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DRIVEN to be GREAT
Barbara La Fontaine
April 14, 2011
HE MAY HAVE BEEN A LITTLE-KNOWN 26-YEAR-OLD, BUT EVEN THEN MARIO ANDRETTI'S WAS A NAME TO REMEMBER
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April 14, 2011

Driven To Be Great

HE MAY HAVE BEEN A LITTLE-KNOWN 26-YEAR-OLD, BUT EVEN THEN MARIO ANDRETTI'S WAS A NAME TO REMEMBER

From SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, May 30, 1966

THE NAME IS MARIO ANDRETTI, AND THE TIME HAS COME FOR TRACK ANNOUNCERS to shape up and learn how to pronounce it—though in all fairness to them Andretti's arrival as a major figure on the U.S. racing scene has been singularly abrupt. Two years ago, when he joined USAC and began to drive for Dean Van Lines, people who follow racing closely said, "Who?" Even in his hometown of Nazareth, Pa., where he has lived since he came from Italy 11 years ago, in 1955, Andretti was not well known until recently. But last year Mario took third in his first time out at Indianapolis. Now the cook at the local restaurant says, "All of a sudden everybody's telling me how close they are to Andretti. I've been going to this barber for years, and he never mentioned Andretti, and now he's his godfather or something, and he's got pictures of him all over." Mario has not been unhinged by all this fame. He says drily, "They still aren't beating down the door." They will be, they will be. He has begun shattering records and is so young; he has plenty of time to grind up the pieces.

When Mario won the driving championship last year at the age of 25, he was the youngest driver ever to do so, younger by six weeks than A.J. Foyt, his principal rival in championship racing. Foyt, as incumbent tiger, is only 31 himself. He has won more championship races than any other driver in history, and at Foyt's age he is not about to sit down somewhere with a shawl across his knees. The arrival of Tiger Presumptive Andretti means that we are in for some years of races like last year's Indianapolis 500, which Chuck Barnes, manager of both drivers, describes as "so spectacular you just wanted to go and hide someplace." Foyt and Andretti finished behind Jim Clark in that race, but this year it is Mario who starts on the pole, with an authoritative qualifying edge of nearly 2 mph over Clark.

After this Memorial Day it will be back to the circuit, where Foyt and Andretti will continue to fight it out and in the process may rack up a real record for Rodger Ward, who has taken to running behind the two of them and then finishing first after A.J. and Mario have run each other out—a remunerative, if unexhilarating, procedure.

ANDRETTI, WHO IS 5' 4" AND HAS, INEXPLICABLY, A FLAWLESS INCAN profile, was born outside Trieste in '40, the firstborn, by five hours, of twins. If Mario was the elder, his brother Aldo grew an inch taller, and the two of them proceeded with a single determination to become race drivers. They saw their first race together in 1953 at Monza and, still only 13 years old, drove their first races that same year at Ancona in a Formula Junior program developed in Italy for boys 14 and over. Beating the age limit was nothing compared to circumventing the Andretti family's opposition to their racing at all, ever, in anything. Alvise Andretti was against it with the full weight of Italian fatherhood, but Aldo and Mario succeeded in racing for a year and a half in Italy and a year in the U.S. before Mr. Andretti found out what they were doing.

"All my relations over there who say now they saw me race—they're lying," Mario observes. "None of them knew it, except my old uncle priest, and I had him hiding it because I told him in confession, so he couldn't tell."

When Alvise finally did find out, it was not in a fashion calculated to soften him up any. Aldo crashed at Hatfield, Pa., in '59 and fractured his skull. He was taken to the hospital in a coma that lasted six days. "You can't believe how bad it was around that house," Mario says. "You know what Aldo said when he came out of his coma? 'I'm glad you're the one who had to go home and face the old man.' We were all living in the same house, and we didn't communicate for months. My poor mother.

"What really got [my father], though," Mario adds, "was when he found out we'd built another car. He thought, you know, after the accident, that we'd learned our lesson." What could their father have done to stop them in the beginning in Italy? "The only thing he could have done [is] put us to the wall and shot us."

Mario and Aldo, in their lemminglike insistence on racing, are perfect examples of the born race driver, whatever that is. They raise the old and hopeless question of why young men insist on being race drivers at all—a question that is always asked and always untidily answered.

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