Mario Andretti's career turning point

Tribute to a racing legend on the 50th anniversary of his first Indy car title

Mario Andretti's career turning point
Mario Andretti at the start of the Hoosier Hundred with Al Dean and Clint Brawner
Mario Andretti at Trenton
Mario Andretti at CNE Speedway in Toronto in USAC midget
Mario Andretti and pit crew, Indy 500
Mario Andretti and Aldo Andretti at Indy
Mario Andretti celebrates second place in the Hoosier Hundred with Clint Brawner
Mario Andretti at Langhorne
Mario Andretti, Indy 500 Rookie of the Year 1965
Mario Andretti at the Hoosier GP
Mario Andretti

1965 – Beyond motorsport's bubble, U.S. troops entered Vietnam for the first time, Britain’s former prime minister Winston Churchill died in London, as did America’s ambassador to the United Nations, Adlai Stevenson II. In the artistic world we lost Nat King Cole and T.S. Eliot, and gained The Sound of Music.

Meanwhile, Ralph Nader made a name for himself by pillorying the American auto industry in his book Unsafe at any Speed. A deliciously ironic title, that, given the book was published just two weeks after Craig Breedlove cracked 600mph at Bonneville Salt Flats…

In racing, Mike Hailwood became 500cc motorcycle world champion for the fourth and final time, Jimmy Clark won his second Formula 1 title and conquered the Indy 500 for Team Lotus-Ford in the exquisite Type 38. Oh, and an Italian-American by the name of Mario Andretti won the USAC National Championship for the first time – an event unfairly overlooked.

’Twas ever thus. Indy car racing’s championship accolade has always been trapped in the long shadow cast by the Borg-Warner Trophy.

“I was so proud of becoming National Champion,” recalls Mario, “my first really big achievement in racing. I was proud as a peacock. And then I go on The Johnny Carson Show at the end of the season, and I’m introduced as ‘Indy 500 Rookie of the Year.’ Man, I felt so deflated.”

[Photos kindly supplied from the Andretti Collection and include Bruce Craig and IMS images. Just click on them to expand].

The back story

In 1963, Andretti had become one of the recognized forces in U.S. racing. Driving for the fabulous Mataka brothers in the American Racing Drivers Club’s midget racing category, he scored no fewer than 29 top-five finishes in 46 races, and five of those were victories.

The most significant of these, Mario feels, came in his first ever road course race at superfast Lime Rock, where he alone could keep up with Mark Donohue’s nimble rear-engined two-speed Cooper-built midget. In the closing stages, Donohue cracked under the pressure applied by the 23-year-old in the single-geared, front-engined car, and went off the track picking up a slow puncture. Andretti ducked down the inside of Donohue at the final turn, and took a famous win.

While he made his United States Auto Club (USAC) sprint car debut that year, too, as soon as April ’64 Mario had reached new heights, racing a Champ car for the first time. ‘Champ car’ was the generic term to cover the very top of the tree in U.S. open-wheel racing – the dirt-oval cars and the paved-track roadsters together comprised the USAC National Championship, what today we know as the IndyCar Series.

It was Doug Stearly who gave Andretti his Champ car debut that April on the paved oval at Trenton, N.J., and the young gun made a decent fist of it, qualifying 16th and finishing 11th in less than ideal circumstances. Unwilling to confess to his team owner that the cockpit needed adjusting for his small frame – something he’d been teased about in his early URC sprint car days – Mario had been bounced around inside the roadster and had also lost major ground in the race when he had to slew to a halt to avoid a spinning car.

Yet there was soon good news in quick succession. A day after Trenton, this Montona, Italy-born rising star was granted U.S. citizenship, and things continued to look positive after he landed a USAC sprint car ride in Rufus Gray’s Gapco car. Then, when Chuck Hulse ran into the rear of the Gapco machine at New Bremen, OH., and broke his back, his misfortune left a vacancy in Clint Brawner’s Dean Van Lines Champ car team. 

Then came the big let-down; although Brawner did indeed select Andretti as Hulse's sub, he delayed his new driver’s debut, declaring him unready for the Indianapolis 500.

Near-miss and a swift rise

Andretti was peeved about that but also realistic, and his grudging acceptance of Brawner’s verdict may have saved his life. As Mario was strolling the paddock at Indianapolis Motor Speedway one day in the month of May, Mickey Thompson offered him a ride in his infamous flat-fish car, and asked him to report in next morning for his first go. Andretti was initially interested but then had second thoughts, and instead stayed in his hotel the next day. If Brawner, whose team had captured the Champ car titles in 1954, ’56 and ’57, said he wasn’t ready, maybe he wasn’t ready.

Mario was thus only a spectator for the 1964 Indy 500, and from his seat in the Tower Terraces, saw Davey MacDonald crash the tricky Thompson car at the end of the first lap, in a monstrous fuel-fed catastrophe that took the life of both MacDonald and Champ car ace Eddie Sachs.

Rather than get cold sweats of the “that coulda been me” kind, Mario instead made a bold decision. Rather than delay his second Champ car event until the next Trenton race, as Brawner intended, Andretti decided he needed experience in a dirt-oval Champ car as soon as possible. He accepted a ride with Lee Glessner to race at the fearsome D-shaped oval at Langhorne, Penn. – a track on which he’d never competed, but had witnessed other drivers killed and maimed. Remarkably, the debutant started eighth and finished ninth… and in the closing stages, passed Brawner’s car driven by Bob Mathouser.

That sent a very clear message, and Brawner wasn’t to be disappointed once he replaced Mathouser with Andretti. Mario finished third at Milwaukee – first front-engined car home – and in three of the last four races, he started in the top six.

This kid was seriously good, apparently ready for a full-time Champ car ride for 1965 – and brimful of self belief.

Climbing the mountain

“At that age you feel very confident,” recalls Mario 50 years later. “The fact that we all had the chance to race against the same drivers in sprint cars or midgets really helped, because every weekend you could measure yourself against the top drivers of the day.

“Well, at 23, you believe you can handle anything, whether that's realistic or not. That attitude can be both good and bad, but I think it’s better to feel that way than not. If you want to succeed in racing – or any sport – you cannot be timid.”

But if he was going to contend for the national championship in his first full season, Andretti would need to hurry on up the learning curve. For one thing, he had only 10 Champ car races under his wheels. Also, most of his best rivals had at least a year’s headstart on figuring out the rear-engined cars, whereas throughout ’64, Andretti had been in front-engined cars. 

In fact, even for the first two Champ car races of ’65, Mario was still sitting behind the engine, and yet he did a remarkable job, scoring some crucial heavy points hauls. In the season-opener at Phoenix, he took the lead and had he not had to spin to avoid an out-of-control Johnny Rutherford, he would likely have won. Instead it was Don Branson who inherited the lead and thus scored the last ever front-engined Indy car/Champ car victory. At Trenton, Mario again was startlingly good, qualifying fifth and finishing second.

But still he was itching to get his hands on a rear-engined car, the Hawk, which Brawner and legendary engineer Jim McGee were developing back in their shop, in preparation for the Indianapolis 500. The Hawk was basically a Brabham F1 copy (neither builder had been impressed by the fragility of the Lotuses) but boy, the build timeline made their driver edgy.

Rookie rocks Indy

“It was so nerve-wracking waiting for the new car to arrive,” says Mario. “At Indy back then, there were two weeks of practice before Pole Day on the second weekend. But rookies only had up until the Wednesday before Pole Day to pass the rookie test and become eligible for qualifying. My car arrived on the Tuesday…

“So my first ever lap of Indianapolis Motor Speedway and my first ever lap of anywhere in a rear-engined car was the same lap! But the team had done a nice job and it turned out to be quite nicely balanced, so I took to it with relative ease, and I finished the rookie test at 5 o’clock.

“When we were confirmed as able to go qualify at the weekend, the team told me to go back to the hotel and get some rest, but I said ‘No, let’s go out now for the final hour.’ And if you look at the record books, you'll see we set quickest time of the day. Obviously I don’t know if all the top guys were really pushing, but it at least gave me confidence that I was somewhat in the game, you know? Finally, I got to sleep well that night…”

Amazingly, Mario would earn a slot on the inside of the second row, despite running no nitro in the fuel – a common practice in the ’60s. Beaten only by A.J. Foyt, Clark and Dan Gurney in qualifying, on race day he went one better, finishing third behind Clark and Parnelli Jones, and easily capturing the Rookie of the Year award.

“I could have been more competitive too,” admits Andretti, “but our complete lack of experience with rear-engined cars held us back. The big difference between a Formula 1 Brabham and a Hawk Indy car – apart from our much bigger engines – was that we had these two huge saddle-tanks of fuel. They were either side of the driver and held a total of 75 gallons of fuel, and we didn’t consider that the inertia on an oval would mean that as the fuel load goes down, the right tank is gonna stay full until the left one empties. So from half-fuel-load on, the car starts cornering like it’s only on its two outside wheels!

“It was rolling tremendously and I did my best to adapt, changing lines and so on, but there’s only so much you can do. That was a pity because it meant we really were nowhere near the potential of the car in the second half of a stint. So third place was quite satisfying in the circumstances.”

Tech savvy

Still with this inbuilt proclivity for bicycling through turns, the Dean Van Lines Hawk headed to Milwaukee a week later, and Mario finished fourth, but then came a gap in the schedule during which a handling remedy was found. Two electric pumps operated from inside the cockpit allowed the driver to control the fuel feed and thus adjust the load.

That played into Andretti's hands in another sense, too; one of his career-long fortes was technical comprehension as he sought ways to put least strain on a racecar’s components so that he always had something in reserve in the late stages of a race. Yes, he was inherently a hard charger with a highly adaptable driving style, but having technical smarts was a major additional weapon.

That was highlighted in his very first race with the fuel-pump-equipped Hawk at Langhorne, a track which had now been converted from dirt oval to paved. Andretti grabbed pole and finished second to Jim McElreath.

“I had a really good feel of the car by then, and that’s what you needed around Langhorne – total confidence,” confirms Andretti, “but it was also about knowledge and feel. I would jack the rollbars – something that I’d later do in Formula 1 according to how many left or right-handers a track had – because it made the car more sharp and responsive.

“But for that to work, you need the car to be torsionally rigid, so I had requested the chassis was stiffened, and that was a big step forward for us. It meant even small mechanical adjustments could really be felt, so it gave you the chance to keep on refining the car through the race. Dirt cars and roadsters had a baseline setup and in the cockpit, you could adjust the crossweight too, as conditions changed. But on the rear-engined car, we didn’t have that tool so I had to judge how the car would handle with a different fuel loads, how that would affect the tires, how the track would change through a race and so on.

“I was working off feel, and at that stage I couldn’t always explain to the engineers what I needed the car to do – or at least, not to that level of detail. It was all in my head, so when we changed springs I’d often do it myself. And the team were happy to let me do that, which was great because the more you do, the more you learn about vehicle dynamics.”

First win

There was a setback at the next round at Trenton, when the Hawk lost a wheel in practice and crashed. Mario was unhurt but so bad was the damage he had to sit out the race, and could only watch in frustration as reigning champion Foyt led from start to finish. However, Andretti struck back with a vengeance at Indianapolis Raceway Park, Champ car’s first road race in more than three decades. Despite the Hawk running only a two-speed box to Foyt’s four-speed Lotus, Mario took pole and victory – his first in Champ car competition – after 80 laps of the 1.875-mile course. That’s despite being at a 10mph disadvantage to the four-speed cars.

“After beating Donohue at Lime Rock two years earlier, I’d been lobbying USAC [United States Auto Club, Indy car racing's governing body] like crazy to include road racing!” he says. “But at IRP in ’65… Man, I admit I was probably driven more by passion and desire than know-how. But the fact is that the car felt good, I was able to twitch it around with confidence.

“And the other thing that drove me on that weekend, apart from just my usual competitive desire, was that I knew I needed to learn road racing. Formula 1 was already in my head because it’s what I was born with; watching Alberto Ascari at Monza had been what got me interested in the sport to begin with.”

That win didn’t open the floodgates for Andretti, but it’s important to understand that his championship was not earned by being consistent and conservative. Victory at IRP was rather the peak of a season of overachievement.

“I was competitive everywhere, and that was important to me,” says Andretti, who went on to score seven more top-four finishes over the remaining ten races. “We were all working at a disadvantage, having to learn in a hurry and make a lot of compromises. Jim and Clint had no experience or knowledge of rear-engined cars – and I didn’t have much Champ car experience, period! It was my first full season, when the Foyts of this world had five years on me, and some other class acts had even more.

“So to keep putting up big numbers and not leave anything on the table is what earned us the championship. We absolutely got out of that car everything we could, given our limited knowledge at the time.”

Indeed so. Andretti wrapped up the Indy car title with two rounds still to go, and would remain the youngest ever winner of this award until Jacques Villeneuve three decades later.

The next step

The Dean Van Lines team's knowledge bank would fill rapidly in the off-season. In fact, by becoming part of Indy car racing’s Firestone vs Goodyear tire war, the team's learning rate went into warp drive and that was reflected in the 1966 results. Andretti won eight races (no one else scored more than one), and nine pole positions, and led 1142 laps (his closest rival was almost 1000 laps shy of that figure…)

In short, Andretti, McGee and Brawner had eagerly soaked up the knowledge acquired through ’65, were intelligent enough to interpret and apply it, and had a devastating effect. Andretti is well aware there was a special chemistry in the team.

“I was so lucky that I had this great combination of hard-working, old-school chief mechanic in Clint Brawner and then the modern thinking of Jim McGee,” he muses. “They were also perfect for me at that stage of my career because they were a real calming force on a 25-year-old who was always trying to move the world in every session! They convinced me that they already recognized I was fast enough, so I didn’t have to do stupid-brave things to impress them.”

But if ’66 was the year Mario Andretti truly became part of the Indy car establishment by demolishing the opposition, it was the previous season which can be regarded as pivotal for one of the greatest careers in racing history. Andretti had conquered an inherently diverse branch of the sport and learned so much technique along the way.

Says Mario: “Dirt ovals teach you to be a better driver at adapting to changing track conditions. Road course racing teaches you to be precise on ovals – not scrubbing off speed by slipping the tires too much. Paved ovals teach you to be smooth on road courses, not work the tires too hard, and so on. They are all interlinked.

“And that’s why winning that championship meant so much to me in ’65. I love the Indy 500, all the hoopla and prestige and its significance to the wider world, outside racing; that’s very important. But what makes Champ car racing – Indy car racing as we know it now – so special is the versatility you need to succeed. It builds a truly complete driver, and that’s what makes the championship as a whole so important.

“The lessons I learned in 1965, I would be carrying in my head and building on for the next 30 years.”

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Author David Malsher-Lopez
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