Racing’s most versatile – and coolest – Mario Andretti at 77
There are some among us labouring under the misapprehension that Super Mario is an Italian plumber of at least 36 years – yes, Donkey Kong is that old – who has a brother called Luigi and is in possession of a luxuriant moustache and a go-kart.
We know better.
The real Super Mario, 77 last Tuesday, is Italian-born and has a twin brother called Aldo, but, as far as I recall, has neither sported a moustache nor raced a go-kart.
Nor has his mark of 67 Indycar poles been beaten, while only AJ Foyt – Super Tex to his Super Wop – has topped his number of wins.
And Foyt is the only other to win the Indy 500 and Daytona 500. He won at Le Mans, too – the only cherry missing from his great rival’s cake – but Andretti won Grands Prix for Ferrari and Lotus, the only to do so.
And not even strongman Foyt was able to win Indycar races in four separate decades.
Andretti competed and won across five decades – and missed only two races due to injury.
But he was never going to die wondering, which is why Jim McGee, mechanic on his only trip to Indy’s Victory Lane (1969), sent him Christmas cards in July. Just in case.
His third win of 1977, Dijon
It was Aldo, however, who almost bought it. Twice. Once in the Hudson Hornet modified stocker that they’d built to earn their (underage) racing chops and again, 10 years later, in the sprint car that his more successful brother had bought for him.
The first, in 1959, left him in a coma – the brothers were sharing the car and a tired old crash helmet – and the second caused him reconstructive facial surgery.
Mario was beside himself with worry – but had already struck a deal with his competitive self: “I was driven by the desire to race at all costs. But I didn’t want to know what those costs were.”
Anyhow, after his first visit to the Big Left Turn of Pennsylvania’s fearsome D-shaped dirt oval at Langhorne, complete with its evocative Puke Hollow, he reckoned that racing couldn’t get any more dangerous.
And: “If you wait, all that happens is you get old.”
For instance, when given his Indycar chance in April 1964, after a handful of seasons criss-crossing the countryside to drive any car he could lay his hands on – including the Midget with a question mark on its tail that he used to win three races on Labor Day, 1963 – there had been zero testing. He just hopped in…
… and disappeared, for he had inherited the three-year-old Edgar Elder-built roadster from 1952 Indy 500 winner Troy Ruttman – all 6ft 4in of him.
Andretti’s size and ethnicity had been the cause of barbs ranging from the jocular to the jugular, so there was no question of his backing out now: he qualified 16th for that 100-miler at the paved Trenton International Speedway in New Jersey, and finished 11th.
That Langhorne debut was next: he qualified eighth and finished ninth in a six-year-old Meskowski.
He was on his way.
Adapting brilliantly to the new breed of rear-engine ‘funny cars’ – he was always up for something new – he finished third as Indy’s 1965 Rookie of the Year and won that season’s championship in Al Dean’s Hawk-Ford, prepared by Clint Brawner.
He successfully defended that title, scoring eight wins to his one of 1965.
But already he was looking across The Pond to F1.
Lotus boss Colin Chapman had told him to call when he felt ready, and he felt ready by September 1968.
(By which time he had outfoxed Holman-Moody team-mate and Ford ‘Golden Boy’ Fred Lorenzen to win the Daytona 500.
He had also slithered his Hawk – on what appear to be something akin to Colway remoulds – up Pikes Peak.)
Unfortunately, F1 wasn’t ready for him and he was refused a start at Monza.
Even though he had squared beforehand his contesting the Hoosier 100 Sprint Car race that same weekend – and jetted back and forth to do so – a rival insisted that the FIA’s rule preventing a driver contesting two international races within 24 hours be enforced.
And 10 years to the week he secured the F1 title in Chapman’s latest groundbreaker, at Monza.
Between times he had won Pikes Peak (1969), denied Steve McQueen a Sebring victory (1970), and won at Daytona, Sebring, Brands Hatch and Watkins Glen (1972) alongside Jacky Ickx in a Ferrari: for me, endurance racing’s coolest combo.
After F1 he returned to Indycars and racked up a fourth title (1984).
And at Phoenix in 1993, he scored his last category win, his 52nd, aged 53: Indycar’s oldest winner.
Le Mans still gnawed and, but for a tangle with a backmarker, likely he would have ended his wait in 1995. Instead his Courage C34 fell a lap short.
He was still trying to win it in 2000.
And in 2003, aged 63, he suffered a gilhooly of a shunt testing as a stand-in for son Michael’s team at Indy. He was running competitively, lapping at 220mph, when he ran over debris from another’s accident.
He emerged from the ensuing aerobatics, terrifying to behold, with a nick on his chin. The young shavers were impressed.
Second at Le Mans – an early Andretti mistake cost six laps, missing out on victory by less than one…
But, hey, the Brickyard owed him a favour or three. Had it been the Indy 400 he would have been a five-time winner.
Our sport is blessed that he chose it as the outlet for his boundless energy, fighting instinct, God-given talent and charismario.
‘Retired’ now, he moved into his brand new trophy home in 2013. It wouldn’t surprise if he fitted its faucets. Our Super Mario wields a good wrench, too, apparently.