Andretti One Of The Greats

No matter what form of motorsports you prefer, Mario Andretti has to be on your list of great drivers. What I want to talk about here is when he achieved his life-long dream of winning the Formula One Grand Prix world championship in 1978.

I felt remarkably privileged to join Andretti at a lunch table in the Ocean Center when he was in Daytona Beach two and a half years ago doing appearances as one of the former winners of the Daytona 500. He was being asked a potpourri of auto racing-related questions by the media and, being the gentleman that he is, he answered each and every one as if it were the first time it was asked of him. Then, I chimed in to ask of his world title and its impact on him - that pushed his buttons!

All of Andretti's monumental racing accomplishments mean a lot to him: the Indianapolis 500, the 24 Hours of Daytona, the Sebring 12 Hours, the Daytona 500, one could go on forever. But it's F1 that is nearest to his heart.

His first GP ride was in the 1968 Grand Prix of the U.S. at Watkins Glen, when he put a Lotus-Ford on the pole. His first victory came in his initial F1 drive for Ferrari at Kyalami, South Africa, in 1971. He went full-time on the circuit in 1976 with the Vel’s-Parnelli Jones team before they suddenly dropped out of the fray, only to be picked up and his dream rescued by Colin Chapman and his British John Player Team Lotus as a replacement for Ronnie Peterson.

He won at Mt. Fuji, Japan, the last race of the year. In 1977, he won at Long Beach (CA), Spain, France, and Italy. In 1978, he won six times to gain the title (Argentina, Belgium, Spain, France, Germany, and Holland), one short of the record posted by the late Jim Clark. Andretti became only the second American driver to clinch the crown. Phil Hill being the first in 1961.

The Italian Andretti had the chance of a lifetime to go with Ferarri prior to the 1978 season but, instead, honored the letter of intent he had signed earlier with Chapman to steer his Lotus. That second-choice relationship proved to be Andretti's silver lining.

Undisputedly agreed upon to be a very smooth road course driver, Andretti has been quoted as saying of the late 1970s F1 drivers, "A lot of these guys don't know what the brakes are for. They think they're for stopping."

When Andretti was just a boy in Italy, he marveled at watching his heroes Ascari, Fangio, and Moss maneuver road courses throughout the countryside. His family later relocated to America when he was 15. He started racing near Nazareth, PA, in 1958, driving a Hudson Hornet. He campaigned midgets and USAC sprints in 1964, going full-time the next year.

Our conversations and lunch in Daytona Beach all these years later went well and were most informative. But Andretti was on a tight schedule. Before he had to fly out, he wanted to get a look at how practice was going at Daytona International Speedway. Once on the property, a couple of us rejoined him on pit road, spectating. IROC practice was soon to take to the track when one of the organizers spotted Andretti.

"Hey, Mario, can I get you to run one of the cars around before you leave and give us your evaluation?" Andretti responded that he hadn't brought his driving suit or helmet, and really needed to get to the airport.

"We can outfit you, and we'd really appreciate just one practice session from you, if possible." One could tell Andretti was feeling the urge, and he did relent. He was brought over a fresh Crown Royal white and purple uniform which he changed into and manned a car. The sight of him on the high banks out-dueling the young bucks is a vision that stays with you, very impressive. Soon, he pulled in, unbuckled, and hastily called out, "I gotta get to the airport!" And he was quickly whisked away.

It makes me chuckle anymore whenever I hear the old phrase aimed at people who are hot rodding around the streets, "Who do you think you are, Mario Andretti?" Not!

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