Plenty of glasses will be raised in Nazareth, Pennsylvania, with the Andretti family celebrating the 72nd birthday of motorsport legend Mario Andretti!
Andretti is the true American success story. After his impoverished family migrated to the country from Italy, Andretti has gone on to become one of the country’s greatest motorsport stars in a career spanning over thirty years.
Growing up with Alberto Ascari as his idol, he and his twin brother Aldo started out in sprint and midget racing as soon as he was old enough to compete. After winning the midget racing title in 1964, he went on to win the first of four IndyCar titles the following year. He won the championship again in 1966, and he was the man to beat until 1969 – the year in which he won his only Indianapolis 500 – even if luck wasn’t always on hi9s side.
In 1968, he accepted the invitation to go Grand Prix racing with Team Lotus, and incredibly claimed pole position on debut at Watkins Glen. His conflicting racing commitments in the United States meant that he could only contest part-seasons for the next two years (with Lotus and March), before he realised his childhood dream when Ferrari signed him up for the 1971 season.
His maiden outing with the Scuderia could not have been better: he won first time out at the South African Grand Prix. But he was still dovetailing his motorsport commitments on the other side of the Atlantic, enjoying great success in USAC and sports cars.
He had few F1 outings over the next couple of years while he raced for the Parnelli team in Formula 5000 and USAC. He helped the team make its F1 debut in late 1974, and remained with the team until early 1976 when it collapsed.
He teamed up with Lotus once again, although the team was in dire form. Together with team owner Colin Chapman, he set about turning the team’s fortunes around, cementing their hard work with a fine wet-weather win at the Japanese Grand Prix.
In 1977, the team brought on its ground-effect 78 challenger in 1977. A spate of engine failures cost him a shot at the 1977 title, but he powered through to claim the 1978 crown, although this success was tainted by the death of his close friend and team-mate Ronnie Peterson, who succumbed to injuries he sustained in a shock first-corner accident at the Italian Grand Prix.
But the Lotus team lost the plot over the next two years, and perhaps it was sentiment that drew him to the Alfa Romeo team for the 1981 season. But that was another tough year, and he rarely troubled the scorers.
He opted to return to IndyCar racing in 1982, but made three further F1 appearances that year: once with Williams at Long Beach, and then twice with Ferrari at the end of the year. Having never driven the Scuderia’s 126C2, he promptly plonked the car on pole – to the delight of the tifosi – at Monza, despite being labelled “washed-up” by Brabham boss Bernie Ecclestone!
These were to be his last F1 outings, and he returned to the States full-time, claiming his final IndyCar title in 1984. He remained a frontrunner in the championship for a further ten years, and on his day he was simply unbeatable in his Newman Haas. After retiring from the championship at the age of 54, his record was simply mind-blowing: a total of 407 race starts, 52 wins and 66 pole positions.
Yet his hunger to remain behind the steering wheel remained undimmed, and he continued to campaign in the Le Mans 24 Hours. He even tested for son Michael’s IndyCar team in 2003, but suffered an enormous accident that finally convinced him to hang up the keys.
He still remains an elder statesman in the American racing scene, and now takes a guiding influence over the motorsport prospects of his grandson, Marco.
We were honoured when Mario gave RichardsF1.com an exclusive warts-and-all interview about his incredible career, which you can read by clicking on the thumbnail below:
Arguably America’s greatest-ever driver, he was a winner in all forms of motorsport