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.

Ecclestone Wants 'Lottery' Qualifying System

Previous article

Ecclestone Wants 'Lottery' Qualifying System

Next article

Bring On the Young Lions, Says Ecclestone

Bring On the Young Lions, Says Ecclestone
Load comments
The F1 champion who became an Indy king in his second career Plus

The F1 champion who became an Indy king in his second career

Emerson Fittipaldi’s decision to go racing with his brother led to him falling out of F1, but he bloomed again on the IndyCar scene. NIGEL ROEBUCK considers a career of two halves

Why Mercedes is pleased to be in the Hungary hunt at a 'Red Bull track' Plus

Why Mercedes is pleased to be in the Hungary hunt at a 'Red Bull track'

Mercedes ended Friday practice at the Hungaroring with a clear gap to Red Bull thanks to Valtteri Bottas’s pace in topping FP2. But there are other reasons why the Black Arrows squad feels satisfied with its progress so far at a track many Formula 1 observers reckon favours Red Bull overall

Formula 1
Jul 30, 2021
How Red Bull endured its second car crash in two weeks Plus

How Red Bull endured its second car crash in two weeks

OPINION: Red Bull was justified to be upset that Lewis Hamilton survived his British GP clash with Max Verstappen and went on to win. But its attempts to lobby the FIA to reconsider the severity of Hamilton's in-race penalty were always likely to backfire, and have only succeeded in creating a PR disaster that will distract from its on-track efforts

Formula 1
Jul 30, 2021
The ‘screaming’ F1 engine future that may not be out of reach Plus

The ‘screaming’ F1 engine future that may not be out of reach

OPINION: It wasn't just the Verstappen/Hamilton clash that had the Red Bull and Mercedes bosses at loggerheads at Silverstone, with the nature of Formula 1's 2025 engines also subject for disagreement. But hopes to have loud, emotive engines that are also environmentally friendly don't have to be opposed

Formula 1
Jul 29, 2021
The drivers that need to strike gold before F1's summer break Plus

The drivers that need to strike gold before F1's summer break

OPINION: Formula 1 is about to break up for summer 2021, with the title battles finely poised. But it’s not just the latest round of Max Verstappen vs Lewis Hamilton that will be worth watching this weekend in Hungary, as plenty of drivers are eying big results to change the stories of their seasons so far

Formula 1
Jul 28, 2021
How Lotus F1 uncovered, then squandered its last ‘unfair advantage’ Plus

How Lotus F1 uncovered, then squandered its last ‘unfair advantage’

Cast in the mould of its founder Colin Chapman, Lotus was powerful and daring but 
flawed – as it proved through further soaring peaks and painful troughs into the 1980s. DAMIEN SMITH examines a game-changing era

Formula 1
Jul 27, 2021
The core problems Yas Marina’s long-awaited tweaks won't address Plus

The core problems Yas Marina’s long-awaited tweaks won't address

OPINION: Changes to the layout of Abu Dhabi’s circuit aim to reverse the trend of insipid Formula 1 races there - the promoter has even described one of the new corners as “iconic”. And that, argues STUART CODLING, is one of this venue’s abiding failings

Formula 1
Jul 26, 2021
How Ferrari offered Britain's next F1 prospect what Red Bull couldn't Plus

How Ferrari offered Britain's next F1 prospect what Red Bull couldn't

Last year's Formula 2 runner-up Callum Ilott could be on his way to becoming the first Briton to contest a grand prix in an Alfa Romeo since Reg Parnell in 1950. But, says OLEG KARPOV, the Ferrari Driver Academy protege is having to temper his ambition at the moment – outwardly at least…

Formula 1
Jul 25, 2021