Rarely does someone’s name becomes synonymous with the ultimate level of achievement in an area of expertise. In art, we reference Picasso. For music, Beethoven. In racing, that name is Mario Andretti.
There is no debate that Andretti is one of the most successful racers in the history of automobile racing. His success came from a long career in racing where he is the only racer to have been named United States Driver of the Year in three decades (1967, 1978 and 1984).
He is one of two drivers to win races in Formula One, IndyCar, World Sportscar Championship and NASCAR. The only other racer to accomplish that feat was Dan Gurney.
During his racing career, Andretti also won races in Midget cars, Sprint cars, Champ cars, Formula One cars, Indy Cars, IROC cars and Sports cars. Along the way he captured prestigious racing titles in the 1978 Formula One World Championship, four IndyCar titles, and an IROC title to go along with his Sprint car Championships.
Andretti has 111 career wins on major circuits and is one of only three drivers to win races on road courses, paved ovals and dirt tracks in one season, a feat that he accomplished four times. With his final IndyCar win in April 1993, Andretti became the first driver to win IndyCar races in four different decades and the first to win automobile races of any kind in five. At 53, he set the then-world closed-course speed record of 234.275 mph in qualifying at the Michigan International Speedway in 1993.
The car that I got my first USAC victory with was a Chevy-powered racecar.
To date, he is the only driver to win the Indianapolis 500 (1969), Daytona 500 (1967) and the Formula One World Championship (1978). Andretti’s victory in the 1978 Dutch Grand Prix marks the last time an American has won a Formula One race, and those feats are barely scratching the surface of Andretti’s amazing career. We managed to catch up with “Mario The Great” just before the holidays to discuss his relationship with Chevrolet engines in racing.
Chevy Hardcore: Tell us about your racing career and Chevrolet involvement.
Mario Andretti: “When I got my first ride in USAC sprint cars, which was also the car that I got my first USAC victory with, it was a Chevy-powered racecar. The Chevy was one of the most popular engines in the sprint cars at that time. It was just the right package all the way around.”
“My Chevy escapades included driving for Smokey Yunick at Daytona, which was relatively brief there. Then Formula 5000 with Vels Parnelli and we had Chevy engines in our first years. Those years that I ran the Formula 5000 I finished second to Brian Redman who also drove a Chevy powered Lola. The only way he beat me was just by being more reliable, but he never beat me on the track. We had some mechanical issues and they were not always engine related either. We had some stupid things go wrong.”
“Then in 1987 we embarked in the Ilmore Chevrolet. We were the first ones, I know Roger Penske was pretty much financially involved in Ilmore and he had the first test engines, but we were the first ones involved into the racing series with those engines. It was an incredible experience with those engines and it was the right package in the sense of power delivery.”
[Ed. Note: The Ilmor-Chevrolet actually debuted at the 1986 Indianapolis 500 with Team Penske driver Al Unser. The Ilmore engine program expanded to all three Team Penske drivers and Newman/Haas Racing in 1987. Andretti, driving for Newman/Haas, won the Long Beach Grand Prix scoring the engine’s first IndyCar victory. He also won the pole position for the 1987 Indianapolis 500 with the engine. A year later Rick Mears won the 1988 Indianapolis 500 with the Ilmore Chevrolet. The engine went on to have a stellar record in CART winning 64 of 78 races from 1987 to 1991.]
Mario Andretti Honors & Awards
- Named the “Driver of the Century” by the Associated Press
- Named United States Driver of the Year in three decades (1967, 1978 and 1984).
- Four time IndyCar champion (1965, 1966, 1969, 1984)
- 1967 Daytona 500 winner
- Three time 12 Hours of Sebring winner (1967, 1970, 1972)
- 1969 Indianapolis 500 winner
- 1969 ABC’s Wide World of Sports Athlete of the Year
- 1972 6 Hours of Daytona winner
- 1974 USAC national dirt track champion
- 1978–1979 (IROC VI) International Race of Champions series champion
- 1978 Formula One World Championship
- 1990 Motorsports Hall of Fame of America inductee
- 1992 Named Driver of the Quarter Century
- Set World closed-course speed record of 234.275 mph at Michigan International Speedway in 1993.
- 1996 National Sprint Car Hall of Fame Inductee
- 2000 International Motorsports Hall of Fame Inductee
CHC: You seemed to have the right setup with that Chevy engine for the Indy 500 that year. You won the pole and looked like THE car to beat. What happened?
Mario: “I was too conservative. As odd as it sounds, if I would have run 600-revs harder, it would have been no problem. I was running in the bad harmonics of the engine without knowing it. Frans Weis, one of the great engine guys at Ilmore, who was the engine man for Jim Hall and all of those great teams, he did the refurbishing of the engines at that time and he would always keep saying ‘Keep the revs down, keep the revs down.’ So I kept the revs down and it took me out of the race.”
CHC: You’ve worked with so many of the great Chevy crewchiefs of all time. Guys like Smokey Yunick and Suitcase Jake Elder at Daytona. Tell us how guys like Jake Elder helped you to a win at Daytona in a Ford, then went on to became a great Chevy crewchief for Dale Earnhart later. Is it a matter of picking the right engine?
Mario: “I was running a one-off for Holman-Moody at the time and Suitcase Jake Elder, he had his suitcase with him (laughs) and he wasn’t really engaged at that time. Holman-Moody hired him to be the crew chief for my car – Holman-Moody was a Ford factory team with Freddy Lorenzen as the full-time racer at the time.”
“When Jake went to Osterlund and Childress he was with a Chevy backed team and it wasn’t a matter of choosing an engine but choosing a team. For me, like in the Formula 5000, I was with Parnelli Jones and the natural engine to put in that Lola was the Chevy. That was the best package for that series at that time for sure. So that is what you go for. You go for the best package at that time.”
CHC: You mentioned your Daytona win with Holman-Moody in 1967, tell us about Daytona the year before when you drove for Smokey Yunick.
Mario: “I had met him at Indy, because he had a ‘one-off’ deal there as well. He knew that I was always trying to venture outside of the box. I think that he picked me because of my inexperience compared to his engineers and crew chiefs. He wanted to try new ideas no matter what. His car had the power, no doubt about that. At Daytona he was trying something different with cross-weight.”
“He thought that it binds the car up and all that so he was throwing all kinds of crazy things at the chassis. This thing… I mean, I was on a pogo stick. It was bouncing and I was just not feeling the car. He said, ‘Just don’t worry about it. Don’t worry about it.’ I told him that ‘I have to worry about it, I have to drive this thing.” So that’s why he picked me. He knew that I would stand on the gas but he wanted to try things without being swayed by people with more experience.”
“Unfortunately that thing was so hard to drive. I eventually ended up crashing in 31 laps. Something put me on the outside, it wasn’t anything bad but it put me out of the race.”
CHC: How was Smokey to work with?
Mario: “It was funny working with Smokey. Before the race, even before practice started, I asked him ‘When do you want me down there?’ Smokey told me ‘Oh don’t worry about it.’ Don’t worry about it? I mean, I’m fairly short and I told him that I needed to get fit for the seat. ‘No, don’t worry about it,’ Smokey said.”
“To hell with that. I went down to Daytona and I went to his garage and he wouldn’t let me in. Everything was top secret and he wouldn’t let me in. He said, ‘Don’t worry about it, I will meet you at the track and it will be close enough.'”
“It was just so strange. He would not even let me look under the hood. The mechanics would open the hood about six-inches, just enough to get their head under. He didn’t want to idle the car because it would carbon the valves. He’d push the car to the line and as soon as you started you’d have to go. You couldn’t idle it. It was the strangest thing but you couldn’t argue with the guy too much. He was a genius in his own right.”
CHC: Being a driver that did want to know and did want to see under the hood, did it really matter to you what engine was under the hood?
Mario: “Well… yeah. It matters. You want to have the best package available. After all, you’re out there to try to win. Usually the trends are to move around a bit. Quite honestly, if you had a Chevy, nothing could ever go wrong. It’s that simple.”
“It was Ford or Chevy or Dodge during those times but if you had a Chevy, you had a shot at winning, no matter where or what type of racing here in the states. They were always right up to snuff on the latest technology. They always had great packages so I always felt confident with that under my hood.”
He was their golden boy, but I got the satisfaction out of it.
CHC: What was the real story behind the engine package differences between you and Lorenzen at Daytona in 1967?
Mario: “Well, the truth is simply this, the car felt pretty good… quite good actually, but for some reason nobody would tell me what sort of revs I should be pulling with the gear I had. At one point the conversation started with Donnie Allison. I said, ‘Man, I’m like 400 revs down.’ So he ask me what gear I was running. So I told him. I think it was a 3.70-gear and he said that I should be pulling 7,200 or 7,300 rpm. I said ‘I’m not seeing much over 6,800.’ That’s when I started complaining.”
“The engines for the 100-mile qualifiers were coming in and they were in the engine room. So I asked the engine man if I could see some of the dyno sheets for some of the engines. ‘Oh, they are all the same. They are all within four or five horsepower,’ he said. The engines all had tags on them, Andretti, Yarborough…whatever. So I switched my tag with Foyt’s tag and the engine man told me that I couldn’t do that. ‘Well they are only four or five horsepower difference,’ I reminded him. ‘Oh, you can’t do that,’ he said. I told him, ‘You just answered my question.'”
“Thats when I went to Bill Innes, he kinda liked Indy guys so he clued me in on this thing. ‘Why don’t you just run one of my engines?’ he asked. That is when I went to John Holman and told him that I would like to use one of Innes’ engines. ‘It’s going to blow up,’ he said. ‘I don’t care, I just want to see what I’m missing,’ I told him.”
“We put that engine in there and I was scuffin’ tires a mile or mile and a half faster than Curtis Turner. He was on the pole with Smokey Yunick’s Chevelle, and I was scuffin’ tires quicker. The only problem with that was that I had qualified with a tough engine for the single lap qualifiers. In those days you had to race with the same spoiler that you qualified with. I had qualified with the smaller spoiler to get through the air quicker, less drag. Then I had to race with that. In race trim, man… I was loose as hell around traffic. So I had to try to lead and that I did. I led 112 of 200 laps that day. It worked out because I had a fast car… I really did.”
“I had my own plan that day. Toward the end of the race, on the last pit stop, I was running first and Lorenzen was running second. They didn’t have any particular interest of me winning over Lorenzen. So I come into the pits first and they held me back until Lorenzen left the pits. That pissed me off. They held me another seven seconds and that is a matter of record. Then they released me and I had to hunt him down. Anyway, I won and Ford would have rather seen Lorenzen win. He was their golden boy, but I got the satisfaction out of it.”
CHC: Now that Chevrolet is back in Indy Car racing, do you think that they will have another dominant period in the series?
Mario: “Well they’ve been having a dominant period. Some of the races turn out to be mileage races and the Honda won some of those races, like Pocono for instance. Where Chevrolet, like Marco’s car, got behind the eight ball with the way the yellows fell, so Honda won the race. Chevy was unlucky in that respect and tactfully, there were some of these races that Chevy should have won but the way the race turned out they didn’t. But Chevy’s were the stronger engine and we’ll see what Honda does this year.”
“I think Honda is going to dual turbochargers next year instead of the single turbocharger. Of course with that added power they are going to use more fuel. Chevy is not standing still either. They have some other developments so I don’t think you are too bad off if you have a Chevy this year.”
“It’s going to be very competitive regardless. Chevy will be there, no question. Although my son Michael is shifting to Honda because all of the sudden there were so many Chevys there. Ganassi is going to Chevy after winning the championship with a Honda. Penske was already with Chevy because I think he has some financial interest there, so he is a natural for Chevy. For Michael it was just one of those business decisions that you have to make and we’ll just wait and see how it works out this season.”