Come race day – a hot one – Andretti immediately took the lead and stayed there for five laps, until the temperature started to creep up. Andretti slotted back into second, leaving Foyt to run up front for the next 45 laps. Wally Dallenbach then led briefly after Foyt pitted, but A.J. was back in control on lap 59 and looking good for his fourth “500” win, until forced to pit on lap 79 with turbocharger problems.
That put Andretti into a battle with Lloyd Ruby, both taking turns at the front until Ruby (who, since we're talking Indy curses, is up there with anybody) left his pit with a refueling hose still attached, ripping a hole in a fuel tank.
After that, despite a slipping clutch, a transmission down to its last drops of oil, and the ever-present high engine temperatures, it was relatively plain sailing for Andretti, who was able to set his own pace, yet still finish two laps ahead of second-placed Dan Gurney.
For Granatelli, it was mission accomplished at last; for Andretti, it seemed a certainty that this would be the first of many wins.
But, as the elated owner kissed his grimacing driver in Victory Lane, who'd have imagined that Andretti would race in 24 more Indy 500s and lead nine of them, but never again on the final lap?
Here are snapshots of four of Andretti's closest misses in an Indy 500 career that stretched until 1994, when the proud Italian-American chose to walk away while still fast and competitive.
1981 – started 32nd; finished second (first for a while…); led 12 laps
When the official results of the 1981 Indy 500 were posted the following morning, first-past-the-flag Bobby Unser had been penalized a lap for passing under yellows, giving his closest chaser Mario Andretti the victory. So, although Unser had received the trophy in Victory lane, it was Andretti who posed in his Wildcat-Cosworth for the traditional post-race day winner's photos (RIGHT). That was kind of messy…but things got a whole lot messier. Unser's team owner Roger Penske had tried to file a protest, but was initially denied. Still, Penske continued to press his case, with Unser adamant that his yellow flag infringement – leaving the pits and passing several cars as he drove along the pit apron exit, before blending in – was merely an interpretation of a gray area in the USAC rules. Andretti had initially done the same thing, but dropped back behind the cars he'd passed before he blended in. More than four months later, on Oct. 8, USAC's arbitration committee controversially voted 2-1 to reinstate Unser as the winner, noting he'd gained a significant competitive edge over Andretti with the maneuver, but that they were unable to determine what would have happened if he'd blended in where he should have. After 138 days of being a double Indy 500 winner, Andretti was back to being a one-time champ…
1985 – started fourth; finished second; led most laps (107)
Always remembered as the year of Danny Sullivan's “spin and win” victory, this was a race that seemed to have Andretti's name all over it as he led 75 of the first 100 laps in his big bucks, Beatrice-sponsored Lola T900. But as Andretti began to suffer understeer as the race entered its second half, Sullivan's Penske-entered March began to close in. On lap 120, Sullivan went for the pass in Turn 1, edged ahead, but then spun through 420 degrees, with Andretti narrowly avoiding him. Miraculously, Sullivan didn't hit a thing, pitted for new tires under the yellow he'd caused and rejoined second. On lap 140, he tried the same move again, pulled it off successfully, then held off Andretti for the final 60 laps.
1987 – started on pole; finished ninth; led most laps (170)
The fourth Indy 500 win of Al Unser's career is remembered for the fact that he was a last-minute substitute for an injured Danny Ongais and that his winning March 86C had been on display in a Reading, Pa., hotel just days before. What might not be remembered so well is Andretti's domination of the race for the first 177 laps, with his Lola-Ilmor Chevrolet leading a staggering 170 of them. He'd set the pole with an average speed 2mph quicker than anybody else and his race pace put him in a different league than the rest – by lap 177 he'd built a full lap lead over Roberto Guerrero. Then the late, great Tom Carnegie told the crowd the news: “Mario is slowing down.” Electrical problems had ended his day…
1993 – started second; finished fifth; led most laps (72)
Teamed with Nigel Mansell at Newman/Haas, Andretti enjoyed a relatively low-key buildup to the race as all eyes were on reigning Formula 1 World Champion Mansell, who'd come to Indy cars after feeling under appreciated in F1. Andretti qualified second and was a factor through most of the day, but faded when the final laps became a shootout between eventual winner Emerson Fittipaldi, runner-up Arie Luyendyk and Mansell. Once again, Andretti led the most laps in an Indy 500, 72 – more than the top three finishers combined.
• For tickets to the 100th Anniversary Indianapolis 500 on May 29, 2011, CLICK HERE.
For more insight on the history and heritage of the Indianapolis 500, check out legendary Indianapolis Motor Speedway historian Donald Davidson's blog HERE on Indianapolismotorspeedway.com.
To get up close to racing history, visit the Indianapolis Motor Speedway's Hall of Fame Museum. Find out more HERE.
• Follow RACER's Countdown to Indy's 100th anniversary in the magazine that takes readers inside the world of auto racing like no other. CLICK HERE to subscribe.