By: Spencer Neff
May 6, 2019 | 8:26 AM
Few athletes are as synonymous with their given sport as Mario Andretti is with auto racing. For more than 50 years, Andretti has been identified around the world as one of racing’s best. As part of Open-Wheels’ ongoing tribute to Mario, we look back at his decorated racing career.
Forged on Dirt
Less than a decade after migrating to Nazareth, Pennsylvania from his native Montona, Italy, Andretti’s professional racing career began. Following stints in the United Racing Club (URC) and American Racing Drivers Club (four wins in 1963), Andretti would later make a move to the United States Automobile Club.
Before the start of the 1964 season, Andretti caught the attention of car owner Bruce Homeyer. Homeyer and Andretti worked a deal to run some midget races at Daytona Municipal Stadium in preparation for the Daytona 500.
After winning the feature event on the last night, Andretti put the racing community on notice. In April he would join the USAC Sprint Car circuit, and in that same month, Mario made his Champ Car debut at Trenton Speedway, finishing 11th. By October, Andretti would earn his first victory – with the breakthrough coming at Salem Speedway.
Champ Car Calling
For 1965, Andretti would continue on in USAC’s Champ Car ranks. To start things off, he led 63 laps at Phoenix International Raceway in March of that year before finishing sixth. On June 20, he earned his first pole position at Langhorne Speedway.
A month later, Mario broke through for his first ChampCar win at Indianapolis Raceway Park. In May, he started fourth and finished third to win Rookie of the Year at the Indianapolis 500.
Andretti would add a Sprint Car victory at Ascot Park to his resume in November, an effort that clinched him the USAC National Championship.
The 1966 season would include 49 races for Mario, and he won eight times on his way to a second straight USAC crown.
In May of 1966, Andretti earned his first career Indianapolis 500 pole position. Unfortunately, engine issues knocked him out of the race after leading 18 of the first 27 laps.
Doing it All
Although he remained in USAC for 1967, Andretti would also try his hand at other racing series during the year. The year began with victories in NASCAR’s premier race – the Daytona 500 – driving for Holman & Moody, and then at the 12 Hours of Sebring in March. In the Sebring race, Andretti helped debut the Ford MK IV with codriver Bruce McLaren.
On the USAC side, Andretti would earn his second straight Indianapolis 500 pole (finishing 30th) while winning a series-best eight times. In the end, he was 80 points back of A.J. Foyt in the points race and missed out on a three-peat.
In 1968, Andretti won four times on the USAC Champ Car circuit, but again finished runner-up as Al Unser won the title by 11 points. In October, he made waves when he earned the pole in his Formula 1 debut at Watkins Glen.
Looking ahead, 1969 would be a banner year for Mario. In the big picture, he earned a third championship in three years on the back of nine wins. Undoubtedly, though, one of those wins meant just a little bit more than the others.
Highlighting Mario’s season would be his triumph at the 53rd Indianapolis 500. After an eventful month which saw Mario crash in his primary car and qualify the back-up car on the front row, Andretti led 116 laps en route to the victory in his Andy Granatelli-owned Brawner-Ford entry.
Despite their success in 1969, though, 1970 would not result in as successful a year for Andretti and Granatelli. A mid-season switch to the McNamara chassis netted just one win as Mario finished fifth in the final points standings. Not all was lost, though: In Sports Cars, Andretti teamed with Ignazio Giunti and Nino Vaccarella for his second 12 Hours of Sebring win.
Fighting through Struggles
For 1971, Mario split his time between USAC and Formula 1. Although he finished ninth in points, Andretti did not reach victory lane in USAC.
In March, Andretti earned his maiden Formula 1 triumph at Kyalami in South Africa. His other victories during the season came during the Questor Grand Prix weekend at Ontario Motor Speedway in F1 and Formula 5000.
Despite winning four times (Daytona 24, Sebring, Brands Hatch and Watkins Glen) on the World Sports Car Championship (WSCC) circuit with codriver Jacky Ickx and the Ferrari team, he went winless again in USAC and F1 during the 1972 season. He elected to move on from Ferrari’s F1 program.
In April of 1973, Andretti ended his drought with a victory at Trenton Speedway. While returning to sprint cars, he added wins at the Illinois and Duquoin State Fairgrounds.
By 1974, Mario joined the Vel’s Parnelli Jones team in USAC. Despite five combined victories in Silver Crown and F5000, Andretti went winless in Champ Car. In April, he and Arturo Merzario joined forces to win at Monza in WSCC for Alfa Romeo.
A year later, Andretti continued to diversify his career racing portfolio. Despite contesting some races in USAC, he made his full-time debut in Formula 1 with the Vel’s Parnelli Jones team. Mario finished the season 14th in points, but did win four times on the F5000 circuit,
In 1976, he split time between USAC and Formula 1. While he went winless during the USAC season (ninth in points), Andretti won the F1 finale in Fuji for Lotus.
Continuing his USAC/F1 trend for 1977, Andretti finished seventh in USAC standings despite missing out on victory lane. In Formula 1, Andretti finished a career-best third after notching four wins.
For 1978, Andretti again showcased his prowess in all disciplines of racing.
While compiling nine wins in Formula 1, IROC (International Race of Champions) and USAC, he won his only Formula 1 world championship and later won at Trenton Speedway for Penske in USAC.
The year ended on a tragic note, however. At the Italian Grand Prix, teammate Ronnie Peterson was injured in a crash and passed away two days later. Andretti has been outspoken about the lack of adequate care for Peterson following the crash and often cites the Swede as his favorite teammate.
During 1979, Andretti remained with the Lotus-Cosworth team in F1 but did run two events in the newly-formed CART (Championship Auto Racing Teams) series. Although he only won once in IROC (Riverside), it was enough to earn him the championship. Andretti also missed the Indianapolis 500 for the first time in his career due to F1 obligations.
Moving Back to CART
In 1980, Andretti’s Lotus team again went winless in Formula 1. On the CART side, he did earn a victory in CART during the 150-mile Gould Grand Prix at Michigan International Speedway.
1981 would bring about more change for Mario. In Formula 1, he signed with Alfa Romeo. Meanwhile, he moved over to Patrick Racing for non-conflicting CART races.
The year proved frustrating for the veteran driver. In May, he was ruled the winner of the Indianapolis 500 after Bobby Unser was penalized a lap. Following a multi-month protest, Andretti was eventually moved back to second in the final classification as Unser was granted the win.
In light of the stewards’ decision, Andretti would not win a race that year.
For 1982, Andretti scaled back his Formula 1 participation to just three races – with a best finish of third at Monza. In CART, he earned three runner-up finishes but no wins.
Before 1983, Andretti signed on with the fledgling Newman-Haas CART team as he moved on from F1. In July, he earned the first victory for the Lola chassis at Road America. Before the end of the season, Andretti took a second checkered flag at Las Vegas before eventually finishing third in points.
Second “500” win Remains Elusive
A strong second-half to their 1983 debut set Andretti and Newman-Haas up for 1984. In just their second season together, Mario earned the championship with a series-high six race wins and nine pole positions.
Despite finishing second to Danny Sullivan in the Indianapolis 500, Andretti started the 1985 season with three victories in the first five races. He tied for the series lead in victories along with Bobby Rahal, yet Mario stumbled as the year went on and finished a disappointing fifth in the final standings.
1986 brought yet another fifth-place points finish for Andretti – highlighted by a victory over his son Michael at Portland in June, while also winning at Pocono in August.
In the first three races of 1987, Andretti won three poles and one race (Long Beach). He dominated in the Indianapolis 500, but a broken valve spring 20 laps from the finish ended his bid for a second Borg-Warner Trophy appearance.
When all was said and done in 1987, Andretti had added another triumph at Road America while later finishing sixth in the overall points standings.
1988 provided Mario with a two-win season (Phoenix and Cleveland). For 1989, Mario was joined by his son Michael at Newman-Haas. Michael won two races that year and finished third in the standings, but Mario would fail to record a victory and finished sixth in the final points standings.
A Family Affair
The 1990s proved to be a trying time for the patriarch of the Andretti Family. While his son won five times and finished second in the 1990 CART points standings, Mario went winless once again and finished seventh. The father-son duo did finish 1-2 at Portland and Mid-Ohio
In 1991, Michael had one of his best seasons. Mario’s eldest son won a record eight times and finished a career-best second at the Indianapolis 500. Additionally, the Andrettis made history in the race.
While Mario finished runner-up to Michael at Toronto in July, he again went winless and finished seventh in points.
Despite Mario and Jeff suffering injuries in crashes during the 1992 Indianapolis 500, Mario missed just one race. In August, he started on pole for the Michigan 500 (his first pole since Miami in 1987) and finished runner-up to Michael at Laguna Seca in September.
Despite going winless for a fourth straight year, Mario ended the season sixth in the final points standings.
For 1993, Michael followed in Mario’s footsteps with a switch to Formula 1. Mario would be joined at Newman-Haas by 1992 Formula 1 World Driving Champion Nigel Mansell.
Two weeks after Mansell became the first driver to win from pole in his debut (Surfers Paradise), Andretti broke his winless drought at Phoenix.
Despite starting second and leading a race-high 77 laps, Andretti faded late and finished fifth at the Indianapolis 500 the following month. At the Michigan 500 in August, Andretti reset the track record and started on pole (a series-record 67th of his career) for the second straight year. It would be Mansell who dominated, as Andretti finished second in his alst race starting on pole.
In 1994, Andretti announced he would be stepping away from driving full-time. The “Arrivederci Mario” Tour began with a third-place finish to his race-winning son Michael (who returned to IndyCar with Chip Ganassi) at Surfers Paradise.
Hanging up the Helmet
That 1994 opening race at Surfers Paradise marked the final podium finish of Mario’s career.
He made his 29th and final Indianapolis 500 start in May, ending the day 32nd as he dropped out after 104 laps with fuel systems issues.
In September, Andretti made his record 407th and final INDYCAR start at Laguna Seca. On that California trip, Mario’s Lola/Ford expired four laps from the finish and Mario ended his career with a 19th-place finish.
A year later, he earned a WSC class victory (overall runner-up) at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Driving for Courage C34 in a Porsche, Andretti won with codrivers Bob Wollek and Eric Helary.
Over the next four years, Andretti attempted the race three more times, but finished no better than 13th (1996).
In his time away from the cockpit, Andretti has become an ambassador for the NTT IndyCar Series and some of its biggest sponsors. The 79-year-old can often be found at the wheel of the Honda two-seater IndyCar giving fans and celebrities the thrill of being on track before the race.
This May, Mario will once again be a prominent fixture at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. IMS will commemorate the 50th anniversary of his win in the “500.”
Additionally, for the race Mario will be there to support his son and car owner Michael plus grandson Marco Andretti as Michael’s Andretti Autosport team looks for a sixth win.
Header Image By Joe Skibinski/INDYCAR
Open-Wheels coverage of the 2019 month of May at Indianapolis is presented by Driven 2 Save Lives. Driven 2 Save Lives, an entity of the Indiana Donor Network, is a program that utilizes motorsports as a platform to encourage race fans to become organ donors. Currently, there are 114,000 individuals that are waiting for a life-saving organ transplant. Register as an organ, tissue, and eye donor at Driven2SaveLives.org/register and follow Driven2SaveLives on Facebook and Twitter.