Mario Andretti is set to visit Sebring International Raceway for the first time in nearly three decades Saturday morning, when he returns as Grand Marshal of the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring presented by Advance Auto Parts.
“They’re going to do a grand entrance with a Honda jet,” Andretti said. “They’re going to remove some of the barriers and taxi in there. I’m looking forward to it. My last time at Sebring was probably in the early 1990s, testing in the Indy car on the short track.”
Andretti has a stellar record at Sebring. He won the Twelve Hours three times — 1967, 1970 and 1972 — in addition to finishing second in 1969, in six starts in the American endurance classic.
“I love Sebring,” Andretti said. “It’s a very challenging track, and a tough one at that, just keeping everything together. Somehow, it paid off for me. I have a very good record there for as many races as I ran.”
Saturday, Andretti is looking forward to another competitive race as he is impressed with the current status of the sport.
“There are eight IndyCar drivers in this race in a couple different classes,” he said. “I love to see that. I love to see the crossover. It’s great for the sport. It adds interest, for sure, and it looks like one of the Indy guys has a good chance of winning overall. That would be good — all positive stuff.”
One of those crossover drivers is Scott Dixon, the 2020 Rolex 24 At Daytona winner who went on to win his sixth IndyCar title. Announced as RACER’s driver of the 20th century in 2000, Andretti is impressed with an early contender for 21st century honors.
“His record speaks for itself,” Andretti said. “The guy belongs where he is. Look at how brilliant his career has been, he’s a great all-rounder. To be a multi-time champion, you’ve got to be good everywhere. And that’s where he excels. You take him to an oval, a superspeedway, a short oval, a street course, a regular road course – no matter where you go, he’s always on top of the charts. And that’s what makes a champion. It’s wonderful to see a driver of that caliber, and he’s young enough to continue to pad up his record.”
Andretti was asked about another current superstar, seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson, who is turning his attention to IndyCar in 2021.
“That’s another positive aspect, to have a crossover of a champion with that stature,” Andretti said. “It’s great for the sport. It speaks volumes to me of the driver himself, to have those ambitions to cross over. He doesn’t have to do it, but he does it because he loves the sport. I have a lot of respect for that.
“These are all good things for the sport, and in situations where we are now with the pandemic, these are positive things we look forward to.”
Andretti is also excited about the future of sports car racing.
“IMSA has done a great job, in reviving sports car racing, sports prototypes in our country. They keep tweaking it to make it better, and that’s a good thing. That’s one discipline I love very much. It’s very technical, and I love the looks of the cars. They’re doing a great job with the number of classes, and with the manufacturer participation, which is the strength of it all. So there’s good things happening on this front as well.”
While he concentrates on looking ahead, the 80-year-old Pennsylvanian is looking back on this sports car career this weekend — in particular, celebrating the 50th anniversary of his 1970 Sebring triumph for Ferrari. He’s won the 12-hour three times, and savors each triumph.
“Every victory is very, very precious, as you can imagine,” Andretti said. “The first one was with the Ford, driving with Bruce McLaren. It was very meaningful, because the car was just finished and was not even tested at high speed. And here we go and win the race.”
The Ford Mk IV ran only one more race — winning later that year at Le Mans with A.J. Foyt and Dan Gurney at the wheel.
The 1970 triumph came on the heels of Andretti’s lone official victory in the Indianapolis 500. Co-driving with Arturo Merzario in a Ferrari 512S, Andretti built up a 12-lap lead before the gearbox failed. Andretti was ready to jet back to Nazareth to run a Sunday sprint car race in nearby Reading, Pa., but the Ferrari officials had a different idea.
“It was quite a story. I felt we deserved to win, because Arturo and I were way out in the lead. All we had to do was finish. Then we had a gearbox bearing fail. Then I was asked to take over for the last stint.”
Andretti ran the final 90 minutes in a Ferrari 512S Spyder driven by Nino Vaccarella and Ignazio Giunta. Running five miles behind the Porsche 908 co-driven by film legend Steve McQueen and Peter Revson, Andretti was up to the challenge. He ran down Revson, pitted for fuel, and then ran him down again.
“Here we go, and we won it,” Andretti said. “And hell yes, I ran the next day at Reading.”
Denying Sebring a finish scripted for Hollywood, Andretti built on his own legend.
In 1972, Andretti and Jacky Ickx completed the Daytona-Sebring double, winning in a Ferrari 312PB.
“I had good fortune running with Jacky,” Andretti said. “We won a few races, and Sebring was a nice race for us.”
The 1972 victory was also Andretti’s final race at Sebring. He went on to win the 1978 Formula 1 World Championship for Lotus, and then returned to Indy cars, winning the 1984 CART title for Newman/Haas Racing. He retired from competitive racing in 1994, although he returned to run a Panoz Roadster at age 60 at Le Mans in 2000.
While long retired from active competition, Andretti has yet to hang up his helmet, remaining active as an ambassador of the sport and a driver of a two-seater car for VIP rides during IndyCar weekends.
“They’re still working on [the two-seater program] for next year,” he said. “There might be a new sponsor to pick up that program. If they want me to drive, fine. I’m ready to go, whenever the call comes.”