Mario Andretti - miraculous deliverance

Mario Andretti was much in my thoughts at the end of last week, and I remembered an interview we did years ago, in which he looked back on his early days, in the unspeakably perilous world of sprint car racing in the 1960s

Mario Andretti - miraculous deliverance

"Life expectancy," he said, "wasn't too long in sprint cars at that time, but that was the purest racing I've ever known, real dog-eat-dog stuff. It was one tough school, and I worshipped one particular guy, Don Branson, who was better on dirt than anyone I ever saw.

"Don could be a gruff old bastard," Mario smiled. "In '64 I was young, and just going for it the whole time, whereas he was into his 40s by then. And at Williams Grove, Pennsylvania, I spun him out - not deliberately, but because I overdid it. Couple of days later, in Indianapolis, I'm having breakfast, and he's at another table, and he calls me over. Jeez, I knew what was coming...

"'Mario,' he says, very quietly, 'how much money did you make at the Grove the other night?' 'Not much,' I says. 'I know, Mario,' he says. 'You made about as much as I didn't make, because you took me out. Now listen,' he says, 'let's cut out that sort of crap, and we'll both get to eat much better, right?'

"Branson never raised his voice, but I was shaking! 'You hear me, Mario?' he says. And you'd better believe, I heard him! After that, we became great pals. He was just trying to help me, and it was a lesson I never forgot. Broke my heart when he bought the farm - it was November '66, and after one more race he was going to quit..."

This particular anecdote came back as I watched, thanks to the wonders of the internet, some footage on Channel 13's Eyewitness News of Andretti's accident at Indianapolis last Wednesday. The following day Mario stopped short of saying he would not again drive a racing car in anger, but that was strongly the impression that came across.

When Andretti retired, at the end of 1994, I felt some sadness, but, more than anything else, overwhelming relief. This, after all, was a man who had won in an F1 car at Monza, an Indycar at Indianapolis, a NASCAR stock car at Daytona, a championship dirt car at Springfield, a sprint car at Salem, a sports prototype at Brands Hatch, a Formula 5000 car at Riverside, a midget at Flemington, New Jersey - why, he had even won the legendary Pikes Peak hillclimb.

Had done it all, in other words. He had been F1 World Champion, USAC National Champion, CART Champion; he had won Indycar races in four decades, and now, at 54, he was finally calling time on the most complete career in motor racing history.

Andretti's last race - in a single-seater - was at Laguna Seca. It was the 407th Indycar race of his life, and he desperately wanted to be around at the end, to take the chequered flag one last time; as it was, a timing chain broke within 10 miles of the finish.

In the pits, Mario did not immediately step from the Lola, but sat there a minute or so, immobile in the cockpit. When finally he climbed out, his eyes were moist, and no surprise there. "I really wanted to finish the race today," he said, "but sometimes you put the order in, and nobody listens. Now," he went on, voice a little tremulous, "I have to see if there is life after driving."

I felt a jumble of emotions as I watched, but the overriding one was of gratitude that Andretti, after racing for well over 30 years, had survived. To be in awe of a man's ability is commonplace, to feel great affection for him rather less so; it is comparatively rare for journalists to revere a driver, to count him a hero.

At the time of Andretti's retirement, I remember a conversation with Pino Allievi, my good friend in Italy who has long worked for Gazzetta dello Sport. "I think," Allievi said, "we should drink a toast to Mario, to celebrate that he is safe. There is no one like him - never has been, never will be again..." Thus we raised our glasses.

From the beginning, Andretti was a charger. His first test in an Indycar came at Trenton in the spring of '64, back in the front-engined roadster days. His pace was impressive, but the car didn't feel right, and later that afternoon it was over to veteran ace Rodger Ward. After two laps, Ward was back in, declaring it impossible to drive.

"Young man," Ward said, "as bad as this car handles, you could be the greatest driver in the history of racing. Either that, or you're the bravest dago I've ever met!" And before some politically correct moron writes in outrage, I should add that it was Mario who told me the story...

The one thing missing from Andretti's CV was a victory at Le Mans, and this always bugged him, for he wanted the full set. That being so, in '94 he murmured that his retirement was not an absolute thing, that maybe, come June, there would be the odd trip to the Sarthe. In '95, sharing a Courage with the late Bob Wollek, he finished second, and that was to remain his best result there.

Some thought he was nuts, risking so much in what remains, let's face it, a mighty dangerous race, but Mario never bothered to try to explain himself. In his mind, he had always been a racing driver, and always would be, and if they couldn't understand that, well, it was their problem. "I always figured I was put on this earth to drive race cars," he once said to me, which is why, at the age of 63, he found himself at the Speedway last week, that experience to work, running laps at 225mph without bringing sweat to his brow.

Then he had the accident which may have been the biggest of his life. It wasn't his fault, just, as he said, the consequence of "getting involved in someone else's mess", but it amounted to a miraculous deliverance, for the umpteenth time in what he knows has been a very blessed career. And I hope that this time he means it, that he will never again be tempted to drive 'one last time'. As Allievi said, there is no one like him. Never has been; never will be.

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