In 1969, Mario Andretti won the Indianapolis 500 for the first and only time. Almost half a century later, the great man’s enthusiasm for The Greatest Spectacle in Racing – and for US open-wheel racing more generally – remains undimmed.
Andretti spoke to us at the launch of IndyCar’s Universal Aero Kit during the North American International Auto Show. For the 2018 season, road-course and oval versions of the new, lower-downforce setup will replace the less elegant, more intricate bodywork parts that were specific to the series’ engine manufacturers, Chevrolet and Honda. Andretti praises the new kit’s rebalancing of a proportion of downforce from upper wing surfaces to the underbody of the modified Dallara IR-12 chassis.
“I like that the new car is a little bit more raw, a little bit more like what I used to drive,” he says. “Kudos to IndyCar for taking a big step forward. Since the inception of ground effect and sophisticated aerodynamics, they have been both a blessing and a curse. The downforce enabled you to go quicker around the corners but the car following paid the price with the turbulent air. The question has always been how to get a balance and it’s been a forever argument. But I think from what has been learned these past few years with the previous cars, a big step forward has now been made to achieve what all the drivers have wanted: to get close to the driver in front.”
Andretti reveals that he tested an IndyCar as recently as last year, when he completed some high-speed running in Florida for son Michael’s Andretti Autosport organization. That’s more than 50 years since the 77-year-old first sat in an IndyCar, surely a record that no driver will ever match.
The year it all came together
In 1969, five years after his first USAC Champ Car start and four years after finishing third as Rookie of the Year at Indianapolis, Mario scored the only Indy 500 win by an Andretti so far. That year, he had been due to drive a wedge-shaped Lotus 64, the successor to the pace-setting, gas-turbine-engined 56 of the previous year. But things didn’t go according plan.
“Everything was going smoothly with the 4WD Lotus,” Andretti recalled. “We had some good aerodynamic tweaks on the car and during practice I was setting records. But then the cars started getting mechanical failures.”
“The first weekend [of time trials] had been rained out. Then in practice the week before qualifying, the hub sheared on the right-rear wheel and I crashed heavily. I destroyed the car and burned my face.”
Reports state that even before the accident, Andy Granatelli’s STP-backed, Clint-Brawner-run team had already been concerned about the F1-spec hubs. It seems that these fitted the Colin Chapman mold of light, fast but not necessarily durable.
“We didn’t have two of the Lotuses and the ones we had were all withdrawn because of the failures,” Andretti continues. “The car that we had to bring out [the MkIII Brawner Hawk] was not the car that we had intended to run, it was really a spare spare! But we had no choice and I had just taken a [USAC] win with it in Hanford, California, so it was still a valuable car.”
Andretti hadn’t practiced with the Ford V8 turbo-powered car but still qualified in the middle of the front row. A.J. Foyt was on pole and Bobby Unser on the outside. Foyt set the early pace, along with Roger McCluskey and Lloyd Ruby. Yet all had encountered issues by around half-distance, leaving Andretti alone out front.
“In the race we figured there was no way we would finish because we were overheating,” he says. “But we kept going and managed to stay up front for most of the race. The car finished, and we won, after all that trouble I’d had going into the race!”
“It was only my second finish since ’65. In ’66 and ’67 I was on pole but had the shortest races ever: in ’66 the engine broke [after 27 laps] and the following year the wheel came off [after 59 laps]. Especially in ’67, I could have won probably the easiest race of my career, if the car had lasted. Then in ’68 I was out after the first lap.”
Remembering a pioneer
Second behind Andretti in that ’69 500, for the second consecutive year, was Dan Gurney, who passed away on January 14th, just a few days before we spoke in Detroit. Gurney’s achievements were numerous. He scored the first F1 World Championship victories for Porsche, Brabham and his own Eagle chassis. He also created the all-conquering, Toyota-powered Eagle MkIII GTP racer of the early 1990s and developed the Gurney flap (wickerbill).
When the news of his death broke, Andretti took to Twitter to explain Gurney’s role as an inspiration to him throughout his career, describing him as the man “who understood me better than anyone else.”
“It’s so sad, for many reasons,” says Andretti of his late rival. “We were friends when we were racing one another but over the years our friendship grew closer as we grew older. I certainly appreciated what he had achieved, what he meant [to the sport], and I could never prepare for this loss. What a great guy he was. He contributed in many different ways, including his success as a constructor. He was a maverick, an innovator and, let’s not forget, the first one to spray champagne!”
Gurney’s champagne-toasted victory alongside A.J. Foyt at Le Mans in 1967 has gone down in history but it also serves to underline his versatility as a driver. He won in F1 but also in sportscars and stock cars, with five NASCAR victories to his name. That breadth of achievement was matched in his career as a team boss, constructor and technology business owner. His All American Racers company built the original DeltaWing in 2011 and as recently as 2015 he patented a new type of ‘moment-cancelling’ engine with contra-rotating cranks.
The next generation
As the talk returns to the new season, Andretti jokes about needing to return to the cockpit to prevent Scott Dixon (41 race victories) from threatening his own tally (52) on the all-time IndyCar wins list. But when he surveys the 2018 field, he sees a depth of talent that’s “probably the best I’ve ever seen” and is proud of the current crop of young American talent taking the fight to Dixon and the series’ established international stars.
“Josef Newgarden is awesome, a breath of fresh air,” he says of the 2017 champion. “Once he got the opportunity with Penske, he won the championship in style. The kid has so much going for him and it’s great to see. He’s a great personality and a hell of a driver.”
Old or young, he’s excited to see how the drivers will adapt to the new aero kit.
“The drivers that have been used to driving the previous model [car] for the past couple of years, and do not have earlier experience [of older cars], will have some adapting to do, for sure. I don’t think it’s going to be a big deal but some people will take to it quicker than others. That’s normal. In general, a racing driver only looks for balance. If we can achieve that then everybody will like it.”
A new IndyCar design is inevitably judged in part on whether it delivers good racing during the 500. Andretti notes that on ovals, the increased reliance on downforce from underneath the car will make it more forgiving because the wind won’t affect it as much. Meanwhile on road and street courses, a downforce reduction of around 33% will give drivers the feeling of more horsepower as the car will slide more coming off the corner.
“Audiences today are sophisticated and want more from us than ever in terms of overtaking and action on the track,” he argues. “I think this is the best way to achieve it. The car is beautiful, too, going back to what a pure open-wheel single-seater should be. But features like more ground-effect aerodynamics and reducing the surface-effect aerodynamics that creates turbulence, are a huge step forward.”
“It’s also a more level playing field – a universal kit that all teams will have and that will put a premium on the engine manufacturers, which is great. There’s always competition across the board, which is good, but you always have to keep the show in mind.”
The 2018 IndyCar Series kicks off on the streets of St Petersburg, FL, on March 11th. The season is an important one for IndyCar in its ongoing quest to attract a third engine manufacturer. The universal aero kit, as well as rising TV numbers and race attendances, should help its cause.
Twenty-two full-time rides had been confirmed at the time of writing, including entries from series newcomers, Harding and Carlin, and three for Andretti Autosport, which will also support Marco Andretti’s Bryan Herta entry.