Mario Andretti, Motorsport Legend

Petersen Publishing Archives Bob D'Olivo

Is Mario Andretti the greatest race car driver of all time? That's the view here. But if he's not, you can be sure that he's filling the mirrors of the guys in front of him. Nobody has done it better for longer, in everything from front-engine roadsters to ground-effect Formula 1 cars, everywhere from the high banks of Daytona to the gravel of Pike's Peak. Not only is he the only man to win an F1 championship, the Indy 500, and the Daytona 500, but he's also the most quoted driver in motorsports history.

1940: Mario and his twin brother, Aldo, are born in the Italian village of Montona, near Trieste.

1948: After World War II, Trieste is annexed by Yugoslavia. To escape the Communists, the Andrettis move to a displacement camp in Lucca, Italy.

1954: Andretti attends his first race, the Italian Grand Prix at Monza, and sees his hero, Alberto Ascari, lead forty-one laps before breaking. This foreshadows Andretti's misfortunes at the American version of Monza -- the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

June 1955: The Andrettis arrive in New York with $125 in their pockets and little English in their vocabulary. They settle in Nazareth, Pennsylvania.

1959: The Andretti boys take their newly finished stock car, a 1948 Hudson Hornet, to Nazareth Speedway.

Fall 1959: Aldo wrecks the Hudson and is comatose for more than a week. When he regains consciousness, his first words to Mario are: "I'm sure glad you were the one who had to go home and face the old man."

1961: Mario competes in his first sprint-car event in a racer so old that it was made famous by a driver who'd been killed in 1948.

1961: Andretti marries his English tutor, Dee Ann Hoch. Eleven months later, their first child, Michael, is born. A second son and a daughter follow.

April 1964: Mario becomes an American citizen. He calls this "the proudest day of my life." Several drivers still matter-of-factly refer to him as "Wop."

June 1964: Andretti enters his first championship dirt race on the dreaded Langhorne track. "I probably slept fifteen minutes -- thirty seconds at a time -- the night before," he says.

1965: Andretti lands a plum ride in the first-class Dean Van Lines car. He finishes third in the Indy 500, earning Rookie of the Year honors, and wins his first Indy-car race. At year's end, he's crowned USAC champion.

1966: Andretti begins his love/hate relationship with Indy. He qualifies on the pole, but his engine goes sour on the first lap and he's quickly overwhelmed by the field.

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When I lived in Denver in the 60s, a friend went to the Indy 500 the first year Andretti raced there. He reported,"there is this hot young driver who will be a champion -- if he lives that long". Mario did and he is!

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