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Robert F. Jones
October 02, 1978
Hard-charging Mario Andretti experienced both triumph and tragedy on his way to becoming the second American to win the world driving championship
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October 02, 1978

Bravo, Mario!

Hard-charging Mario Andretti experienced both triumph and tragedy on his way to becoming the second American to win the world driving championship

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What about the charge that Andretti is a car-breaker, too hard on equipment?

"He drives a car ten-tenths," says Penske. "If you don't have a car that can take it, then get a lightweight to drive it."

What impresses Penske most is Andretti's uncanny "street sense," his ability to sort out a racing machine and set it up for the conditions of any given track. Penske had one of the best sorters ever in Mark Donohue, who died three years ago in Austria when he crashed during practice for the Grand Prix at Zeltweg. Donohue was an automotive-engineering graduate of Brown University and had that great educational edge on Andretti, who never went to college. "Mark could analyze a car from an engineer's point of view," Penske says, "and then add to it the driver's feeling. Mario is nearly as good, and he does it entirely by feel. Mario's spent the time—time he could well have spent more profitably elsewhere—learning the Formula I courses. Now it's paying off." Penske pauses and considers. "He's the most versatile driver I've ever known."

Stewart, the articulate three-time world driving champion, agrees. "Mario is the guy who gives the mechanics the good info on how to make the Lotuses run fast. He's a marvelous sorter, with a very sensitive touch. But he still has one habit that has gotten him into trouble again and again: he passes on the outside when there's a queue, devil take the hindmost. Most of the times he hasn't finished this year, he's done it to himself. They're the direct result of this all-too-American bullheadedness that he learned on the USAC ovals. He's not very concerned with safety on the track. Back when USAC ordered roll cages be put on all the sprint cars, Mario threatened to boycott sprint racing. In the drivers' meetings, he loses interest when questions of track safety come up. 'Let's race,' he says."

The final word, though, has to come from Phil Hill. Hill is not at all reluctant to move over on his pedestal to make room for Andretti. "He's a neat guy," Hill says from his garage in Santa Monica, where he and a partner restore vintage cars. "He's either tremendously clever or else he's a very square guy, a straight shooter. No, wait. That's unfair. He's a good driver and a good man. I'm sure of it. No one could fake that kind of honesty and openness."

A cold wind mixed with rain blows down I the track. It could be any track, anywhere on the circuit, but it happens to be Zandvoort. In the pits, uniformed mechanics rev the engines of the gaudy cars and the sound has an edge even sharper than the weather. But the noise is muted inside the trailer and the air smells warm with coffee. Andretti leans back in a cushioned corner, his body bulky in a black and gold John Player Lotus parka. His face has grown a bit jowly with all that first-class airline fare and rich European cuisine. And after all, he is 38 years old now. But he is tanned and happy, and his black eyes sparkle more brightly than they have in years as he tells the story.

"Last week after some testing at Monza, a friend asks me to drive this little Fiat 127 back to the Villa D'Este on Lake Como. Ronnie Peterson's following in a 280 Mercedes and I ask him to push me when we hit the steep grade that takes you up into Como. The Swede gets in tight behind me all right and we're bumper to bumper and going like a bat up that hill. Then when we hit the top, I look in the mirror and Ronnie's all scrunched over the wheel—like Jimmy Cagney at Indy in The Crowd Roars—and he's laughing! The guy's gonna keep pushing—downhill!

"So we come pouring off that ridge flat-out, at about 120 miles an hour, and the car ain't built for more than 90, and the motor's going phut-phut-phut and I'm like this"—Andretti saws away at an imaginary wheel—"and then we're coming into this red intersection. I kind of squinch my eyes and pray. Zip-zip! We're through.

"There's a car coming in from the right—a Lancia I think—and the driver's all buggy-eyed, cranking the wheel. He probably figured he was hallucinating. Anyway, when we get to the hotel and shut off the motor, we can't get it started again. Every valve in that Fiat must of been bent sideways." Andretti shakes his head and laughs. "Heck, we took more chances on that ride than we would in 50 GPs."

Peterson had come into the trailer toward the end of the yarn, and he nodded his head, smiling. It is good to remember him that way.

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