The fact Mario Andretti only won Indianapolis once in his career isn’t surprising – it’s stupefying. In his 29 starts at IMS, the man with the magic first name led 556 laps – more than multiple winners like A.J. Foyt, Rick Mears, Bobby Unser, Johnny Rutherford, Dario Franchitti and Louie Meyer, to name a few.
So that lone victory 50 years ago doesn’t begin to tell the story of how good Andretti truly was on the most famous track in the world. His name is synonymous with Indianapolis for outright speed, instant fame and countless heartbreaks.
But one of his many great attributes is that he doesn’t dwell on what could have been – he still celebrates that one day in the sun at 16th and Georgetown on May 30, 1969.
“I’ll always feel blessed to have won it once because it’s so damn hard,” he said recently. “It’s a race that’s with you forever. There’s no question about it. But when you win it, it does change your life in so many ways, and all for the better, quite honestly. Career-wise, it opens doors that you could have only hoped for before, and your personal life changes dramatically.
“This race carries so much weight because – and I’ve said this so many times, and I mean it – it’s the only race on the globe that I think is worth a championship. I was on the Tonight Show after winning the 1965 national championship and Johnny Carson introduced me as rookie of the year at Indianapolis so that told me a lot early on.”
The diminutive dynamo from Trieste, Italy, who didn’t look big or strong enough to muscle at Indy car, took to the two-and-a-half mile oval and daunting speeds like few before or since.
He finished third as a rookie, won the pole in 1966 and 1967, and started fourth in 1968 – but only completed 87 laps in those three starts because of mechanical failures. “Mario is slowing down” became almost as famous as Tom Carnegie shouting: “It’s a new track record” over the PA system.
And 1969 went from untouchable to unlikely in the matter of a couple days.
Those were the days when Indy sported three weeks of practice. Andretti debuted Colin Chapman’s four-wheel drive Lotus, and had Gasoline Alley in a panic about his lap times. “We were 4mph quicker than anybody, and we were still waiting on Firestone to build us our front tires,” recalled co-chief mechanic Jim McGee. “But we didn’t trust the car. It had no miles on it and some flimsy components that concerned us.”
After the first weekend of qualifying was washed out, Mario was practicing when a hub snapped coming through Turn 4 and he pounded the wall, destroying the car and leaving him with facial burns and an old backup car that had not been intended to run.
“We told Chapman those F1 hubs wouldn’t work with the g-loads at the Speedway, so it wasn’t a surprise,” continued McGee.
The only option was the two-year-old Brawner-Hawk that had won at Hanford the month before, but had been put in mothballs afterwards. Chapman, who broke open the rear-engine revolution with Jim Clark and Dan Gurney in 1963, would withdraw his other two cars and never be seen again at IMS.
Clint Brawner, the wise old crew chief who gave Mario and McGee their big break, smirked as the remains of the Lotus were towed through the garage area. “Clint hated that car,” chuckled McGee.
Andretti, who had traded fast times with A.J. Foyt prior to his accident, wound up qualifying in the middle of the front row as Super Tex claimed the pole.
“We had no other option but to go with a Brawner-Hawk, and again, it was different for sure. The car was not as quick through the corners, much more of a handful, but you know, you just got what you got,” said the man who would win the world title in 1978 with Chapman. “So we put our nose to the grindstone, and said we’ve got to make the best of it.”
A last-minute curveball came when USAC banned their external oil cooler, and ace fabricator Eamon “Chalkie” Fullalove and car builder Eddie Kuzma worked all night to remedy that situation.
The race began with Mario jumping into the lead just as his engine temperatures skyrocketed. “I figured, well this is going to be another early exit,” he recalled.
But, for some reason the engine didn’t blow, and the STP Special hummed along. Despite strong challenges from Lloyd Ruby and Foyt during the race, Andretti would lead 116 of 200 laps and fight off an overheating engine and dodged a bullet with the gearbox. “I had both of them covered,” he declared. “I let them go when I was backing off because of my engine temperatures, and they never passed me competitively.”
A post-mortem showed the gearbox was about to seize up, and would have done so in a couple more laps. “It was just my day, finally,” said Andretti, who received a famous kiss from owner Andy Granatelli in Victory Lane. “I was as happy for Andy as I was myself, because he’d been trying to win that race for so long.”
Of all his near-misses after ’69, nothing was more gut-wrenching than 1987 when he totally dominated the competition, led 170 laps and lapped second place before breaking down with 22 laps to go. Ever classy, he stood outside his garage and told the media: “Well, at least they knew we were here today.”
He raced into his 50s, and even won Phoenix at age 53, but Indy was the one that kept getting away.
“Obviously we all strive for more than… at least one win, but then for more. Once you get one, you want more,” he said. “But the fact that I think I’m third all-time in laps led, all except for Al, more than the four-time winners, tells you that I had a lot of good times here.
“I figured after that first win, several more would follow, but it wasn’t to be. I still had 29 wonderful years here as a driver.”