just happy to survive the ‘widow-maker’ world of sprint cars. But it was his early life on dirt that made him the great F1 champion he became

Mario Andretti USAC dirt track event

Andretti cut his teeth on treacherous sprint car dirt ovals

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Back in the days of the Long Beach Grand Prix it was our invariable practice, the night before the race, to go out to Ascot Park for a fix of USAC sprint car racing. DSJ, for one, was a complete devotee.

Ascot, sadly long since torn down to make way for just another shopping mall, was one of the theatres of battle for a form of racing whose fundamentals have never really changed at all. Sprint cars are front-engined, and will ever be, and usually they race on half-mile ovals, generally – but not always – of dirt.

Similar to the sprint car, but bigger, with a longer wheelbase and more horsepower, is the championship dirt car, and time was when the USAC National Championship included several races for these things on dirt ovals of a full mile – places like the Indiana State Fairgrounds and DuQuoin. Mario Andretti always said that, for sheer exhilaration, sheer pleasure of driving, they could not be beaten.

Midget race Daytona Beach 1956

A midget race gets underway at Daytona Beach in 1956

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It was in this type of motor sport, of course, that Andretti cut his racing teeth. And as we watched at Ascot, Jenks murmured that now he understood a lot more about Mario’s approach to motor racing.

A couple of years earlier, at Zandvoort, Andretti had passed James Hunt for the lead around the outside of Tarzan. At the exit of the turn James tried to row Mario off the road, and inevitably the cars touched and spun.

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“In Formula 1 we don’t pass on the outside!” Hunt raged afterwards, and I mentioned this to Andretti. “I got news for him,” Mario growled. “Where I come from, we pass outside, inside, every goddam side…”

Never say never again, but it is reasonably certain that Andretti will be the only driver in history to graduate to F1 from the bullrings of grassroots US racing. On June 21 1964, while Jackie Stewart will have been racing Ken Tyrrell’s F3 Cooper-BMC somewhere, Mario was at the wheel of the Windmill Truckers Special at Langhorne, the most feared race track in America.

“Langhorne,” says Andretti firmly, “was the only track I ever felt intimidated by – that was the only race in my whole life where, the night before, I really was very concerned. Never happened any other time – not going to the Nürburgring for the first time, not anything. I had never, ever driven a champ dirt car, and now I was going to – at Langhorne, of all places. I said to myself, ‘I’m on my way to Auschwitz…’ That was how people felt about that place.

Sprint car racing accident crash 1950 Cemar Midget Bowl, Cedar Rapids, Iowa, USA

A crash in 1950 Cemar Bowl, Cedar Rapids, Iowa – no one was hurt, miraculously

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“One of the greatest drivers of that period was Rodger Ward – he won the Indy 500 twice, and he was also a fantastic driver on dirt. But Rodger flat refused to drive Langhorne. Trust me, it was like nowhere else. Even now, when I think about it, I get goosebumps…”

The town of Langhorne is situated about 15 miles to the north of Philadelphia, in Pennsylvania’s Bucks County, but no trace of the speedway remains. The last race was run there in October 1971, after which the place was razed to make way for – yes – one more faceless shopping centre.

From the archive

Langhorne was one of the ‘miles’, like Springfield or Syracuse or Sacramento, but whereas the others were conventional dirt ovals, with two straights and four turns, Langhorne was rounded off – it was known, in fact, as ‘The Big Left Turn’ – and there was nowhere for a driver to relax even momentarily. The whole lap was effectively one long, opposite-lock slide. Even on the narrow tyres of 40 and 50 years ago, a great driver could lap at close to 115mph.

Not far away is the small town of Nazareth, where Gigi Andretti settled his family in 1955. “They had stock car racing there,” says Mario, “and my brother Aldo and I would go and watch, but the first big race we went to was at Langhorne in ’56. We went there lots of times, and it seemed like every time somebody would buy the farm. The place never changed – it was always going to be a widow-maker.

“Langhorne’s big deal each year was a 100-mile championship race, always run in June when the heat was tremendous. The track would get dry and dusty, and the ruts deeper and deeper – man, you’d see cars pitched clean in the air by those ruts. Get into one at the wrong angle, and you were going over.”

In part, nature played a hand in Langhorne’s viciousness. The track, built in 1926, was on marshland, with an abundance of underground springs, so parts of it were most of the time moist and soft; wheels dug ruts, which then baked in the summer sun. Most notorious of all was the corner after the start, downhill, very quick. The drivers christened it ‘Puke Hollow’.

Mario Andretti 1966 1966 Sprint Car Golden State 100 - Sacramento

Andretti was keen to make his name racing sprint cars on dirt before his ultimate aim of F1

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“It was completely different from any other dirt track,” says Andretti, “because it wasn’t really an oval at all – it was more like a circle, which meant you were sideways, steering on the throttle, all the time.

“He was smart to say I shouldn’t drive there, but I was just getting started”

“I never drove there in a midget or a sprint car – that championship race in 1964 was my first time there. In ’63 I was racing midgets, went to Langhorne to watch the sprint cars, and saw a guy called Bobby Marvin kill himself and burn to the ground – not long afterwards I was in that car at Allentown, and honestly I could almost smell his flesh. In those days, you know, you figured ‘I could be next’ sort of thing. You were resigned to that – you were supposed to die in a race car, right?”

In 1964 Andretti was a feisty young sprint car driver with his sights set on Indianapolis. Early in the season he had a one-off drive in a roadster at Trenton, and soon afterwards was approached by legendary crew chief Clint Brawner, then running the Dean Van Lines team. It was a plum drive, and the contract should have come into effect at Langhorne. But Brawner said no, Andretti wasn’t ready for Langhorne.

“Clint hated the place because Jimmy Bryan, his driver for so many years, had been killed there in ’60. He entered his Dean Van Lines car for Langhorne, but he wouldn’t let me drive it, and put Bob Mathouser in it.

From the archive

“He was smart to say I shouldn’t drive there, no question,” Mario smiles, “but I was just getting started in the big time, full of vinegar. OK, if he wouldn’t let me run at Langhorne, I’d find a ride someplace else. And what I found was the Windmill Truckers Special…”

It was not a car in the first flush of youth. Its Offenhauser engine was tired, but more crucially it lacked power steering, by then a standard item on the front-running championship dirt cars. It seemed, in short, like everything a small, slight man didn’t need on a torpid afternoon.

“Actually,” says Andretti, “that deal had two things going for it. First, the car was quite forgiving. Second – and much more important – the chief mechanic was Tommy Hinnershitz, who had been one of the greatest drivers on dirt. He could tell I was uptight, and he gave me some peace of mind – I really felt I was in good hands. Anything that man said, I was gonna listen.”

Hinnershitz warned Mario particularly of a phenomenon peculiar to Langhorne. The almost circular shape of the track, he said, sometimes caused a driver to lose his bearings.

“It was a kind of ‘mad momentum’. You were turning left the whole time, just holding the thing on the throttle, and you could literally forget where on the race track you were! Tommy warned me about that before qualifying. He could see I was getting pretty cocky out there – I was really flirting with the guardrail on the exit of turn four, and man, it felt so good! But Tommy had had that experience himself, and he warned me about it. There was a post, where the yellow light was mounted, and he said, ‘When you get to that post, you back off, OK? I don’t care how good it feels – you back off! If you don’t do that, you’re never going to make it through’. He was right, too – but without him telling me, I never would have backed off. I’d have been up in the stands someplace…”

Don Branson Sprint Car racer 1960

Andretti cites sprint car legend Don Branson as one of racing’s greatest drivers – but even he wasn’t immune to the dangers…

Andretti was always one to set himself a goal. His car was far from competitive with the best, and he was well aware of his lack of experience, but what he could do was show Brawner something. “Here was Mathouser in Clint’s car with power steering – which my old car didn’t have – and I really wanted to beat him. In the end I didn’t, but I was the only guy without power steering to finish in the top 10, and to me that was a personal victory, because if there was one place where you needed power steering it was Langhorne. At the end of that race my hands were like raw hamburger – I never ever had blisters like that after any other race.

“Thing was, through Puke Hollow you really had to hang on – the wheel would just come right out of your hands, so you had to put a coarse type of tape on the wheel, and believe me, you had to hang on! I felt so damn good after that race – almost like I’d won a war – but, honest to God, I was just glad to be alive.”

Andretti finished ninth that day, somehow wrestling the old car to the flag. For that he earned a princely $637 – which had to be split with the owners.

From the archive

When you talk to Andretti about the greatest drivers against whom he raced, he will, naturally enough, come out with names like Clark and Stewart and Foyt. But on the list, too, will be another almost unknown to a European aficionado.

“Guys like Parnelli Jones and, even more so, AJ, were fantastic drivers in that era of IndyCar racing, and great on the dirt, too. But the greatest I ever saw – in a sprint or championship dirt car – was Don Branson. In his own specialised field he was a true artist, just as Jimmy was in his.

“I used to love watching Branson doing his thing, and that day at Langhorne I was running behind him in the warm-up, trying to get a fix on how to get through Puke Hollow properly. It was always loose, with big ruts everywhere – and going downhill. Branson used to stay way out wide, and then cut it, almost brushing the inside rail with his left front wheel. And that’s what I tried to do.

“Actually, I always used to try to copy what Branson did – he was the master on dirt. Very precise, and he could take care of himself. He really helped me that way. We didn’t have mirrors on those things, of course, so when you were racing against the guy you never knew which side he was coming from – Don made that into an art form. I’d watch him wrong-footing guys, sending them the wrong way, putting them out of the groove – all that stuff. It was something else to see the man in such control.

1965 Golden State 100 - Dirt Oval Sprint Car Race - Sacramento. Mario Andretti

Andretti racing a Sacramento in ’65

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“At the time I got into it,” Mario says, “Branson was sprint car racing. Already he was into his forties, and he always had a problem with low blood pressure, which meant he tended to get tired towards the end of a long race. Here he was racing a lot of guys half his age, but he compensated with experience and a beautiful light touch he had with a race car. If Don would’ve had the strength of a guy in perfect health, no one would ever have gotten near him. As it was, quite often no one did.”

It was during that summer of ’64 that Andretti received a Christmas card, signed by some of his fellow drivers. They had sent it, they said, because they figured he wouldn’t be around at the end of the year. Branson, though, was not among them. He could see the young Andretti was running all the time at the edge, and sometimes over it, but took a more avuncular view.

From the archive

“He could he a gruff old boy,” Mario affectionately remembers, “but he really cared, and I thought the world of him. Back then I was really mustard, you know, just going for it the whole time, and at a sprint car race at Williams Grove I spun him out – not on purpose, but because I overdid it.

“Couple of days later, in Indianapolis, I’m having breakfast, and I see 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’ll 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. Thing was, he was trying to help me, and other guys like me, and often that must have cost him.”

This driver is all smiles for the photographer as he gets ready for a late-1930s Sprint Car race

Sprint car racing immensely popular – but took few prisoners on track

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By 1966, Branson had decided it was time to stop. Goodyear had offered him the job of racing manager, and at 46 he was happy to accept. In November he was at Ascot for a USAC sprint car race, and on the fifth lap he hit the wall at the first turn, bouncing back into the middle of the track, upside down. Rising star Dick Atkins hit Branson’s car, and somersaulted in flames. Almost unbelievably, there were no fire extinguishers at the track, nor even a proper medical crew. Atkins died the next morning; Branson was killed instantly.

Andretti 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. He was one of the greatest race drivers I ever saw…”

From the archive

In the ’60s, before rollcages were introduced, this was indeed a lethal form of motor sport, but it was also addictive, and Andretti’s love of that era endures. “Back then they had skinny tyres and no cages, and driving them was a really delicate thing – you steered them on the throttle, you balanced them through a turn. Now they have these huge tyres and wings and stuff, and all the finesse has gone.

“I loved driving sprint cars, but I enjoyed the bigger championship dirt cars – running on the miles – even more. And I’ll tell you even now that, for sheer exhilaration, nothing compared with pitching one of those things into a turn at 130mph, just holding it all on the throttle.

“My favourite track was Springfield, Illinois, and one of the things I really used to look forward to each year was my first practice lap there – it was only then you could do it without lifting, because it was only then that the track surface was perfect. For the two or three laps you’d be beating the track record by, like, four seconds! The car would dig in so much, and you had to keep the power on because if you backed off you were going to go off. Jesus, that was such a great feeling.”

Late 1950s- Don Branson takes a corner in the Bob Estes Special Sprint Car during a USAC Sprint Car race

Branson racing in the 1950s

“I always equated it to racing in the wet, in that conditions changed – dramatically – all the time, and you had to keep adjusting to it. When you’re in a wet race on a road circuit, what do you do? You change your line, you adapt, you do what you need to do. There’s no manual telling you what’s the correct thing to do, the right line to take. Quite often you do the opposite of what would normally be logical. When you find something that gives you a little extra grip, you hang on to that for as long as you can. You follow somebody, see what they’re doing, and you try that. If you’re in the lead, you’re on your own, man. You get something worked out, and then you stay with that until something changes. What’s the quick way around? Sometimes it was down low, by the fence, sometimes it was up high, running the cushion…”

When the cars run ‘down low’, they necessarily flick dirt away from the surface, and increasingly this forms a low, loose wall higher up the track. This is ‘the cushion’, and the trick is to run the right rear wheel of your sideways car against it, for it provides powerful traction and grip.

“That could really work,” says Andretti, “but of course, whatever else, you did not want to jump the cushion – go over it – because if you did, you were in the guardrail. I used to try so hard to keep all four wheels on the ground – that was always the set-up I worked towards.

From the archive

“Those tracks… they were all miles, but they were all so different. DuQuoin, for example, very quickly used to get really slick, and a big rut would emerge at Turn 1. I’ve got photos of myself up on two wheels there – ‘bicycling’ they used to call that – and when it got bad you’d be doing it every lap. It wasn’t by accident, either, because if you wanted to keep the power on through that turn you had to go through that rut. Every time it felt like the car was going to come apart…”

In terms of versatility, Andretti is assuredly the greatest there has ever been, and he always loved that about his career – the diversity, the different sorts of cars he raced. In the autumn of 1968, for example, he qualified his championship dirt car on pole at Sacramento one weekend, his Lotus 49 on pole at Watkins Glen the next.

From the beginning, though, Mario’s ultimate thoughts were always of F1. “Even when I was racing midgets in ’63,” he says, “my thoughts were on Dan Gurney, and what he was doing…

“I wouldn’t trade my sprint car days for anything”

“It’s true that I raced the champ dirt cars as late as 1974, but the sprint cars were inherently more dangerous, and I gave them up a lot earlier, because I didn’t think there was a way to survive them, quite honestly. I really loved racing them, but in my head was the thought that if I kept on I wouldn’t be alive to take care of the family and so on. To be honest, when I got in a car, worrying about getting killed was always the furthest thing from my mind, but with those things you couldn’t ignore the figures – we were losing three or four drivers a year.

“The whole objective of racing midgets and sprints was to make a name – and to get through it, to progress from there, hopefully to F1 in the end. I wanted to get known, which meant I had to get results, and that really worked for me.

“Having said all that, though, I wouldn’t trade my sprint car days for anything – I’m so glad I can say I did it, and that I came out of it fine. It was something that worked out perfectly, and personally I got a lot out of it. I’ll always have fond, fond memories of it, and I’ll always love looking back on it. I had some good times in those things…”