Celebrate today’s 80th birthday of racing legend Mario Andretti with this recounting of just one of his achievements, which ranks as one of the most remarkable stories in sports car racing history.
Our protagonist is motorsports legend Mario Andretti. Our antagonist — at least one of them — is Hollywood superstar Steve McQueen. The scene is Sebring International Raceway and the Twelve Hours of Sebring on March 21, 1970.
Three years after winning his first Twelve Hours in 1967, Andretti was well on his way to a second Sebring win in the No. 19 Ferrari 512S Spyder that he co-drove with Arturo Merzario. Andretti put the car on pole by a healthy margin in qualifying, and he and Merzario dominated most of the race for the Ferrari factory team.
They led by as many as 12 laps before gearbox troubles forced the No. 19 Ferrari to stop. Disappointed, Andretti was ready to head for home.
“We’re out of the race and I was pretty much ready to leave because I had my plane there,” said Andretti, who the year prior had won the Indianapolis 500 and the IndyCar championship. “The next day, on the Sunday, I was racing a sprint car race in Reading, Pennsylvania, so I figured, ‘Well, I’ll just leave a little early.’
“I was ready to go, say my goodbye and Mauro Forghieri, the team manager said, ‘No, wait, wait, wait! I might want you to go and finish the race with the third car with (Nino) Vaccarella and (Ignazio) Giunti. I said, ‘Well, I don’t know.’”
Andretti was torn. On one hand, after spending all day dominating the race in the No. 19 Ferrari, it’d be nice to have something to show for his efforts.
But at the same time, the No. 21 Ferrari 512S Coupe was quite a bit different from the No. 19 Spyder, which had an open cockpit. It also was running third, a lap down to the leaders with less than two hours left in the race.
Jo Siffert was leading the race for the Porsche factory-supported team in the No. 5 Porsche 917K and was looking mighty strong. Running second was Peter Revson in a privateer No. 48 Porsche 908 he was sharing with McQueen.
“All of a sudden, the leading Porsche had some issues with a front hub, so they’re in the pits a long time,” Andretti recalled. “And Revson was in the (No. 48) car and he had been in the car for over eight hours — not consecutive — but McQueen did the minimum amount.”
A few weeks before the Sebring race, McQueen had broken his foot in a motorcycle race in Lake Elsinore, California and was sporting a cast on his left leg. But with Siffert’s misfortune, Revson moved into the lead and track announcers were sensing a big Hollywood ending for McQueen.
“As Revson goes into the lead, they’re saying, ‘And Steve McQueen takes the lead!” Andretti remembers. “They’re screaming, ‘Steve McQueen!’ and I’m looking at it and that pissed me off, actually. So, I told Forghieri, ‘If you want me to go, I’ll go in the car,’ because I felt that I had a better chance against that Porsche rather than the factory Porsche.”
But before he did it, Andretti also spoke with Giunti, who was due to take over in the No. 21 Ferrari from Vaccarella.
“It was his turn to go back in the car and finish,” Andretti said. “He was sitting there, and I asked him — because Forghieri was adamant that I get in the car — but I wanted the other driver to accept that. I didn’t want to be that forceful. I asked him, ‘Ignazio, is it OK if I go?’ He goes, ‘Yes. Yes. OK.’”
With Giunti’s blessing, Andretti climbed into the cockpit of the No. 21 Ferrari. It was a car he had never driven before, in the pitch-black dark of night.
“I didn’t fit worth a damn, because both guys were a little bit taller than me,” Andretti says. “But I was determined.”
He was more than five miles behind the leader with 90 or so minutes left in the race. And, he’d already driven more than five hours in the No. 19.
“Physically, I was not fresh,” he said. “So, to go out there and run qualifying laps at the end of the 12 hours, it was a little bit tough.”
On top of that, the No. 21 likely would need a late splash of fuel to make it to the finish, whereas the No. 48 Porsche was good to go to the checkered flag.
“I had to really, really hoof it,” Andretti said. “I had to qualify every lap. That’s what it was and that’s why I used up more fuel. I think under normal race pace, we probably could have made it to the end, but I was like qualifying every lap. That’s the only chance I had.
“I think that’s the first time that I did Turn 1 flat, and I couldn’t do that with the Spyder. Actually, the Coupe felt and handled even a little bit better. I think it was because of torsional stiffness. The Coupe actually felt better than my Spyder, but the Spyder was lighter, so it accelerated a little bit better.
“But lap-time wise at that point, I think I was running as quick as I could have ever run, even with the other one if I needed to. The car felt good to me, and that’s why I just really took it to the limit. Somehow, it paid off.”
Indeed, it did. Andretti caught and passed Revson, putting the No. 21 Ferrari into the lead.
“I knew that I might have to stop, so I just kept driving like it was qualifying,” he said. “Sure enough, the reserve light comes on. In those days when you came in for fuel, you had to get out of the car quick and then get back in and turn the engine off.
“So, I came in — there was no pit road speed, so I came in totally sideways, nearly killing people. As soon as I hit the ground, Forghieri threw me back in, because they put about maybe two liters of fuel in there.”
The late splash-and-go cost Andretti the lead, but not for long. Andretti quickly chased Revson down again.
“It was a lap later, I passed him going on the back straightaway,” Andretti said. “Then, I think at that point, he gave up. Poor guy. I felt bad for Steve, actually.”
From there, Andretti pulled away, winning by 23.8 seconds.
“You know, I’m credited with a win, but I don’t feel bad taking it,” Andretti said. “Because I felt we deserved it with the other car, and this was a team car. I felt that if those guys (Giunti and Vaccarella) would not have stepped up their pace, they wouldn’t have won.
“I thought that I was kind of a man possessed out there a little bit. So, I consider that one of the good wins of my career in that sense. To be able to extract that much out of the car right at the end of a 12-hour race – Sebring at that – I felt pretty satisfied.”
That’s saying something. This is a man who’s won the Indy 500, Daytona 500, the Formula 1 World Championship, IndyCar championships and countless other F1, IndyCar, stock car, sports car, sprint car and other races.
“I would say the way everything happened at the event, I don’t think you could duplicate it,” Andretti concluded. “With our regular car, we pretty much dominated to be that far in the lead, and then have to drop out. And then jump in a sister car, to be able to win, everything was amazing. It was like the perfect storm. Yeah, it’s never happened again in my career, for sure.”
This year’s Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring Presented by Advance Auto Parts falls on Saturday, March 21 — 50 years to the day since Andretti’s historic victory.