At the age of 18, Mario Andretti first set foot at Indianapolis. He made himself a solemn vow… Some day – he would race here. And not just race, but win.
In a new short film released this November, MagnaFlow takes us behind the scenes at Indianapolis to learn from the Godfather himself what the mindset of the champion driver is, and how he regards his tumultuous relationship with the Brickyard. A single black spot, on an otherwise spectacular career.
Calling someone the “Godfather” of racing is bound to lead to a heated discussion or two. It’s not just the drivers themselves, but the type of race car. Was Formula 1’s Ayrton Senna better than IndyCar’s Al Unser? Was NASCAR’s Richard Petty better than Jacky Ickx in a sports car? It’s an almost impossible debate.
Maybe not. Consider Mario Gabriele Andretti. Formula 1 World Champion, winner of Indianapolis 500 and Daytona 500 (the only man to do all three, ever). He also won the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. He competed in sports cars at Le Mans in four consecutive decades. If it could be driven on a track, Andretti drove it – usually to victory.
The word “legend” is all too easily thrown around these days, but there is no doubt that Mario Andretti has earned the title. He did it the hard way too.
The Kid from the Refugee Camp
Mario and twin Aldo were born into war, in Montana, Italy in 1940. A tough start got tougher when, at the end of the war, it became part of communist Yugoslavia (it’s now called Motovun and is in Croatia).
The Andrettis tried to stay, but communism was alien to their way of life. They moved back to Italy, to a refugee camp in Lucca. For four years Mario’s father, Gigi, tried to find work and keep the family in their native country, but eventually he applied for American citizenship, which took another three years. Finally, in June 1955, the family arrived in USA and settled in Nazareth, Pennsylvania. They had $125 and didn’t speak English.
So how did the kid from such humble beginnings achieve such greatness? It may sound a bit clichéd, but it seems he was simply born to race. At the start of his career, he, brother Aldo, and friends had to build their own cars from the ground up, and Mario learned skills that would help him throughout his racing life. He didn’t just drive, he could engineer cars as well.
In his first two years on dirt track ovals, Andretti won 20 races. As we know now, it was the start of something amazing. On Labor Day 1963 he won three races – at two different tracks, in different states! In 1965 he won his first Indy Car race – and Rookie of the Year at the Indy 500. By the end of the year he was champion – a feat he repeated in 1966.
Phenomenal achievements continued. He even tried drag racing briefly, in 1968. That was the year he took pole in his first ever Formula 1 Grand Prix, at Watkins Glen. On and on it went. Over the following years he won the 12-Hour Sebring Endurance three times. He drove Formula 1 for Ferrari and Lotus and became world champion. He won on dirt, pavement and tarmac, on ovals and street courses, on both sides of the Atlantic.
His longevity is also outstanding. He’s the only person to be named United States Driver of the Year in three different decades (1967, 1978, 1984). He was still winning IndyCar races in 1993 – the only man ever to do so in four different decades. He retired in 1994.
Driving A Dynasty
When we say retired, of course that’s relative. His involvement in racing has continued in many ways, first through sons Michael (IndyCar and Formula 1 driver and owner of Andretti Autosport), and Jeff (IndyCar, Indy Lights and American Touring Car driver), and now through grandson Marco who, at the time of writing lies 9th in the IndyCar series. He is also associated with numerous other businesses, working with Magnaflow, Firestone, Mattel Hot Wheels, The Circuit of The Americas in Austin, Texas, plus his own racing school and the Andretti Winery in Napa Valley. It seems the 74 year old has no intentions of slowing down any time soon!
The Andretti Curse?
The only black spot in an otherwise stellar career, the Andretti Curse (or Andretti Luck as it’s also been called) is the rather unlikely story of the Andrettis’ relationship with the Indianapolis 500. Mario won it as a young man in 1969, the first of several it was assumed. Yet through all kinds of bad luck he was destined never to win it again. Stranger still, despite each winning Indy 500 Rookie of the Year, neither Michael, Jeff or Marco have won the title either.
But let’s not finish on a negative. Mario Andretti was a tough driver – you have to be to be as successful as he was – but he has always been considered completely fair. His ability to help set up a car was also extraordinary and he developed a reputation for turning uncompetitive machinery into winners. He was an exceptional driver, a true competitor and remains a genuinely nice guy.
Some have called him the “godfather” of racing, perhaps he is… but he is certainly an American hero, respected and loved by other racing drivers and by fans around the globe. He is, we would argue, the greatest driver of all time.