Andretti was becoming known all right, by style as well as by name. And while he was unfailingly deferential to reporters, sponsors and sponsors' pals, he could be demanding when it came to his car. Andretti wanted his Ford to be set up "loose" at Daytona so that he could go deep into the corners and allow the rear of the car to break away. It's a driving technique that requires split-second timing and unceasing concentration. That's why most of the NASCAR drivers do not use it regularly. It is tiring enough to contend with the G forces that come with racing at 180 mph on a high-banked track for 200 laps without asking that a driver delicately flip a car's rear out in every turn as well. But by setting up his Ford in such a way, Andretti also did one other thing in the corners—he used up a lot of track, making passing more difficult. In less talented hands a "loose" car at Daytona would have been an ambitious folly. For Andretti it was a winner.
The next year, Andretti qualified fourth at Indy but blew his engine after two laps and finished badly in some other races, though he placed second in the national championship standings. The big bucks—and especially the hot new four-wheel-drive Lotus-Fords fresh from Colin Chapman's Lotus shop in England—that Andy Granatelli offered Andretti to become a member of the STP team for the '69 season were too tempting to turn down. Andretti did not refuse.
"I don't care what anyone thinks about Andy personally," he says. "You've got to admit that he was a heck of an innovator. The Novis were something else, and so were the turbine cars. He'd been jacked around a lot, by the fates and by the Establishment. He wanted to win that race as bad as I did."
And win it they did, the hard way.
Three days before qualifying, Andretti shed the right rear wheel of his Lotus in practice and smacked the outside wall in Turn Four at 150 mph. The body work flew clear and the car burst into flames. Andretti bailed out with second-degree burns on his face.
Suspicious of the Lotus design, even though it was the fastest car on the track that year, Andretti chose to drive his backup car, another Hawk. He managed to put the car in the middle of the front row, next to pole-sitter A. J. Foyt. The early going was a four-way duel among Andretti, Foyt, Roger McCluskey and Lloyd Ruby. But McCluskey dropped back after running out of gas before his first pit stop, Foyt cracked a manifold intake, and Ruby's pit crew fouled up on a fueling stop. The final 125 miles became merely a matter of Andretti's keeping his car together. When the checkered flag fell, Granatelli sprinted down the pit road like a 300-pound gazelle, enveloped his 5'6" driver in one of history's most memorable abbracci, and then hoisted him to his gargantuan shoulders for the victory lap. At the age of 29, Andretti had reached a pinnacle.
But the Indy win, though it enriched his bank account by $205,727.06 and made his name, seemed to mark a kind of turning point in Andretti's oval-track career. He had been a quick study, an overnight whiz, but now he made a bad decision. He fell out with Granatelli in 1971 and joined the "dream team" put together by Parnelli Jones and Los Angeles tire dealer Vel Miletich. The team consisted of Andretti, who was the 1969 points champion, and Al Unser and Joe Leonard, who had won the title in '70 and '71 respectively.
The dream proved a nightmare. First off, the radically new car, called a Parnelli, simply did not work well. Then Leonard broke a leg in a California 500 race and was finished with racing. Most important, though Miletich and Jones had promised Andretti a full commitment to the Formula I circuit, the road-racing version of the Parnelli failed as dreadfully as its cousin had on the oval tracks.
"I always got on with Parnelli," Andretti says. "He was a racer. But when Firestone backed out of racing in 1975, Miletich began to lose interest, because he felt that he couldn't get the proper backing. He didn't share the enthusiasm I had for Formula I racing. We mutually decided to part ways." Andretti departed for the place he had always wanted to be—full-time on the Formula I circuit with selected USAC rides for Roger Penske's team.
"I used to envy Peter Revson, driving the USAC 500-milers and the whole GP circuit," Andretti mused recently in the lounge of the Oude Bouwes Hotel in Zandvoort. He had just nailed down the pole position for the Grand Prix he would win the next day. His 14-year-old son Jeff was with him, but his wife Dee Ann and the other two children were at home in Pennsylvania. "Revvy had the best of both worlds. It took me a while, but finally in 1976 I was in a position to do the same, and it felt like heaven."