An immigrant who came to the land of the free and fulfilled his American Dream, Mario Andretti was born in the middle ofWorld War II in a war stricken town of Montona. Mario and his twin brother Aldo spent their first seven years in a camp, facing severe food shortages and crowded conditions. When the war ended, the part of Italy the Andretti family was in, was handed over to the Communists and it became a part of Yugoslavia. The Andrettis then moved to Lucca and this is where Mario first came to know about the sport that would become his lifelong passion.
He would cycle miles with his brother to watch the portion of road near Lucca of the Mille Miglia road race. But the 1954 Italian Grand Prix was what truly enthralled the young boy, for whom the sight of powerful Formula One cars such asMaserati, Lancia and Ferrari was heaven. Alberto Ascari was Mario’s idol, and remained so even after Ascari was killed at Monza in 1955.
In 1955 itself, the Andretti family migrated to America for a better future. The Andertti boys only saw this as opportunity to follow up their passion for motorsport and soon began racing rather unsophisticated machinery on dirt track ovals. Both boys were 18 when they started racing, and usually did so in their self prepared Hudson Hornet. During one of these races in 1959, Aldo had a bad accident and received serious injuries, he never raced again. Mario on the other hand, kept at the sport and soon became a household name in American racing circles. After conquering short ovals, Mario moved onto giant speedways and even won the famous Indianapolis 500, and secured the United Sates Auto Club championship title many times.
During this time, the usually fair and honorable racer became an aggressive adversary. His talent extended to racing in all forms, winning the Daytona 500 for stock cars and also the Sebring 12 Hours, for sport cars. Despite all these wins he never gave up his dream to race in the Formula One.
In 1965, in Indianapolis, Mario finished third in the race and was offered a future in Formula One racing by Colin Chapman, Lotus boss. In 1968, Mario made his Formula One debut in a Lotus 49 and acquired a pole position for the US Grand Prix at Watkins Glen. Chapman offered Mario a full time position with Lotus, to replace Jim Clark who had died earlier that year.
But Andretti was not willing to leave the security that his lucrative career provided in America. He agreed to occasional Formula One races, provided his USAC commitments allowed it. The next few years were inconsequential on the Formula One front for Andretti, with the only exception being 1971. He had signed with Ferrari for a campaign in both sports cars and Formula One, and he won the season’s first Grand Prix, in South Africa. In 1976 Andretti was pushed into focusing on his Formula One racing, after facing a lean period in his USAC career. He decided to join a faltering Team Lotus and a Grand Prix victory was not expected by anyone.
Chapman and Andretti shared a volatile relationship and often had fiery arguments. But eventually they developed a rapport, which in many ways was similar to what Chapman had shared with Clark. Despite Andretti’s apprehensions about the Lotus 77, he scored a momentous victory in the last race at the 1976 Japanese Grand Prix in Fuji. This inspired Chapman immensely and together with Andretti they release the Lotus 78 in 1977, which helped the Italian-American win four races. In 1978, Mario Andretti became the World Champion with six wins, five in the Lotus 78.
The period after this victory was unfortunately a lean one, with Chapman going off pace with his cars, and Andretti remaining with Lotus for another two unproductive seasons, before switching to Alfa Romeo. Another two seasons without any results, left Andretti with no choice but to leave Formula One racing and he went back to racing in America. Despite this move, Formula One always remained his first love and when Enzo Ferrari asked him to make a guest appearance eat the 1982 Italian Grand Prix at Monza, the 42 year old Andretti qualified a pole position in the Ferrari 126 Turbo and finished a splendid third.