Mario Andretti's name is virtually synonymous with the sport of race car driving. A versatile driver with a charasmatic personality, he has won numerous races and seen two sons and a nephew become successful in the sport.
For many people all over the world, the name Mario Andretti is synonymous with automobile racing. From humble beginnings in a small Italian village, Andretti went on to become one of the most successful drivers in the history of the sport. Andretti's most amazing accomplishment was his versatility. He excelled in virtually every type of car and on every type of track there is, from 24-hour marathons to the Indianapolis 500. According to a 1989 poll, Andretti's name was better known to the American public than were the names of the next two most famous race car drivers—A. J. Foyt and Richard Petty—combined. During the peak years of his racing career in the 1960s and 1970s, Andretti earned a reputation as one of the sport's most daring drivers, as well as one of its most colorful personalities.
Though an avid racing fan from an early age, the circumstances of Andretti's youth were hardly conducive to a career as a top driver. He was born on February 28, 1940, in Montona, a northern Italian village near Trieste on the Istrian Peninsula. His father, Alvise, was a respected and influential farm administrator. The family lost all of its property during the Second World War, however, and after the war, the region became part of Yugoslavia. The Andrettis spent their first few years after the war in a camp for displaced persons. In 1948, Alvise moved the family to Lucca, a town near Florence, in order to maintain Italian citizenship. There he found a job working in a toy factory.
Bitten by Racing Bug Early
As young children, Mario and his twin brother, Aldo, became fascinated with cars and racing. The course of the Mille Miglia, Italy's famous 1,000-mile road race, went through Florence, and the boys were mesmerized by the noise and excitement of the event. Since the Andrettis lived across the street from a garage, the twins spent a great deal of their time hanging around mechanics and learning as much as they could about cars. Their hero was Alberto Ascari, one of the most famous drivers in Italy at the time. At the age of 13, Mario and Aldo entered a program for young race car driving hopefuls, against the wishes of their disapproving father. The only person Andretti told about his racing was an uncle, who also happened to be his priest. The youth racing program was eventually canceled because so many boys were getting injured, but the Andretti twins continued to pursue their hobby in secret.
In 1955 the entire Andretti family moved to the United States, settling in Nazareth, Pennsylvania, where an uncle already lived. By 1958, the twins had saved enough money to buy their first car, a 1948 Hudson Hornet. They rebuilt the car themselves, and began racing it at the half-mile Nazareth Speedway. One brother would drive the Hudson, while the other would borrow a car. Still keeping their racing a secret from their father, the Andretti boys quickly began to dominate the local racing scene, winning one stock car race after another. Papa Andretti finally learned the truth when Aldo, by most accounts the more aggressive driver of the pair, was seriously injured in racing accident at Hatfield, Pennsylvania. The crash put Aldo into a coma for two weeks, and although he recovered from his injuries, he was never able to successfully resume his driving career.
Meanwhile, Mario's career was getting ready to shift into high gear. Working weekdays as a mechanic, he drove on evenings and weekends, gradually making his way through the ranks of three-quarter midget cars, midget cars, and modified racers. In 1961 he married his high school sweetheart, Dee Ann Hoch. Around the same time, he quit his garage job, and decided to devote his attention to full-time racing. In 1962 Andretti raced sprint cars on the United Racing Club's Eastern circuit. The following year, he won 11 American Race Drivers Club midget car races, including three races in two different states on Labor Day, 1963.
Took USAC Crown as Rookie
By 1964 Andretti had caught the attention of Clint Brawner, chief mechanic for prominent race car sponsor Al Dean of Dean Van Lines. When Dean's main driver, Chuck Hulse, was injured, he chose Andretti as his replacement. Now in the big leagues of auto racing, Andretti quickly began to make a name for himself on the United States Auto Club (USAC) circuit, finishing in the top ten in a number of races. In 1965, his first full year in top-level racing, Andretti emerged as a star of the speedways, exciting racing fans with his bold driving style. He was signed to a multi-year contract by the powerful Firestone racing team, and although he won only one race that year—the Hoosier Grand Prix at Indianapolis—he was constantly among the leaders, including an impressive third-place finish at the Indianapolis 500. That consistency earned him the USAC national championship for the 1965 season.
Andretti, now an American citizen, repeated as USAC champion in 1966. That season, he won eight of the 15 championship races he entered. During one three-race stretch—the Milwaukee 100, the Langhorne 100, and the Atlanta 300—Andretti led from start to finish, for a total of 500 miles. That phenomenal season established Andretti as the hottest driver on the Indy-car circuit, as well as an international celebrity.
Andretti won eight races again in 1967, but fell just short of the USAC championship, which was taken by A. J. Foyt. As the 1960s continued, he felt the urge to seek out new challenges. For Andretti, that meant trying to duplicate his Indy-car success in other forms of racing. In 1967 he stunned the world of stock car racing by winning the prestigious Daytona 500. The following year, Andretti became involved in the Formula One road racing circuit. He also began to race occasionally on dirt tracks. Although he enhanced his reputation as one of the world's most versatile drivers, Andretti won only four USAC races in 1968, finishing second in the standings to Bobby Unser.
Closed 1960s with Indy Win
After a string of disappointments at the Indianapolis 500, the most important of all races, Andretti finally broke through with a victory in 1969. The win at Indy helped lift Andretti to his third USAC championship in five years. He also won a 12-hour road race at Sebring that season. In 1970 Andretti suffered a series of crashes and mechanical problems, and he failed to win any major races. With an Indy trophy finally in his collection, Andretti decided to focus more energy on Formula One racing during the 1970s. He won the South African Grand Prix in 1971, but struggled through the next several seasons without a Grand Prix victory. He did, however, manage to win the USAC dirt track championship in 1974, a further show of his versatility.
In 1977 Andretti finally began to achieve the kind of success in Formula One racing that he had in Indy cars. He came in third in the standings among Formula One drivers that year, winning the U.S., Spanish, French, and Italian Grand Prix events. The following year, only his second racing Formula One full time, Andretti realized a life-long dream by becoming the Formula One World Champion. By the early 1980s, however, Andretti had pretty much retired from the Grand Prix circuit, and was once more ready to concentrate on Indy cars. In 1984, at an age (46) generally considered over-the-hill for a race car driver, Andretti took his fourth Indy Car championship.
Drove Fast During Career Twilight
Although the victories started to come less frequently, Andretti continued to race competitively through the rest of the 1980s and into the first half of the 1990s, both in Indy Cars and in the occasional Formula One event. He won an Indy Car race in 1988 before encountering an extended dry spell. His last Indy Car win—the 52nd of his career—came in a 1993 race in Phoenix. That year, at the age of 53, Andretti set the all-time qualifying speed record of 234.275 miles-per-hour at the Michigan International Speedway. Andretti retired from racing following the Grand Prix of Monterey at the end of the 1994 season.
Meanwhile, the most famous race car driver in the world had spawned the most successful racing dynasty in history. Son Michael has become one of racing's top drivers in his own right. Andretti's other son, Jeff, and nephew John (Aldo's son) have also shown the Andretti magic behind the wheel. During the early 1990s, several Indy Car fields included four drivers named Andretti.
Mario considered making a one-race comeback in 1996, when a schism developed between Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART) and the upstart Indy Racing League (IRL) over control of the Indianapolis 500 field. As a protest against IRL's attempt to stock the Indy field with its members, CART created the U.S. 500, to be run on the same day as the Indy 500 at the same Michigan track on which Andretti had set his qualifying record a few years earlier. After weeks of contemplation, Andretti eventually decided against entering the U.S. 500. Even in retirement, however, Andretti remains a giant figure among racing fans. He is much in demand for appearances and endorsements. Although he has now left the driving to the next generation of Andrettis, his charisma and diverse skills will be difficult for his successors to match.
Further Reading on Mario Andretti
Andretti, Mario, Andretti: Mario on Mario, Collins, 1994.
Roebuck, Nigel, Grand Prix Greats, Patrick Stephens, 1986.
People, August 28, 1978, pp. 37-43.
Libby, Bill, Great American Race Drivers, Cowles, 1970, pp. 180-184.
Prentzas, G. S., Mario Andretti, Chelsea House, 1996.
Sports Illustrated, May 11, 1992, pp. 78-93.
Road and Track, January, 1995, pp. 117-119.
Sports Illustrated, October 17, 1994, p. 88.
Indianapolis Star, January 18, 1996, p. D1.