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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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A few summers ago, Mario Andretti found time for a rare break from the whirligig world of cars and speed. It was only his second vacation since he started racing full time in 1965. He took his family out to Lake Powell, the impoundment behind Glen Canyon Dam on the Arizona-Utah border, for a week of house-boating, water skiing and just general relaxation. Parnelli Jones, a former rival but then manager of the Indy car team Andretti drove for, was there with his family, too, as were a few other racing people.

Andretti proved as much a daredevil on water skis as he is behind a racing wheel. He loved nothing better than ripping along behind Parnelli's Campbell ski boat and seeing how close he could come to the red stone cliffs. He also seemed to enjoy rolling giant boulders off the cliffs and hearing them crash far below. The week went quickly—sun and sandstone, cold nights frosted with stars, good fishing, cool water and plenty of iced Olympia beer (at the time one of Parnelli's sponsors). Then the group headed back to the marina and the high-dollar, high-pressure world of motor racing. En route a spectacular thunderstorm cut loose overhead. Rain sluiced the red cliffs so that in places they looked as if they were gushing blood. Lightning bolts clouted the peaks and ridges, sending great chunks of stone and sand flying into the sky.

Andretti was steering a rented houseboat, "The Quaking Madonna," as he had named it, with one hand and aiming a 35-mm. camera with the other.

"What are you up to?" someone yelled to him from another boat.

"Trying to shoot the lightning just when it hits," Andretti answered, not looking away from the viewfinder.

A few moments later, when a great bolt smacked a peak, Andretti's shutter finger clicked and he turned with a wide grin.

"I think I got it," he said.

It was a fitting gesture: if anyone can capture lightning in midair, it's Mario Andretti.

On Sept. 10 at Monza, Italy, Andretti actually caught the lightning, but he was singed. In his third full season on the Formula I Grand Prix circuit, he clinched the world driving championship, a title he has wanted more than any other in his 21-year racing career. In so doing, he became only the second American ever to win the world's most honored racing crown. Phil Hill, who had won the title in 1961 while driving for Ferrari, cabled Andretti from Santa Monica, Calif.: DEAR MARIO: SINCERE CONGRATULATIONS ON ATTAINING YOUR DREAM OF WORLD CHAMPION AFTER A HARD-FOUGHT AND HONORABLE CLIMB TO THE TITLE. MAY THE FUTURE BRING YOU MUCH JOY AND CONTENTMENT. Dan Gurney, who himself won four Grand Prix races over a 10-year career as one of the most respected drivers on the circuit, wired: WELL DONE, CHAMP. IF ANY FORMULA I GRAND PRIX CHAMPION DESERVES THE TITLE WORLD CHAMPION, YOU GET MY VOTE AND CONGRATULATIONS. IT'S FROM MY HEART, AMICO.

But despite all the congratulations, the victory was a painful one for Andretti. His teammate, 34-year-old Ronnie Peterson of Sweden, died after a horrendous 10-car crash on the opening lap of the race (see box, page 92). "This is no time to think about celebrating," Andretti said. "I just can't begin to talk about the championship at this stage. We worked so hard, so close together this year, to make it all happen, and now it seems a kind of hollow victory. It's been a tragic day all the way around."

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