"The guy really looked good," says McGee. "Wild, but good. People were sending him Christmas cards in July. Said he'd never live to see December. When a race started, everybody just looked out, because he was coming. A little like Michael now—a lot like Michael now."
Brawner and McGee hired him to drive their Indy Car late in the 1964 season. Mario would have won the last Indy Car race that year, at Phoenix, but for a spin-out caused by another driver while he was running in the lead near the end of the race. "Riding in the back of the truck, on the way out of the track," says McGee, "Mario said to mc, 'You know, I can beat these guys.' "
Mario stayed in Phoenix that winter, working at Brawner and McGee's shop. Dee Ann was home in Pennsylvania, looking after two-year-old Michael and newborn Jeff.
The next spring Brawner and McGee took Mario to the Indy 500, and he qualified in the fourth position and finished third in the race, behind two-time Formula One champion Jimmy Clark and '63 Indy winner Parnelli Jones. Mario was a shoo-in for rookie of the year at the Brickyard. As the United States Auto Club Championship Trail moved from Indy to the heartland dirt tracks, Mario took on the titan of the time, A.J. Foyt, in a cross-country feud.
"Mario was young, aggressive," says McGee. "That was the only way he could make a living. Foyt was intimidating in those days. He was the king, and he didn't want anybody to knock him off his throne, and Mario was the only one capable of it. He and Foyt really got into it. They had a lot of incidents—really banging on each other. Finally, at a dirt track in DuQuoin, Illinois, Mario kind of took on Foyt and said, 'Well, A.J., if you want to just beat on each other and you want to just pitch each other over the fence, this is a good place to do it. We'll do it today.' They went wheel-on-wheel. Helluva race. After that they settled down and got along."
In 1965 Firestone, then the most powerful tire company in U.S. auto racing, signed Mario to a multiyear contract. And so the dynasty was funded. Mario could explore the whole world of motor racing and know that Dee Ann and the children would be secure. While the kids were growing up, he could give them expensive toys. They would have toys with real wheels and engines that went roooom, roooom. Even Barbra Dee, the daughter, the baby, would be a terror on the motorized toys, especially dirt bikes, though she would grow up to be not a racer but a singer and songwriter.
"I never exposed myself to it at all," says Barbra Dee, 22, "because I knew I could have gotten the bug very easily. I knew I would. And it's not something I can see putting my family through, when I have a family."
As for Mario, he would venture south, into NASCAR, to win the Daytona 500 in 1967. He would win Indy in 1969. But he was not tied to the dirt and asphalt of America. He went abroad with Ford Motor Co.'s world sports car racing team, honing his roadracing skills at places like Le Mans. Yet, says Mario, "my mind was always taking me to Formula One," back to his childhood dreams.
The other American drivers couldn't have cared less about what they perceived as the prissy, aristocratic Europeans with their road races in which fenders never touched. Never mind that Formula One was the deadliest game in the world. At the same time the Europeans and South Americans looked disdainfully upon the huge American cars driven by rough-mannered, greasy-nailed drivers going around in monotonous circles.
The world's various forms of auto racing require vastly different skills. Yet Mario has won the Indianapolis 500 in one type of car, the Daytona 500 in quite another and the Formula One world championship, in 1978, in one of the most exotic cars of all. And he has loved them all and defended them all, one to another.