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Fifty years ago, Mario Andretti scored his first – and only official – Indianapolis 500 win

Published in blog.hemmings.com

Mario Andretti waves from the cockpit at the 1969 Indianapolis 500. Photos courtesy Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

When Mario Andretti arrived in Indianapolis in early May 1969, the two-time USAC Champion was already considered a favorite to win that year’s Indy 500. He’d earned Rookie of the Year honors — and a podium finish — at the Brickyard in 1965, and qualified on pole for the 1966 and ’67 races. Despite a practice crash that put him in his backup car for qualifying (and the race itself), Andretti did win the 1969 Indy 500, though no one could have predicted it would be his only victory in the storied Memorial Day race. Fifty years later, here’s a look back at Andretti’s 1969 race and the events around it.

Andy Granatelli, owner of the Granatelli STP team, knew a thing or two about disappointment and heartbreak at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. A qualifying crash at the Brickyard in 1948 ended his own career as a driver, but, as a team owner, he enjoyed a great deal of notoriety (in part because of his STP logo-festooned crews), but not a lot of success. That nearly changed in 1967, when Granatelli driver Parnelli Jones dominated the race in a turbine-powered and STP-sponsored car. However, with less than 10 miles to go before the checkered flag, a $6 bearing failed and the car coasted to a halt near the entrance to pit lane.

In 1968, rule changes made turbine engines less competitive, but the Granatelli team found a way around it and a trio of purpose-built, turbine-powered Lotus 56s seemed like a sure way to earn the squad’s long-denied Indy 500 win. Jim Clark was to be one of the drivers, but his life was tragically cut short in a crash at Hockenheim on April 7, and Mike Spence was asked to step in at Indianapolis. On May 7, a month to the day after Clark’s death, Spence crashed his Lotus 56 turbine in testing, suffering fatal head injuries as a result.

This time, Joe Leonard was brought in to drive, and he put his Granatelli Lotus turbine on pole, with teammates Graham Hill and Art Pollard starting second and 11th on the grid, respectively. Hill was the first out of the race, the victim of an accident on lap 111. On lap 188, Pollard retired with a fuel shaft failure, and three laps later the same fate befell Leonard. Despite having dominant cars for the second year in a row, there would be no post-race celebration for Granatelli or his team.

Carl Williams (L) with his Offy-powered Gerhardt and Art Pollard (R) with what’s listed as an Offy-powered Lotus at Indianapolis in 1969.

Rule changes for the 1969 race rendered the turbine cars obsolete, so Granatelli regrouped accordingly. Pollard returned for 1969, but this time the team also included drivers Carl Williams and Mario Andretti. Williams would pilot an Offy-powered Gerhardt wedge while Pollard would drive an Offy-powered chassis identified in records as a Lotus, but probably built by another constructor. Andretti would drive an all-new Lotus design, the Type 64, powered by a turbocharged 2.65-liter Ford V-8 and featuring Ferguson four-wheel drive. Team Lotus Formula 1 drivers Jochen Rindt and Graham Hill were also scheduled to drive Ford-powered Type 64s in the 1969 Indy 500.

To accommodate the Ferguson four-wheel-drive layout, the Ford engine and Lotus/Hewland transmission were reversed, something that would be outlawed at Indy the following year. To reduce the grip advantage of four driven wheels, the Type 64s (and any other four-wheel-drive cars running at the Brickyard) were required to run tires not exceeding 10 inches in width, while cars with two driven wheels were allowed to run tires up to 14 inches in width. As for the turbocharged Ford engine, turbo lag made it difficult to master: As William Taylor writes in The Complete Lotus Book, Series Three, boost took roughly three seconds to build, and when it reached peak pressure the driver experienced a 500-hp gain within 500 rpm.

Lotus Type 64

Four Type 64s were built, a number that included one spare. Delays in delivery meant that Andretti had just a single test session in the car prior to Indianapolis, an insufficient amount of time to get the untested car dialed in. As soon as the Lotus arrived in Indianapolis, Granatelli crew chief Clint Brawner began to express his concern over the car’s construction. The hubs, he believed, weren’t substantial enough to survive the rigors of a 500-mile race, a complaint that Lotus’ Colin Chapman shrugged off. Teething issues aside, Andretti was fast out of the gate in the car, turning laps of 171.656 mph in testing, while Rindt and Hill lapped in the 161-mph range. (In fairness, Andretti had more experience driving turbocharged cars than his teammates.)

The weekend of May 17-18, 1969, was a wash out, bumping Indy 500 qualifying to May 24-25. On Wednesday, May 21, Andretti was practicing in the Lotus when a rear hub failed at speed, putting him violently into the wall. Though the car was destroyed, Andretti emerged with facial burn but no serious injuries. An inspection of the wreck revealed the cause of the accident, and the hub failure was likely compounded by a revised rear spoiler that added a significant amount of downforce — and hence, suspension load — to the back of the car. With no time to re-engineer the spare Lotus, the Granatelli team opted to prepare Andretti’s backup car, a turbocharged Ford-powered Brawner Hawk III, instead.

Brawner Hawk III

Mario and his crew — with owner Andy Granatelli — pose with the Brawner Hawk III.

Initially, the spare Lotus 64 was offered to Vince Granatelli, but when a funding deal fell apart at the last minute, Chapman withdrew the Lotus entries from the race and returned to England with drivers Rindt and Hill in tow. No Lotus Type 64 ever saw competition in-period, and Chapman himself never returned to the Brickyard.

With just three days remaining until the new qualifying dates, the Granatelli crew worked tirelessly to prepare Andretti’s back up car in time. Andretti was comfortable with the Brawner Hawk III, which had already carried him to an April 13 win in the California 200, held on the banked Hanford Motor Speedway tri-oval, but that race distance was less than half that of the Indy 500. As such, the reliability of the Brawner Hawk III and its forced-induction Ford engine remained an unknown.

On May 25, the revised Pole Day for the 1969 Indy 500, Andretti lapped the Speedway at 169.851 mph, not quite good enough for pole (which went to A.J. Foyt with a speed of 170.568 mph), but good enough for P2, the middle of the first row. The final spot up front went to Bobby Unser with a qualifying speed of 169.683 mph, while Andretti’s STP Granatelli teammates Pollard and Williams qualified in 12th and 30th place, respectively. Embarrassed by his facial burns, Andretti asked twin brother Aldo to stand in for him in the traditional front row qualifiers photograph.

The front row of the 1969 Indianapolis 500. That’s Aldo Andretti in the center, standing in for twin brother Mario.

Today, the Indianapolis 500 is run on the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend, a tradition that began in 1974. In 1969, the race was held on Friday, May 30, and at the green flag, Andretti passed Foyt for the race lead heading into turn one. He held this position for the initial five laps, but one of the turbocharged Ford’s flaws was its propensity to overheat. Though Andretti developed a reputation for being hard on equipment throughout his career, he surely understood the old racer’s adage — to finish first, first you must finish — and backed out of the throttle enough to cool the car down.

In the race’s first half, Foyt led 66 laps, while a number of cars — 12 to be precise — dropped out with mechanical issues. Jim McElreath’s car caught fire on lap 24, bringing out the first yellow flag of the day, and on lap 87, Arnie Knepper crashed in turn four, the victim of a suspension failure, prompting the second caution of the race’s first half (and the 13th retirement).

On lap 99, Andretti caught an uncharacteristic break when Foyt pitted with an engine problem. This turned out to be a cracked manifold, but the diagnosis and repair took more than 20 minutes. Foyt eventually returned to the track, but even the legendary Texan couldn’t dig himself out of such a large hole, and his day ultimately ended 19 laps down, in eighth place.

Brawner Hawk III

Mario at speed in the Brawner Hawk III.

For the second half of the race, it looked like Andretti’s primary challenger for the win would be Lloyd Ruby, who’d already led 11 laps. On lap 105, Ruby pitted for fuel, but misunderstood a signal from his crew and accelerated out of pit lane with the fuel hose still attached. The nozzle ruptured the fuel tank, putting Ruby out of the race. Once again, things had gone in Andretti’s favor.

The 1969 Indy 500, it appeared, belonged to Andretti, but no victory at the Speedway is an easy one. On lap 150, entering turn two, Andretti caught turbulence from another car and briefly lost the back end of his Brawner, catching the slide before it became a spin or crash. Overheating remained a constant worry, and by the time Andretti accelerated out of turn four to take the checkered flag on lap 200, his clutch was slipping noticeably. Still, he bested second-place finisher Dan Gurney by 2:13.03, and his time of 3:11:14.71 broke the existing record for shortest Indianapolis 500 by nearly 5 minutes. In his fifth start, Andretti had won the 53rd Indianapolis 500.

Andy Granatelli shows his appreciation with a Victory Lane kiss.

Andretti would make another 24 starts in the Memorial Day classic, capturing two more podiums (in 1981 and 1985), and another pole (in 1987), but no more wins. Unless, of course, one counts the controversial 1981 Indianapolis 500, which was won by Bobby Unser, at least until Andretti and team owner Pat Patrick filed a protest that Unser had passed cars under the yellow flag while emerging from pit lane. Officials agreed, awarding the victory to Andretti and prompting a new protest from Unser and his team owner, Roger Penske.

The matter was debated for nearly three months, until series officials declared in a New York City hotel room that their May reversal — awarding the victory to Andretti — had been reversed again, reinstating Unser as the race’s winner. In his biography, Let ‘Em All Go, racing commentator Chris Economaki wrote of the event, “Unser was declared the winner, and to this day I don’t know how they could have possibly given him the victory when he so clearly violated the rules.”

Michael Andretti (L) and his father Mario pose with the logo commemorating the 50th anniversary of Andretti’s 1969 Indy 500 victory. Photo by James Black.

In honor of the 50th anniversary of Mario Andretti’s 1969 Indy 500 win, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway has revealed a custom logo that will adorn this year’s official race program as well as a range of apparel and merchandise. On May 1, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum will debut a new exhibit dedicated to Andretti and his career, featuring a range of cars including some appearing at the museum for the very first time. For additional details on events leading up to this year’s running of the race, visit IndianapolisMotorSpeedway.com.