It has been 16 years since an American won the world driving championship. That's long enough for a country to forget the champion ( Phil Hill) and Grand Prix racing altogether. But Mario Andretti is reminding us that there is more than oval racing in this world. After toying with Formula I on and off for nine years, he is taking the world championship seriously. "I don't know if I could ever describe how much it means to me," Andretti says, his voice edged with intensity and sincerity.
A year ago they weren't taking Mario seriously in Europe. Now, after two consecutive Grand Prix wins—the Long Beach GP and the Spanish GP—they talk about him as if he were magic. Mario is all the rage in the U.S., too. The week after his victory in Spain, Andretti recorded the first 200-mph lap in the history of Indianapolis Speedway, and this Sunday he will be one of the favorites in the 61st running of the 500.
Whether or not he wins the championship, or his second Indy, this year, Andretti's life should be emceed by Ralph Edwards someday. He was born in Italy in 1940, spent his first few years watching the world go through a war, then lived in a refugee camp in Lucca with his family for seven years before emigrating with them to America-the-land-of-opportunity in 1955. He got off the boat holding his father's left hand. Gigi Andretti's right hand was stuffed into his pocket clutching all of the family's worldly possessions: $125. The elder Andretti went to work in a steel mill in eastern Pennsylvania (where Mario still lives) and watched, first with horror, then with pride, as his oldest child grew up to be one of the world's best race drivers.
Andretti has the most varied career record of any driver. He has won at Indy (1969) and on dirt tracks (he was 1974 USAC Dirt Track Champion); he has won in sports cars (the 12 Hours of Sebring), in stock cars (the Daytona 500) and in Formula I cars (his four GP victories equal Dan Gurney's American record). "Mario is the best all-round driver I've ever had," says Roger Penske, who owns the car Andretti will be driving at Indy. "He's a racer's racer—completely dedicated, single-minded and passionately competitive."
Penske is the most publicity-conscious team owner in racing, so he appreciates Andretti for his attitude and image, as well as for his talent. One morning last week in Monte Carlo, the contrast between Andretti and the current world champion, James Hunt, was obvious as they ate breakfast at adjacent tables in a hotel dining room. Andretti, wearing a brown, patterned sport shirt and tailored slacks, shared his table with a succession of reporters, giving thoughtful answers to tired questions. Hunt, wearing a pair of cutoff jeans, a T shirt and no shoes, shared his table with a blonde.
That afternoon Hunt played backgammon by the pool with another blonde, while Andretti drove downtown to talk business with his crew. In the garages another contrast was evident, this time with 1975 World Champion Niki Lauda. A crowd of spectators had formed around Andretti and Lauda as they spoke. When the conversation ended, Lauda pushed through the wall of people and left; Andretti patiently and willingly signed autographs. After he made his way into his red Lotus Elite to leave, Mario looked through the windshield at the throng of fans. He said, "Sometimes the attention is a pain in the neck, but you've got to put it into perspective: if I weren't where I am, they wouldn't be there, but if they weren't there, I wouldn't be where I am."
"If Mario wins the world championship, it will do a lot of good for Formula I racing," says Chris Pook, the organizer of the Long Beach Grand Prix. "Most drivers seem to get championitis when they win it. Lauda became rude and icy; Hunt turned into an adolescent prima donna. I'm absolutely certain Mario won't change. He's been around long enough to know how to accept winning and its consequences with class."
Andretti's two victories this year mark a comeback for Lotus, a team which once dominated Formula I. Lotus earned manufacturers' championships six times between 1963 and 1973. But its prestige sank in 1974 and 1975 as the interest of its leader, Colin Chapman, waned to the point of depressing the entire team. Andretti signed with Lotus last season, with one condition: that Chapman would again be an active boss.
Says Andretti, "I am snobbish about who prepares my cars, and I have faith in Colin. He's the inspiration of the team, there's no doubt about that. But if I can take credit for one thing, it's getting him to love racing again. He hadn't been to a test session in seven years, but he hasn't missed one since I joined the team."
"The first time I saw Mario drive was at Indianapolis in 1965, the year we won with Jimmy Clark," Chapman recalls. "He was just a rookie then, and he had never driven a Formula I car, but I told him that whenever he was ready to try, just call me. I knew then that he could be a winner in Grand Prix racing."