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In his own words: Mario Andretti on the ’69 and ’81 Indy 500s, today’s drivers, and what it will take to get an American on the podium in F1

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Mario Andretti at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in January 2019. Photo by James Black, courtesy of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Editor’s Note: This year marks the 50th anniversary of Mario Andretti’s win at the 1969 Indianapolis 500. Following our coverage of this in last week’s Hemmings Daily, we were given the opportunity to speak with Mario and get his own take on the 1969 race, the controversy surrounding the events of 1981, what may be lacking in today’s drivers, and whether or not we’ll ever see another American atop an F1 podium.

KE: At the conclusion of the 1969 Indy 500, you called your victory “my biggest win.” In the years since, you’ve captured the F1 World Championship, a CART championship, a 24 Hours of Le Mans class win, and other victories too numerous to mention. Does your 1969 Indy 500 victory remain your biggest win?

MA: There are different ways of describing your biggest win. It’s the best known and most popular, and sometimes that irks me a little bit because I’ve accomplished a lot more along the way. I’ve had more satisfying races from a driver’s standpoint than Indy.

It brings home the fact of how important this race is for a driver. My son Michael has probably dominated that race more convincingly than any of the four-time winners, but he was not able to win it. In 1987, I dominated the month, not just the race, and we have to be content with that satisfaction, but nobody knows it.

I’ve said it many times: Winning the Indy 500 is worth more than a championship. It’s an event that has such rich tradition – over 100 years now – and it’s long been a staple of motorsports in the United States. I remember when I was still in Italy, in a refugee camp, the Indianapolis 500 made the front of the sports pages. You didn’t see any other American race results. An Indy 500 win – unfairly to some degree – completes a career. The whole world of motorsports knows that you’ve done that, which puts it in a different category. I only won it once, but it benefited me tremendously throughout my career.

I said at the recent Indianapolis Motor Speedway press conference [revealing the Mario Andretti 50th Anniversary logo] that it seemed like 100 years ago and yesterday. When I’m among fans – which is almost every day – it seems like I won it yesterday. I think I’m third in all time laps led, but that I was able to pull off a win is a blessing.

Today, luck doesn’t play as big a role as it did back then. The cars and engines are much more reliable, and the chance of finishing the race is greater than ever. What can take you out of a race? Someone spinning in front of you, or something else you can’t control, but today, mechanical reliability is paramount. That’s one thing the drivers have in their favor. Any mistake will cost you, so winning means no mistakes as a driver and no mistakes by the team. There are many more pit stops today, so it’s truly a team effort. Everybody has to do their job, at their very best.


KE: Thinking back to 1969, you were battling overheating issues and driveline problems. Was there ever a time during the race you thought, “There’s no chance I’ll win this?”

MA: I didn’t think I was going to win from the beginning. The overheating factor showed up pretty early – I led five laps, and I was already up in the numbers, with the water temp well over 220 degrees and the oil in the 260-270 degree range. I had a bottle of Gatorade – or something similar – in the cockpit and it had a leak. There was fluid swirling around the cockpit so I thought I had a coolant leak from over pressurization. That’s what made me ease up a little bit, and I was passed by Foyt and McCluskey. In third, I was following very easily.

I felt throughout that I was competitive. I had a car that was capable, all I had to do was keep it together. I slipped when – I think it was Johncock – blew an engine in turn three early in the race. I was still leading, and I slid and almost spun. The other time that I had an issue was toward the end; I was kind of daydreaming a little bit and I lost some concentration. Lapping a car going into turn two, I went really wide, off the racing line. I figured “Buckle down, man” after that.

Toward the end of the race, I was feeling some roughness in the running gear. As it turned out, (crew chief) Jim McGee told me all the oil had carbonized in the gearbox. When they opened it up, the gears almost fell out – I had maybe another lap before it would have failed. McGee said he’d never seen a gearbox like that.

That’s why I went really easy on the final lap. Coming out of turn four, I didn’t accelerate very hard. I had two minutes on Dan Gurney (in second) and could afford that. I almost was smart.


KE: You proved much faster in the Lotus 64 than either Graham Hill or Jochen Rindt. Was this because of your prior experience driving turbocharged cars with serious lag, or were there other factors in play?

MA: I think it was the experience – with us as a team, even. I had been testing and had some taste of downforce and the value of it, and if you look at the aerodynamic aspect of that car, it was pretty efficient. All of a sudden my cornering speed really jumped up; the guys who were doing sector timing with stopwatches in turn one all of a sudden said “Holy crap!” They had never seen numbers so low, and that’s where I was gaining. The straight-line speed was a little bit lower than other cars because of the aerodynamic drag and the four-wheel-drive system moving a lot more parts. But my cornering speed is where I was gaining all the time.


KE: After crashing the Lotus 64 in practice, were you happy with the team’s decision to go to the backup Brawner Hawk III, or would you have preferred to stay with the reserve chassis Lotus 64?

MA: I had some real doubts about the Lotus. The gearbox was right behind the driver because the engine was reversed to accommodate the Ferguson four-wheel-drive system. It needed a lot more cooling, and I was coming in with tremendous temperatures on longer runs. I was really concerned with that, and I don’t think the car would have finished the race even if the suspension hadn’t broken. The hub failure turned out to be a blessing, and there were issues with the other two cars. I think Rindt suffered a front half-shaft failure or something, and there was no chance they could redesign any of that stuff in time for the race, so they decided to withdraw the cars.

After the hub failure and crash with the Lotus 64, I had two days to get ready for qualifying. We had a lot of work to do on the Brawner, and it also had overheating problems. The rules were different for Indianapolis than for other USAC events, and on shorter tracks we could hang a big oil cooler on the car. For qualifying at Indy, we took the oil cooler off to reduce drag, and it paid off when I qualified on the front row. For the race we realized we could use the additional cooling, so we moved the oil cooler behind the seat and cut a NACA duct in the floor. It was so inefficient – all it was doing was burning my back. It was blistered after the race.

This was just the second race since my rookie year (1965) that I finished, and I won it. In ’66 and ’67, I thought I had every advantage and could have won some of the easiest races of my career if the cars had held together. Here in ’69, everything was falling apart, so how do you explain that? It’s all fate – when it’s supposed to happen, it’s supposed to happen.

The particular sweetness of this victory was to bring it to [Andy] Granatelli as well. I’ve said this many times and I mean it sincerely – the one guy who really deserved the victory was him, and I’m happy I was the first one to bring it to him. All of his efforts were outside the box, trying to be different – the Novis, the turbine cars, and everything – and we pull it off with the most standard of cars.


KE: How bad was the turbo lag with the Brawner Hawk III at Indianapolis?

MA: There was some lag, but on a high-speed track that lag is really not important. When the boost kicked in, the change in horsepower was so great that I had to really adapt myself to that. With the boost we were running in qualifying it was easy to have wheelspin on the short chutes [the brief straights between turns one to two, and three to four]. I had to really adapt to the power delivery of the engine, and modulate the throttle.


KE: Critics have long accused you of being hard on equipment, yet your ability to nurse an ailing race car was clearly demonstrated at Indy in 1969. How would you respond to this?

MA: If you’re going to lead races, you can’t pussyfoot around. I was always going for it; my style was really wrong for the day. I think that – looking at Al Unser Sr. – his racecraft was spectacular because he was a lot more patient than I was. If I’d have had more patience, I think it would have paid off for me, but that wasn’t my style. I think I was born a bit too early – 20, 25 years too early. Today that aggressive style would pay off like peaches. I just wanted to go; if you look at my overall laps-led record, it’s pretty good, but I’ll confess to not being patient. I’ve tried many times to talk myself into it, and it just wasn’t me.

At Indy in 1987, I thought “I can win this race” and “Only I can screw this up as long as I keep my head straight.” I felt the other cars had to beat me, and on the last pit stop I was in the lead with 23 laps to go. In top gear, I was running 600 rpm below the Ilmor engine’s redline to keep the revs down. As it turned out, I was running in a bad harmonic range for the engine, and I could feel a vibration. I figured “I’m keeping the revs down, what else can I do,” but that’s what took me out of the race after lap 180. Eventually, Mario Illien of Ilmor went through the computer data, and when he modeled running the engine at 600 rpm more – at redline – it would have held together, and I would have won the race.


KE: Looking back to the 1981 Indianapolis 500, how much did politics play a role in reinstating Bobby Unser as the race winner? What do you believe prompted the decision to overturn your win?

MA: In 1981, Wally Dallenbach had to qualify the car for me since I was in Monaco, driving for Marlboro Team Alfa Romeo in F1. I started on the last row because of this. The race went on, and as we were coming down to the last pit stop there was a yellow flag – Bobby Unser was leading, and I was in second.

We came in to the pits together, and we left together, with Unser in front of me. The rules were clear and are the same today: If there’s a yellow and the field is next to you as you come out of the pits, at the end of the pit wall you look to the right and the car that you see is the car you’re supposed to blend behind after turn two. I’m right behind Bobby and the car that I saw to my right was A.J. Foyt, who was 11 cars from the pace car. Bobby went right up to the pace car and blended in to first; I’m screaming to Jim McGee, “What the hell is going on? Bobby went right up to first!”

He said, “You stay where you are. Stay where you are!” If you look at the videos of the race – and I have – and even TV commentators Jackie Stewart and Jim McKay picked up on it, he passed 11 cars under the yellow. The race ends and he’s first, I’m second. We were going to protest, but we didn’t have to. The official results – since back then there were no computers – were not released until like five in the morning the next day. I’m awakened by Jim McGee who calls me and says, “Mario, you’ve won the race. We don’t have to protest.” The ceremonies went on, but it was a natural thing – there was going to be a protest filed by Roger Penske.

This thing dragged on for months. Penske brought in this lawyer from Philadelphia with a pinstripe suit and sneakers on – a guy that intimidated the locals a little bit. I don’t blame them; I don’t blame Bobby and I don’t blame Roger. They did everything they could to salvage the win, but it was USAC that allowed outside forces to come in and determine the rules. They got talked into having three outside individuals to make the final decision. The final decision was clear, and they said Unser did commit the infraction, but under the circumstances the penalty was too severe so they fined him $40,000 and reinstated him as race winner.

I was at home when I found out, so I took my 1981 winner’s ring – which I still have – and threw it out the window. It took me two weeks to find it in the grass.

The following year, we were at the driver’s meeting, and at the end I raised my hand to ask Tom Binford, race director, a question. “Are the rules changed from last year? Are they any different?”

He said, “Nope,” so I said, “If today I pass 11 cars under the yellow and cross the finish line first, is the penalty still $40,000?”

He said, “Oh no. No, no, no, no.”

I said, “Okay, so the rule book will apply this year, but it didn’t apply last year.”

“Mario,“ he said, “it’s out of my hands.”

I will never swallow that one. Bobby all along thought I was mad at him, but I said, “No, it’s not you. I was upset with USAC for allowing outside forces to determine what the rule book is about.”

It wasn’t handled correctly and wouldn’t be handled like that today.


KE: Since your 1969 win, no Andretti has won the Indianapolis 500. Is the “Andretti Curse” real, or does this just demonstrate how difficult it is to win at the Speedway?

MA: It always irked me, quite honestly, when people brought up the whole curse thing. I don’t believe in curses, and overall it’s just the way it is. In so many ways I think we’ve been very fortunate; look at my flip in 2003 [in testing to qualify a car for Tony Kanan in the Indy 500]. We had some situations that could have been really, really bad – even Jeff [Mario’s youngest son], he had a hub failure at Indy in 1992 that almost cost his life, yet he’s still walking, and he has a full life. I think when you look at the big picture we’ve been very blessed and very fortunate as a family; it’s just that sometimes things didn’t fall our way. It’s not a curse, and that’s something I vehemently reject.


KE: Drivers like yourself, A.J. Foyt, and Dan Gurney demonstrated versatility by competing successfully across a range of series. Overcoming an ill-handling car was simply part of racing, but today, drivers complain about push in one corner and loose in another, declaring cars “undriveable” as a result. Have today’s racing cars (such as the DW12 chassis used in the IndyCar series) become that specialized, or are modern drivers simply lacking the experience of racing a variety of platforms in a variety of series?

MA: Some of it is based on opportunity; the other is based on desire. Some drivers are very happy specializing in just one area, even though the IndyCar series is very versatile and runs on road courses, street circuits, short ovals, and super speedways. If you’re going to be a champion, you’d better know what you’re doing on all of them.

It’s all about adapting. I moved to different disciplines out of curiosity, satisfaction, and the opportunity to go with the top teams, which is the only thing that gave me a chance to bring in results. I didn’t win because I was Superman; I won because the equipment that was given to me had the capability of doing so, and I was able to take it to the limit. That’s where I derived my satisfaction.

By experiencing so many different cars, I had to adapt. Each has a different limit, a different nature – one thing I always recognized was balance. All I needed to do was concentrate on that – maintain the balance, and then find the limit and stay there. The ability to adapt is what’s sometimes lacking in some of the drivers today, and I see that clearly because they haven’t had the opportunity to drive anything else.

Every year we had to develop a new design, a new car. My entire career, except for the beginning, required the car to progress since the one from the year before was technically obsolete. Each year, you had to develop them, and there was ample testing going on preseason, and you learned. We had more opportunity to learn how to adapt than drivers and teams do today.

A lot of the mistakes being made today center around trying to get more out of the car than is there. You’re always overdoing yourself – if a driver would settle down with a basic setup and tune in on that he’d be much better off than to try to search for something that just isn’t there. They’re searching forever, and they’re always lost; they come away from the sweet spot.

To be more effective – in my opinion – you need to settle down and adapt to what you have at the moment. Zero in on that instead of looking for something that isn’t there. Some of the exercises they’re doing in changing setups, I think is futile.

Adapt. The drivers that are up front every week are doing just that. They don’t make any big changes.


KE: You won the F1 World Championship in 1978, and no American driver has done so since. Will we ever see another American champion? What needs to change to produce one?

MA: That individual has to have a burning desire to race in F1, and they’ll have to be a champion in the IndyCar series. That individual has to lobby himself or herself to one of the top three teams in F1, and really show the desire. I learned quickly that if you’re going to venture outside your specialty, you’d better be with a top team, a team that has the ability to bring results.

We have the talent, but I’m not sure we have the burning desire to be there. Alexander Rossi (an American who served as a Caterham and Marussia/Manor F1 test driver from 2012-’15) had the desire, but never had the proper chance to be competitive. He was faster than his teammate at Manor, even cold, but he was never considered, never given a chance.

You can hide behind contracts; every contract I ever had prohibited me from driving in another series, but guess what? I was doing it anyway. You’ve got to be in a position of strength – no team was going to determine the course of my career, and no amount of money could pay for that, either. It was my life, my career, and I was going to run it the way I wanted to run it.