In RACER magazine and on RACER.com, we're continuing our countdown to the 100th Anniversary Indianapolis 500 with a series of fascinating insights on “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing." This week, we take a look at the one and only win at the Brickyard for Indy car legend Mario Andretti – the 1969 “500” – plus a few of the races that didn't ultimately go his way.
“MARIO'S GETTING A KISS FROM HIS OWNER!”
So much has been written about the “Andretti Curse” at Indy, it's easy to forget that once – just once – it did all end well for Mario Andretti.
Andretti's 1969 victory (RIGHT) came in his fifth “500” and, although it was somewhat overdue, talk of curses was way in the future. Still, the fact that his one and only trip to Victory Lane came at the end of a Month of May punctuated by an accident, injury, car swaps and controversy seems entirely appropriate for a driver who led a massive 556 laps in 29 starts at the Brickyard, but only completed the distance five times.
Andretti's entrant was STP president and promotional wizard Andy Granatelli. He loved the “500,” knew its value as a marketing tool, and had sponsored or run many cars over the years, but had zero wins to show for it.
Heading in to '69, Granatelli had come tantalizingly close for three straight years, first as sponsor of Jim Clark's Lotus in '66 and then with two fast, but fragile turbines in '67 and '68. If anybody was cursed, maybe it was this guy?
That '68 car, the Lotus 56, was one of the company's most eloquent and innovative designs, but rule changes had strangled the turbine, leaving Lotus founder and resident genius Colin Chapman to look elsewhere for an advantage. The result was the wedge-shaped, four-wheel-drive 64, powered by a turbocharged Ford V8.
Lotus entered STP-backed 64s for Graham Hill and Jochen Rindt, with Granatelli taking a third for Andretti, to be run by co-chief mechanics Clint Brawner and Jim McGee. As luck would have it, Granatelli also entered an updated version of the Brawner Hawk that Andretti had raced as an owner-driver in '68 with Brawner and McGee wrenching, but this was more about getting extra garage space than having a ready-made Plan B.
During practice, Andretti's Lotus traded fastest times with A.J. Foyt's Coyote and looked set to continue the duel into qualifying. But when Pole Day was effectively washed out, Andretti continued to find speed in the 64 – until, chasing Foyt's latest time on the Wednesday afternoon prior to the rescheduled Pole Day, a right rear hub collapsed and pitched him backward into the wall. He suffered minor flash burns on his cheeks, but the car was destroyed. Fearing a repeat, Chapman withdrew Hill and Rindt.
The Hawk was quickly wheeled out and readied and Andretti was on track in it the next day. Two days after that, a week later than originally scheduled, Andretti (LEFT, pictured about to climb in to qualify) dug deep to put it in the middle of the front row, just 0.717mph off of Foyt's pole-winning, 170.568mph average.
His face still red and sore, Andretti asked brother Aldo to stand in for him at the front-row photo shoot the next morning (BELOW), but was back in the saddle for Carb Day – where the Hawk had sprouted an extra radiator on the engine cover, due to Brawner's concerns that its Ford turbo engine was running hot and might not last 500 miles.
Unfortunately, the rules stated that there could be no significant change in a car's bodywork between qualifying and the race, so the Hawk would have to race without it. If the temperature started to climb, its driver would just have to nurse it – a role not normally associated with the hard-charging Andretti...