Andretti Wins at Indy, 50 Years Ago
Andretti Wins at Indy, 50 Years Ago
Indianapolis 500 practice, 1969, and Mario Andretti’s racecar slams against the Brickyard’s outside wall. Flames, wheels and Lotus bodywork scatter across the track. It was terrifying in an era when drivers still died at the famous oval. Andretti escapes with facial burns.
Oddly, that crash might have been one of the best things that happened to Andretti at the Brickyard.
The car was a Lotus 64, a broad-shouldered Ford-powered racecar with an expansive nose, wide flat tail and four equal-sized wheels and tires to accommodate its 4-wheel drive. There were three Lotus 64s at the track, Andretti’s and Lotus team cars for Graham Hill and Jochen Rindt.
The cars had plenty of promise, but after Andretti’s accident, all three were pulled from the field.
Clint Brawner, the legendary chief mechanic with Andretti, told the IndyStar, “We had questioned the running gear, the hubs and stuff on it. Colin Chapman, to save time and money, used Formula One hubs and uprights and stuff. And we asked him about it with the loads at Indianapolis and everything like that, and he convinced us it would be OK. But we were skeptical. Of course, it was the hub that broke during practice.”
Back to square one? No, because Andretti’s backup car was one of Brawner’s Ford-powered Hawks. That’s the type Andretti was driving when he was Indy’s 1965 rookie of the year, finished third overall in the 500 and won the National Championship. The 1969 version of the Hawk was promising, but there was Andretti’s immediate past at the Brickyard to consider as well.
The greatest American driver of his generation had nothing but bad luck when it came to the Indy 500. Despite his positive 1965 race, Andretti didn’t get beyond lap 58 in the next three 500s, and he went out on lap 2 in 1968. He admits that in 1969 he was thinking, “What in the world do I have to do to finish this doggone thing?”
After the incident with the Lotus 64, Andretti qualified the Hawk in the middle of the front row for the 1969 race. After gaining an early lead he then backed off and A.J. Foyt took over. Andretti, concerned about engine temperatures, slipped back into second. Come lap 99, Foyt pitted with a broken manifold.
Lloyd Ruby took the lead with Andretti contending closely.
“[That was] my last real challenge,” Andretti explained. “I exchanged the lead a few times. He passed me and then I’d just follow, trying to measure myself. I felt I had a shot at passing him, so I stayed behind because I was trying to be as easy as I could with the engine.”
But then Ruby pitted, drove off before the fuel hose was removed, and ripped a hole in the side of the car. Suddenly he was out.
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Now Andretti was in the lead. Comfortably so?
“It was one of those races where I was just on pins and needles throughout,” he recalled, “because I never thought that the engine would last. I was running high temperatures in the oil and that was a big concern.”
Then there was the tire.
“We were only going to do one tire change because it used to take so long because of the knock-offs,” he said. “I came in for the tires and fuel. But they couldn’t get one tire off. I was never worse than third through the race and I didn’t want to spend a lap or two in the pits just to get the freakin’ tire off.”
So they didn’t change it.
That was, of course, another worry, but, as Andretti said, “I had my eye on the tire and so forth. Those days they were grooved tires and the grooves were getting smaller and smaller. Actually, the tire was working pretty good, getting close to a slick so it wasn’t really hurting much.”
(After the 500, Andretti wrote a letter of thanks to Firestone.)
Andretti hung on, leading for 116 laps and finishing well ahead of Dan Gurney, but he was concerned until the very end.
“As you’re leading and trying to bring it home, you hear all kinds of noises and I was hearing a real noise,” he told us. “The drivetrain felt very rough. I knew there was something wrong. But you gotta go on. I only had a couple more laps in it…but it was just our day, our year.”
Those worries and noises proved valid later when Jim McGee (another famed chief mechanic) told them that when they looked at the gearbox after the race it was, in his words, “All just fried up, all the bearings, the gears were almost falling out of the box.”
Andretti’s favorite memory of the day? “Crossing the finish line.” And then the winner’s circle and one of the most iconic photos taken for the Indianapolis 500…and you can’t even see a car. There is Mario Andretti, all smiles, while team owner Andy Granatelli gives him a big wet kiss on the cheek.
“Well, I always say I can still smell the garlic,” Andretti said with a smile. “I didn’t expect it, but I was not surprised, let’s put it that way.”
Looking back on it Andretti said the win at Indy “was a big, big relief.” He thought that with the win under his belt he would soon win several more Indy races “but that never materialized.”
Is there an Andretti curse at Indy? Some think so, but it’s obvious the Andrettis know how to get around Indy’s 2 1/2-mile oval. Of all the drivers who have raced there, Mario has led 556 laps, ranked third overall behind Al Unser and Ralph DePalma. Ironically, he is one lap up on rival and four-time winner A.J. Foyt.
Son Michael led 431 laps at the Brickyard and is ranked 11th overall — ahead of the likes of four-time victor Rick Mears and three-time champs Dario Franchitti and Louis Meyer. Michael finished second overall once (1991) and third twice (2001 and 2006).
Mario’s grandson Marco finished second and was Rookie of the Year in 2006, losing to Sam Hornish Jr by only 0.0635 seconds, a mere 15 feet.
Marco is in the fourth row for this year’s 500, in there with the likes Helio Castroneves, Alexander Rossi and Josef Newgarden. He is in one of his dad Michael’s Andretti Autosport proven race machines.
You just never know at Indy.
John Lamm worked for Road & Track for 37 years and is equally happy behind a keyboard or a camera. He has written ten automotive books and has been honored with the International Motor Press Association’s Ken Purdy award and the Motor Press Guild’s Dean Batchelor award for writing. He is on the organizing committee for the Rolex Monterey Motorsports Reunion and has been a judge at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance for two decades.