"In those years, local clubs in Italy were sponsoring a driving program for young drivers," Andretti recalls. "You had to be 14 to get in it, but Aldo and I lied about our age and started racing at 13. Our folks were dead set against us racing, so we had to do it on the sly. The only one who knew we were racing was the priest, but we had told him in the confessional, so he couldn't fink on us. We had a motorbike that we shared, and whenever we got banged up in a race—the cars were dinky little things with Fiat Topolino engines and you couldn't really get hurt too bad—we'd tell our folks that we'd come off the bike."
As Andretti speaks, using the argot of the track and contemporary American idioms, there is nevertheless a subtle giveaway that English is his second language. His words come with a staccato rhythm and he pays careful attention to the enunciation of consonants, so that it seems to the listener that everything he says has been thought out and weighed. It is this trait that leads many people to think that Andretti never lets his guard down. In fact, the opposite is the case.
In 1955, Italy was in an economic nose dive, so Papa Andretti moved the family to Nazareth, Pa., where an uncle of Mario's owned a gas station. While Papa went to work in the steel mills, the twins took jobs as pump jockeys with their uncle and saved enough money to buy a 1948 Hudson. In 1958, they again set off racing on the sly, this time on the tiny, tough dirt tracks of eastern Pennsylvania. The boys did well from the start, winning their first couple of races. But then the male fortuna they had successfully evaded in Italy caught up with them in the form of plain old American rotten luck. In his last race of the season Aldo rolled the Hudson and fractured his skull. He was in a coma for nearly a week.
"The truth had to come out, I guess," Andretti says. "But I hated to be the one to spill it. At first I made up some cock-and-bull story about Aldo falling off a truck. But then I had to tell. It was a bad scene. Italian sons do not disobey their fathers, and they sure don't lie to them. For a long time our father wouldn't speak to us."
Aldo raced off and on for 10 more years, but without much luck. In 1969 another accident prompted him to retire. Mario, though, continued nonstop, working his way up through midgets, sprint cars and modifieds, and building a reputation as a hard-charging, win-at-all-costs hot shoe. One day at Hatfield, Pa., on the same track where Aldo had flipped their jalopy, Mario won two midget main events and, that night, at Flemington, N.J., he won another midget race. It was Labor Day of 1963, and after that sweep he felt that he was ready for the big time, for the Indy-type "champ cars." He was 23 years old.
Early in 1964 he got his chance: a ride at Trenton, N.J. for Doug Steady in a classic Offenhauser roadster, his first championhip race on the USAC circuit. He made the field all right, and though he promptly spun out of the race, he went on to finish eighth. "I learned a lesson that day," he says ruefully, "a lesson about speed and tires and road surfaces. It was a rude awakening." Later in the season, when Chuck Hulse was injured in a sprint-car race at New Bremen, Ohio, Andretti hit up Hulse's chief mechanic, Clint Brawner, for an Indy ride in the Dean Van Lines Special that Hulse had been slated to drive. Brawner knew Andretti wasn't ready for Indy—not quite yet—but he was impressed enough by Andretti's performance in a sprint-car race at Terre Haute to let him finish out the season for Al Dean. Andretti did not let Brawner down. He actually led a couple of races and finished with enough points to end up third in the U.S. Auto Club driver standings for sprint cars that year.
Jack Brabham, the Australian Grand Prix driver, had revolutionized Indy racing in 1961 when he appeared at the Brickyard in a tiny, rear-engined Cooper-Climax. The hotshots of American big-car racing had scoffed at first, calling the Cooper a "Tinker Toy" and worse. Yet when Brabham finished ninth in the Memorial Day race, a slow move began toward more stable, quicker-cornering rear-engined cars. Andretti had started for Brawner and Dean in a traditional front-engined roadster that was little different in concept from the Marmon Wasp in which Ray Harroun won the first Indianapolis 500 in 1911. In 1965, Brawner made the jump to a rear-engined car based on the Brabham design. He called it a Hawk, and on the first day of qualifying for Indy that May, Andretti proved it could fly. Though still nominally an Indy rookie, he set qualifying records of 159.405 for a single lap and 158.849 for the full four in his initial appearance. Jimmy Clark, A. J. Foyt and Gurney would beat those marks later in the day, but they were known entities. The crowd buzzed with excitement at a new star rising.
Starting fourth on the grid that year, Andretti finished third behind Clark and Parnelli Jones, and became Rookie of the Year. He finished the season with 3,110 points to become the first Indy rookie to take the USAC driving championship since Johnnie Parsons did it in 1949.
He won the pole at Indy the following year, and though he dropped out of the race on the 18th lap with engine trouble, he collected enough points in later races—winning eight of the 15—to take the points championship a second time. He won his third in 1969.
Dean had died in 1967, and Andretti was rich enough by then to buy his whole outfit, lock, stock and supercharger. That also was the year that Andretti began to diversify and beat the NASCAR stars at their own game. Driving a Ford Fairlane prepared by the lightly disguised Ford factory team of Holman-Moody, he won the Daytona 500—stock-car racing's biggest event.