By: Tanner Watkins
May 3, 2019 | 8:00 AM
In America, the year 1969 brought its fair share of indelible moments.
On January 12, Joe Namath guaranteed a victory for the New York Jets in Super Bowl III – and delivered a 16-7 triumph against the Baltimore Colts. By July, the first U.S. troops had begun departing Vietnam, and over 500 million souls watched Neil Armstrong take those memorable steps onto the Moon’s surface.
August saw upstate New York host the historic Woodstock music festival, October hosted the “Amazing” New York Mets unexplainable World Series upset, and in December, the first draft lottery in the United States since World War II was held – once again sending troops back to Vietnam.
The final year of the 20th century’s “60s” decade featured plenty unpredictable months, but perhaps it was Mario Andretti’s 1969 month of May at Indianapolis that was as challenging – and rewarding – as they come.
Already a two-time USAC Champ Car champion in 1965 and 1966, Andretti was fresh off of back-to-back runner-up points finishes in 1967 and 1968. If it weren’t for awful finishes of 30th (1967) and 33rd (1968) at the Indianapolis 500, it is conceivable that the man named Mario could have had four Champ Car titles to his name by the age of 28.
Entering 1969, the winds of change began to sweep across Andretti’s career path. He had jumped out of the business of team ownership, later selling his assets to Andy Granatelli, and after finishes of 16th at Phoenix and a win at Hanford, Andretti’s fifth month of May at Indianapolis was shaping up to be his strongest yet.
In the month’s early stages, it was.
As Andretti explained to Open-Wheels earlier this year, his decision to begin the 1969 month of May came when he made a deal with Colin Chapman to drive a Lotus the previous year.
“I remember the year – and actually in 1968 I still owned a team myself – I made a deal with Colin Chapman to have one of his Lotuses for the following year, which was going to be powered by Ford,” said Andretti, now 79 but as sharp as ever.
“The chassis was a four-wheel drive, based on the turbine for that particular year. As I sold the team to Andy Granatelli, Colin Chapman agreed to go along with the deal, so we had this state of the art car to start the month with – and hopes to go through with it. The car was everything, as far as performance, that we had hoped for.”
At the outset, the trio of Andretti, Chapman and Granatelli were riding high on the Lotus’ early pace. Mario was topping the timesheets with regularity, but issues began to arise – first with Andretti’s car, then Graham Hill and Jochen Rindt, then Andretti again.
“During practice, I was leading with speed pretty much every day, but there were some issues – some big-time overheating issues with the gearbox,” recalls Andretti. “The gearbox was basically in front of the engine – right behind the driver’s seat – and I don’t think they had enough cooling for it. That was part of the problem, and the other one, well we learned as time went on.
“What we learned was that there were some mechanical failures, especially in the suspension areas. There were some problems with the team car, which Colin Chapman entered with Graham Hill and Jochen Rindt, and they both had some failures.”
“The Wednesday (before qualifying) I was setting really good speeds. Then all of a sudden, the right rear sheared off coming off of Turn Four and I crashed pretty bad – it destroyed the car and (brought) fire. After analyzing everything, they decided to withdraw all of the Lotus cars, which I think it was prudent to do so.”
The crash sent Andretti from being the odds-on favorite to win the pole – and the race – to a series of burns and bruises. The beautifully-prepared Lotus chassis from Chapman had burned like an oil flame, bright at the outset but dimming as its shortcomings were unveiled. Andretti and company were forced back to a back-up car, the Brawner-Hawk.
Remarkably, Andretti rebounded from the vicious accident just days prior to eventually put the team’s reserve machine on the Indianapolis 500 front row – sandwiched between legends A.J. Foyt and Bobby Unser. At the traditional front row photo shoot following qualifications, Andretti had his twin brother Aldo sit in on the picture session while the burns on his face continued to heal.
But despite losing the team’s primary car and later unloading with what seemed to be a surprisingly equal car in the Brawner-Hawk, Andretti insisted that the back-up Brawner was no slouch, either.
“We started out the season with that (car) and it was a good car, no question, but there was never any intent to race it at Indy,” Andretti explains. “The good thing is we had won at Hanford – the race just before Indianapolis – with that car. But again, we had some other issues with that one, like overheating. We used to hang a cooler outside in the air you on the shorter tracks where it wouldn’t matter.
“So I worked it up to speed pretty good (at Indianapolis) and we decided to qualify without that big cooler hanging out in the air, but Clint Brawner didn’t look at the rules very close,” chuckles Andretti, thinking back to the team’s shotgun effort to be ready for qualifying.
“We intended to (run the) race with the cooler out there but we were not allowed (since they didn’t qualify with it). So again they had to improvise to put an oil radiator right behind the seat, using ducts from the bottom and letting the air off the top. It was very inefficient – all it was doing was heating and putting blisters on my back – but nevertheless, we were left with a car that was never intended to race there.
“Luckily I put it in the middle of the front row, so you could see that it was competitive.”
When race day finally arrived on May 30, Andretti was once again one of the favorites – despite the rocky road that got him there during the previous 29 days.
In the early going during the 53rd Greatest Spectacle in Racing, it was Andretti, Foyt and Lloyd Ruby commanding the pace. Roger McCluskey was around as well, plus pressure from other challengers such as Unser, Mark Donohue and Gordon Johncock. As Mario recalls, it was Foyt and Ruby who were catching his eye during the opening stages.
“My two main competitors were A.J. (Foyt) and Lloyd Ruby, and they led at different times,” said Andretti. “Quite honestly, I was kind of cooling it a little bit because after about six or seven laps, I let Foyt and McCluskey go by me.
“My oil temperature was already up into the 270-degree range and I figured, ‘here we go again.’ But when I really needed to go, I could go and lead this thing.”
Eventually, that is exactly what happened. Ruby would eventually drop out with a fuel coupling malfunction, Johncock with a faulty valve and McCluskey a fire on Lap 157. By that time, Foyt was long gone from contention when he suffered from a split manifold around the race’s midway point.
Despite drivers like Unser and Dan Gurney keeping him honest, Andretti was able to recognize the need for pace and patience down the stretch – a strategy that saved his equipment just enough to see the finish line.
“Towards the end I had over a lap lead on Dan Gurney, and so again I just paced myself right there and prayed that I could bring it home – and we barely, barely did,” reported Andretti.
“The gearbox probably would not have gone another lap, according to Jim McGee. He said when they took apart the gearbox it was totally dry – the gears, everything was carbonized. That is why I was feeling this roughness in the drive train.
“I didn’t know what it was – I figured it was a wheel bearing – but I was kind of praying for it to stay together, and it did.”
After two consecutive years of failure for Andretti at the World’s Greatest Race Course, and continued heartbreak for team owner Andy Granatelli, the two Italian-born stars finally watched the stars align. Andretti’s No. 2 machine just barely completed the 200 laps and held on while other team cars for Granatelli – driven by Art Pollard and Carl Williams – had already faltered and faded on the day.
The victory would serve as a breakthrough for perhaps the most impressive season in IndyCar history. Andretti would go on to win nine races in 1969, en route to his third USAC Champ Car championship. Mario recorded top-tens in 20 of the 24 races he competed in while pitching in with victories at other famous locations like Pikes Peak, Nazareth and Trenton.
It was truly a remarkable year, capped by a victory kiss in late May by an ecstatic team owner. In a way, the win allowed Andretti to deliver more happiness and relief to Granatelli than the victory allowed for himself.
“It was incredibly satisfying,” admits Andretti. “I keep saying that, not just for myself, but for Andy. I think Andy really, really deserved to win and I was happy to be the first one to bring it to him. As we have seen in the past, just the love that he had for Indianapolis, that was the only thing he cared about. He didn’t care about any other race anywhere, Indy was his thing.
“With the efforts he always made with the Novi’s and then later with the turbine cars that should have won but didn’t, he would always go in there with something different; always thinking outside the box. And then here we go and win with a fairly standard car, so go figure.
“But the win was so, so satisfying from that standpoint and from every standpoint, honestly.”
Sure, we all know the history that followed Mario on May 30, 1969: a pair of runner-up “500” finishes in the 1980s, a victory stripped from him months after the checkered flag flew, and countless heartbreaks across three generations of Andrettis. I don’t believe in curses, but even Andretti himself admits that he and Granatelli likely burnt up all the luck they had in 1969.
“We probably did, looking back on it,” says Andretti, through laughter. “My rookie race was in 1965, and then I was on pole in 1966 and 1967. Technically, I had so much advantage that if the cars would have lasted in those two years (1966 and 1967), they could have been the two easiest races to win.
“In 1966 at the start I dropped a valve, and I stayed ahead of Jim Clark for about four or five laps on seven cylinders before I dropped out. In 1967, the right front wheel came off because of the wrong machining on the wheel that they never picked up, and that took me out. Then in 1968, I was out on the second lap, and in 1969 I had all these problems but that (ended up being) only the second race that I had finished counting my rookie year. And I won it!
“I figured well, Lord willing, if I am still around then I will win a few more. Even though I dominated at other times (in later years), it did not happen.”
While the 1969 triumph at Indianapolis serves as the only “500” victory in the Andretti family’s 50-plus years of coming to the Speedway, the month of May leading up to that day had all the makings of a storybook finish. For Andretti, he was lucky enough to snatch up the leading role.
Two cars, one crash, multiple burns, and a handful of gearbox teeth later, and Mario Andretti had won his one and only Indianapolis 500. With the incredible series of events he experienced during May of 1969’s first 30 days, that win has carried enough excitement to last a lifetime.
During this month’s 50th anniversary celebration of Andretti’s victory, the Associated Press’ “Driver of the Century” will likely tell his “500” story over and over again – but don’t expect him to grow tired of it.
With a quick trip down memory lane, Andretti is back in victory lane with Granatelli and his STP-clad crew – an improbable, unmistakable sight burned into the Indianapolis 500’s fabric.
Header image courtesy of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
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.