The name is Mario Andretti, and the time has come for track announcers and long-distance telephone operators to shape up and learn how to pronounce it (it rhymes with confetti). You cannot go on indefinitely calling the national driving champion "Andreot" and "Mary Andrett," as announcers and operators everywhere seem bent on doing, though in all fairness to them Andretti's arrival as a major figure on the U.S. racing scene has been singularly abrupt. Two years ago when he joined USAC and began to drive for Dean Van Lines, people who follow racing closely said, "Who?"
Even in his home town of Nazareth, Pa., where he has lived since he came from Italy in 1955, Andretti was not well known until recently, and Nazareth, a Pennsylvania Dutch community of some six or seven thousand souls, is not a town of national excitements, unless you count the two cement mills. But last year Mario took third in his first time out at Indianapolis. Now people in the local restaurant will tell you, "He's held in pretty high esteem, the way I understand it. He's the town hee-ro," and the cook can say, "All of a sudden everybody's telling me how close they are to Andretti. I've been going to this barber for years and he never mentioned Andretti, and now he's his godfather or something, and he's got pictures of him all over." Mario has not been unhinged by all this fame. He says dryly, "They still aren't beating down the door." They will be, they will be. He has begun shattering records and is so young he has plenty of time to grind up the pieces.
When Mario won the driving championship last year at the age of 25 he was the youngest driver ever to do so, younger by six weeks than, of all people, A. J. Foyt, his principal rival in championship racing. Foyt, as incumbent tiger, is only 31 himself. He has won more championship races than any other driver in history, and at 31 he is not about to go off and sit down somewhere with a shawl across his knees. The arrival of Tiger Presumptive Andretti means that we are in for some years of races like the 1965 Indianapolis 500, which Chuck Barnes, manager of both drivers, describes as "so spectacular you just wanted to go and hide someplace." Foyt and Andretti finished behind Jim Clark in that race, but this year it is Mario who starts on the pole, with an authoritative qualifying edge of nearly 2 mph over Clark.
After Memorial Day it will be back to the circuit, where Foyt and Andretti will continue to fight it out, and in the process may rack up a real record for Rodger Ward, who has taken to running behind the two of them and then finishing first after A. J. and Mario have run each other out—a remunerative, if un-exhilarating, procedure.
May 29, 1966
Mario Andretti, a 5-foot 4-inch Italian with, inexplicably, a flawless Incan profile, was born outside of Trieste in 1940, the elder, by five hours, of twins. If Mario was the elder, his brother Aldo grew an inch taller. These initial differences canceling out, the two of them proceeded with a single determination to become race drivers. They saw their first race together in 1953 at Monza and, still only 13, drove their first races that same year at Ancona in a Formula Junior program then newly developed in Italy for boys 14 and over. Beating the age limit was nothing compared to circumventing the Andretti family opposition to their racing at all, ever, in anything. Alvise Andretti was against it with the full weight of Italian fatherhood, but Italian fatherhood ran second to Italian cunning, since Aldo and Mario managed to race for a year and a half in Italy and a year in the U.S. before Mr. Andretti found out what they were doing.
"All my relations over there who say now they saw me race—they're lying," Mario observes. "None of them knew it, except my old uncle priest, and I had him hiding it because I told him in confession so he couldn't tell."
When Alvise Andretti finally did find out, it was not in a fashion calculated to soften him up any. Aldo crashed at Hatfield, Pa. in 1959 and fractured his skull. He was taken to the hospital in a coma that lasted six days. "You can't believe how bad it was around that house," Mario says. "You know what Aldo said when he came out of his coma? 'I'm glad you're the one who had to go home and face the old man.' We were all living in the same house, and we didn't communicate for months. My poor mother.
"What really got him, though," Mario adds, "was when he found out we'd built another car. He thought, you know, after the accident, that we'd learned our lesson." What could their father have done to stop them in the beginning in Italy? "The only thing he could have done over here. Put us to the wall and shot us."
As for Aldo, things have been very difficult. He went back to racing in 1961 and 1962, but, Mario says unhappily, "he thought he had lost so much time. He tried too hard, and he got in a lot of crashes." Aldo quit again, and he moved out of Nazareth to Indiana. "We used to be inseparable," Mario says, "but he had to settle down in a different way. He couldn't bear to see me take off on the weekends."
Aldo, who appears to have his full share of the Andretti intransigence, is now driving again, and he and Mario, in their lemminglike insistence on racing, are perfect examples of the born race driver, whatever that is. They raise the old and hopeless question of why young men insist on being race drivers at all—a question that is always asked and always untidily answered.
Mario tries to explain, and in a mixture of inexactitude and paradox, he comes closer to conveying something than the glib expounders. There is pride, of course. And glory. And money. Mario admits to having run for the glory of it, but that was when he was 13. Now he speaks feelingly of the money. "Anybody who can drive and doesn't come out of this a rich man is a fool." As for pride, a subtler point, he says, "I don't have any feeling of accomplishment about something unless there's a lot of risk to it. I mean, I don't want to go out there and do something 3,000 other people can do."
He could, presumably, put in a couple of years hanging by his knees and learning to pick up needles with his eyelids, as Houdini is said to have done—something at least 2,999 other people could not do—but that is not racing. It would lack the particular danger that, once accepted, means you say you are the best, and you choose to back up the statement with your life. But while Mario says he finds no satisfaction in doing something that lacks risk, he also goes on to say that if he allowed himself to think in terms of the risk, he would have to quit—a seeming paradox, but a thoroughly sound statement emotionally.
His manager, Barnes, was opposed to Mario's running before Indianapolis at Eldora, the high-banked, fast dirt track where Sprint-car Champion Johnny Rutherford had flipped a few weeks earlier and was miraculously hauled out alive. It was ridiculous, Barnes felt, for Mario to risk injury in a small race with Indianapolis coming up. Mario (who, when asked if he can think of anything he has ever changed his mind about, cannot) was determined to run. "It doesn't make sense, but that's the way I feel about it, and that makes sense," he said. "I can't make them understand, so I just don't talk about it. But if you start thinking you may get hurt you may as well get out of racing."
Mario visited Rutherford in the hospital in Dayton. Johnny lay in bed with casts on both arms from knuckle to shoulder, looking disconsolately at the television set out of a pair of bright, blood-red eyes. His sole concern was his chance of getting out of all that plaster in time to race at Indianapolis. When Mario left, Rutherford dragged himself out of bed and stood at the window, the sun blazing on the expanse of white cast, to wave a wholly envious farewell to a man off to drive the track where his accident had happened. People who are put off by bullfighting (with which racing is often compared) because one of the contestants is unwilling cannot find fault with racing on the same grounds. Rutherford and Foyt and Andretti are all, God knows, equally willing, a fact that permits both admirers and detractors of bullfighting to find great beauty in championship racing.
To write more than the facts about Mario Andretti is to hack one's way through thickets of superlatives. His cousin, Louis Messenlehner, who runs a service station in Nazareth where both boys were employed, says that they were the best workers he ever had, that there was nothing they would not do for anybody and that never, never would they have sat while he stood. "They would jump up and stand like they were in the Italian army, Aldo and Mario," he recalls.
Al Dean, the owner of Mario's car, says, "He is the most exciting driver I have ever watched." His chief mechanic has called him "the finest driver ever to come to the Speedway." Robert Hunt-zinger, who took the photograph on page 36, says Mario is the nicest driver he has ever worked with: "He's just such a great guy." Mario's manager finds him so businesslike, mature and self-possessed that he says, "He almost scares me that way. And the young ladies think he is the greatest thing since sliced bread and—ah—this could cause trouble." Mario, who is married to a pretty girl from Nazareth and is the father of two little boys, does not allow the young ladies to cause trouble.
All of which adds up to a lot of splendidness, and it was somehow reassuring to hear Andretti say last month in Ohio that he frequently felt like putting a wrench through reporters' skulls. He also said, with that obligingness to which everyone refers, that actually he is moody, strange, negligent in certain respects and infinitely stubborn. Mousing around after him for a while one does hear some cheeringly vivid and unprintable language. Nevertheless, these few humanizing imperfections are minor, and the fact is that Andretti is precisely as good a man as he is said to be.
He proved it last month in Ohio. The time before the races at Eldora, Reading, Pa., Trenton, N.J. and, finally, Indianapolis is a period when a driver logically ought to be resting or practicing or at least home eating yogurt. Mario was rushing around Cincinnati and Dayton for a series of radio and TV appearances and newspaper interviews, which at best are not, as he says, "my cup of tea. I don't get this nervous in a race car." His schedule was in the hands of a man we shall call Harry, because Harry is not his name, who is excellent at arrangements, except when he has strayed into the whiskey, and he had so strayed. It made for several days of severe confusion. By Friday, Mario had thought it was all over, but late in the morning he had to call a friend to say gloomily, "Will you watch out for Harry? He never came back last night. He was supposed to get me a car to go to Indianapolis, and I told Bruce Barnes [the brother of Mario's manager] that I'd take him."
"Watching out for" sounded like a more passive effort than was going to be required to turn up a man on a bender in a town he knew like his own house. Mario's friend watched out conscientiously, but by 3 p.m. the method had established only that Harry had been sighted, briefly, if excitingly, like a flying saucer, in the hotel lobby, but was gone again, leaving no messages. By 4, though, he had been found, and he confirmed the suspicion that he had not arranged for an automobile. Mario rented a car and was preparing to leave when a new problem developed. "Harry's gone again," Mario announced hollowly, "and my suit and helmet are in his car."
Mario was running at Eldora on Sunday, and you don't run a race without your helmet—especially a race at Eldora. The reason Johnny Rutherford lost control there was that he was hit clean between the eyes by a wheel-thrown rock. Mario was seriously interested in getting his helmet back. "He was here," Mario kept saying, "and I let him slip right out from under me."
A series of telephone calls finally unearthed Harry, who gave Mario involved directions for finding the car. Leaping into his Hertz Mercury, Mario shortly found himself in a peripheral Dayton neighborhood that seemed like a funny place for Harry to have got to and, sure enough, the car was not there. It was not in the more likely neighborhood Mario tried next, either, and he sat in the front seat of the Mercury, possibly figuring how long it was going to be before anybody saw Harry again if he saw him first. Then he went back to the hotel, where a desk clerk said, rather coldly, "If you're looking for your friend, he's up on the ninth floor trying to get into the wrong room." Mario achieved the ninth floor in about two seconds flat, charged into the darkness of room 915 and shook the figure on the bed. "All right, Harry. Where is the car?"
"It's right downstairs in the parking lot."
Mario moved out of room 915, downstairs, past the parking attendants, out to the basement lot, up to the second floor lot, out around the back again, up in the elevator and back into room 915. It was a quick trip. "I'm going to pour a bucket of water on him," Mario said. But room 915 was unequipped with a bucket; the best Mario could do was a sanitized water glass. Harry struggled to a sitting position in the dimness, looked at Mario with his glass and said, with a flash of gladness that had to break your heart, "Mario! You drinking?"
"Harry, I'm going to throw this in your face if you don't tell me where you put the car."
Harry, crushed, said, "Mario, you mad at me?"
"We'll find the car. Don't you worry. We'll find the car." Harry got up and stuffed his bare feet into an extraordinary pair of worn boots. Mario put his coat on him, and down they went to the lobby, where their appearance was not greeted with glad cries. Everyone got into the Mercury, and Harry directed Mario to a street where Harry announced triumphantly, "There it is!" The car was a blue Buick. His car was a tan Chevrolet station wagon. "That's not the car," Mario said.
Harry suddenly remembered they were in front of a friend's house; he would guide them to the car. "Oh, I have often gone out looking for Harry's car," the gentleman said, "and pretty often found it, too." As Mario drove through the small back streets of Dayton with a self-control that all that wheel-to-wheel stuff with A. J. on the Indianapolis track is never going to require of him, the friend said dimly, "You drive better than I do. But then you got a better car."
It was dark by the time someone remembered the newspaper, where Harry had many friends and where the station wagon was found across the street in a parking lot. Mario spotted it, got out and ran. It was only in the way he flung up his arm from the back of the parking lot that revealed the pressure he had been under during the past few hours. His courtesy toward Harry's friend had never wavered even into tenseness, and he had not, after all, thrown the water on Harry. He did, however, now quietly express a desire to get out of Dayton.
Mario did not do well at Eldora after all this. And he lost at Trenton two weeks later, but only after driving as nearly perfect a race as one is likely to see. He broke the Trenton lap record with a qualifying time of 31.11 (115.718 mph) and moved out first on the pole to stay there until the 18th lap, when A. J. Foyt crept past him. Foyt ran out in front for 22 laps, but Mario moved back with a thoroughness that was brutal. He passed Foyt on the outside of the second turn and left him behind as if Foyt, in his Lotus-Ford, had been running in an old Studebaker.
Foyt was finally retired after 85 miles with gearbox trouble, leaving Mario with a three-quarter-lap lead over Rodger Ward. But Mario picked up a bit of metal and had to stop for a tire change. He came back and was running fourth when the race was called after 102 miles because of rain. Ward was the winner, and Mario stood besieged, signing autographs beneath a sun which, had it appeared 10 minutes earlier, probably would have handed the race back to him. With 48 miles to go, he could have come on easily in the Dean Van Lines' Brawner-Brabham Ford, which was handling beautifully. As it was, he stood, slight, straight and besmudged, patiently replying to the people who persisted in asking how he felt. He did not feel good. But he managed the usual Andretti performance and refrained from being entirely colorful about it.
That sort of loss, however, is racing, which is one of those endeavors where it is not how you play the game but whether you win or lose. When you do lose, Mario says, "for three days it's just pure hell. Man, you feel like killing yourself, hanging yourself, quitting. It's just not worth it. Until about Wednesday, and then you start worrying about the next race."
If Mario's self-control is immense, it is probably because he has a thoroughly uncompromising nature. As he says, "If you can't show it to me in black and white, forget it." But there is a good deal of hypothetical violence in Mario that keeps turning up in the modesty, the dry wit and interesting lucidity of his random observations. You cannot goad him into saying anything against anyone, for whatever good reason, but he will say, suddenly and harshly, at the sight of a sloppy, long-haired teen-ager trying to cross a street, "Run him down. I hate that hair. I haven't shot anybody yet, but if I shot him my conscience would be easy." Mario is not about to run anybody down. It is just that all that self-control is too much for anyone to manage 24 hours a day, and it results in impersonal explosions where he would not permit himself personal ones, and in a private nervous weariness. His choice of a messy unknown teen-ager, though, is probably not a random one. Mario's own youth was not a period when children indulged in fads and nonsense.
"Our childhood, in our teens, was more or less spoiled by the war," he says. "We were born when the war started, and we didn't know anything but war. It's good we had a sister with an artistic mind. Like for Christmas we'd get a piece of cardboard painted like a truck, and we'd zoom it around—I don't know at that whether my kids, with all the toys they've got, enjoy them any more."
After Italy lost the war, the land outside of Trieste was ceded to Yugoslavia. "In order to retain their Italian citizenship," Mario says, "my family and many others had to move out with just what they could carry. We moved to Lucca, near Florence, but there was really nothing for my father to do there, and he figured, what did we have to lose?" Thus in 1955 the family immigrated to Nazareth, where Mario's mother had family—where now, in 1966, Mario is the town hee-ro, and from which base of operations he is in the process of becoming a national and an international hee-ro.
There is every likelihood that Andretti is going to be one of the ultimately great race drivers. He is a brilliant, a beautiful driver. He is also methodical, stubborn and monomaniacal. And he is short, which is to say competitive. Few phenomena in nature compare in tenacity with the short man's insistence on being best. Plants growing through rock are not even contenders. But what would he have done if he had been born 100 years earlier?
"I would have been a knight," he says promptly.
But by 1866 knighthood was really out of flower. "A cultivator, then. I would have grown potatoes," Mario reverses himself cheerfully, and there he is. A knight in his pride and a potato-grower in his practicality—how are you going to beat that?