SI Vault
 
FASTEST HEE-RO AT INDY
Barbara La Fontaine
May 30, 1966
THE MAN BUCKLING ON HIS HELMET IS MARIO ANDRETTI. STILL UNKNOWN, HE IS NOW THE YOUNGEST U.S. DRIVING CHAMPION, AND AT 26 THE FASTEST HEE-RO AT INDY
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
May 30, 1966

Fastest Hee-ro At Indy

THE MAN BUCKLING ON HIS HELMET IS MARIO ANDRETTI. STILL UNKNOWN, HE IS NOW THE YOUNGEST U.S. DRIVING CHAMPION, AND AT 26 THE FASTEST HEE-RO AT INDY

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue

The name is Mario Andretti, and the time has come for track announcers and long-distance telephone operators to shape up and learn how to pronounce it (it rhymes with confetti). You cannot go on indefinitely calling the national driving champion "Andreot" and "Mary Andrett," as announcers and operators everywhere seem bent on doing, though in all fairness to them Andretti's arrival as a major figure on the U.S. racing scene has been singularly abrupt. Two years ago when he joined USAC and began to drive for Dean Van Lines, people who follow racing closely said, "Who?"

Even in his home town of Nazareth, Pa., where he has lived since he came from Italy in 1955, Andretti was not well known until recently, and Nazareth, a Pennsylvania Dutch community of some six or seven thousand souls, is not a town of national excitements, unless you count the two cement mills. But last year Mario took third in his first time out at Indianapolis. Now people in the local restaurant will tell you, "He's held in pretty high esteem, the way I understand it. He's the town hee-ro," and the cook can say, "All of a sudden everybody's telling me how close they are to Andretti. I've been going to this barber for years and he never mentioned Andretti, and now he's his godfather or something, and he's got pictures of him all over." Mario has not been unhinged by all this fame. He says dryly, "They still aren't beating down the door." They will be, they will be. He has begun shattering records and is so young he has plenty of time to grind up the pieces.

When Mario won the driving championship last year at the age of 25 he was the youngest driver ever to do so, younger by six weeks than, of all people, A. J. Foyt, his principal rival in championship racing. Foyt, as incumbent tiger, is only 31 himself. He has won more championship races than any other driver in history, and at 31 he is not about to go off and sit down somewhere with a shawl across his knees. The arrival of Tiger Presumptive Andretti means that we are in for some years of races like the 1965 Indianapolis 500, which Chuck Barnes, manager of both drivers, describes as "so spectacular you just wanted to go and hide someplace." Foyt and Andretti finished behind Jim Clark in that race, but this year it is Mario who starts on the pole, with an authoritative qualifying edge of nearly 2 mph over Clark.

After Memorial Day it will be back to the circuit, where Foyt and Andretti will continue to fight it out, and in the process may rack up a real record for Rodger Ward, who has taken to running behind the two of them and then finishing first after A. J. and Mario have run each other out—a remunerative, if un-exhilarating, procedure.

Mario Andretti, a 5-foot 4-inch Italian with, inexplicably, a flawless Incan profile, was born outside of Trieste in 1940, the elder, by five hours, of twins. If Mario was the elder, his brother Aldo grew an inch taller. These initial differences canceling out, the two of them proceeded with a single determination to become race drivers. They saw their first race together in 1953 at Monza and, still only 13, drove their first races that same year at Ancona in a Formula Junior program then newly developed in Italy for boys 14 and over. Beating the age limit was nothing compared to circumventing the Andretti family opposition to their racing at all, ever, in anything. Alvise Andretti was against it with the full weight of Italian fatherhood, but Italian fatherhood ran second to Italian cunning, since Aldo and Mario managed to race for a year and a half in Italy and a year in the U.S. before Mr. Andretti found out what they were doing.

"All my relations over there who say now they saw me race—they're lying," Mario observes. "None of them knew it, except my old uncle priest, and I had him hiding it because I told him in confession so he couldn't tell."

When Alvise Andretti finally did find out, it was not in a fashion calculated to soften him up any. Aldo crashed at Hatfield, Pa. in 1959 and fractured his skull. He was taken to the hospital in a coma that lasted six days. "You can't believe how bad it was around that house," Mario says. "You know what Aldo said when he came out of his coma? 'I'm glad you're the one who had to go home and face the old man.' We were all living in the same house, and we didn't communicate for months. My poor mother.

"What really got him, though," Mario adds, "was when he found out we'd built another car. He thought, you know, after the accident, that we'd learned our lesson." What could their father have done to stop them in the beginning in Italy? "The only thing he could have done over here. Put us to the wall and shot us."

As for Aldo, things have been very difficult. He went back to racing in 1961 and 1962, but, Mario says unhappily, "he thought he had lost so much time. He tried too hard, and he got in a lot of crashes." Aldo quit again, and he moved out of Nazareth to Indiana. "We used to be inseparable," Mario says, "but he had to settle down in a different way. He couldn't bear to see me take off on the weekends."

Aldo, who appears to have his full share of the Andretti intransigence, is now driving again, and he and Mario, in their lemminglike insistence on racing, are perfect examples of the born race driver, whatever that is. They raise the old and hopeless question of why young men insist on being race drivers at all—a question that is always asked and always untidily answered.

Continue Story
1 2 3 4