Andretti calling it quits with a smile INDIANAPOLIS 500

May 29, 1994|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,Sun Staff Writer

INDIANAPOLIS -- Suddenly, Mario Andretti can laugh about it.

About all the times -- after nearly every one of his near-misses in 28 previous Indianapolis 500s -- when he turned to his wife, Dee Ann, and asked her how many more cracks his heart could take without breaking.

Now he is about to call it a career, about to start his final Indianapolis 500 and take his last shot at the track that has denied him all but once since he was a rookie in 1965.

Andretti has had so many cars break down or just lose their dominance less than 100 miles from the finish line that even he can see the humor.

At a charity roast here at the Indiana Roof, the largest ballroom in the city, packed with celebrities and members of the motorsports community, Al Unser Jr. began the roasting with this:

"People tend to pronounce Mario's name a lot of different ways," said Unser, holding up a series of white poster boards with boldly printed black letters. "There is MAR-EE-O, heard mostly around here. MARRRRREEEO, heard in Italy. And MAREY-YO, which is the way Dee Ann says it.

"But back home at the Unser house, we say it this way, 'Andretti is slowing down on the backstretch.' "

Andretti, 54, started his career at age 5, when he and his brother Aldo built their first race car in their back yard in Nazareth, Pa. And it will come to an end today -- although Andretti says he is keeping his options open as far as teaming up with his son Michael for an attack on the 24-hour races at LeMans and Daytona.

They are the only major events he hasn't won in a career that has included four IndyCar championships and a World Driving title.

"I have no regrets," Andretti said. "I would do it all again, do it better, but if you had another chance you'd probably screw it up even more. Try to over-engineer it. I think on the overall, things have gone pretty well."

Last season, after a four-year winless drought, Andretti became the oldest IndyCar driver to win a race when he won at Phoenix in his Newman/Haas-owned Lola/Ford.

No one was very surprised by the victory, given the fervor with which Andretti drives.

If anyone doubts it, all they need is to hear Andy Granatelli, who owned the car Andretti drove to victory here in 1969.

In a way, it was an ironic victory for Andretti. Year after year here, he has had the car that has been the class of the field and lost.

The year he won, he figured he didn't have a chance.

"For the last 50 or 60 laps of that race, I had a fairly comfortable lead," Andretti said. "But the car was coming apart. I could feel it, and it wasn't just my imagination. We had been running with 270 degrees of oil temperature all day. I still can't believe it made it. The gear box was totally dried up. It was absolutely empty of oil. It had all carbonized."

But Granatelli and STP and Andretti became famous that day, as one of the most famous photos in the history of motorsports was snapped.

L It showed a celebrating Andretti being kissed by Granatelli.

Just thinking about Andretti retiring brought tears to Granatelli's eyes during a toast he made.

"Mario isn't in the Who's Who of racing," Granatelli said. "He is the Who's Who. In my opinion, he's the greatest driver who ever lived. He won on dirt tracks, on round tracks, straight tracks and racing up mountains at Pike's Peak.

"He won on suicide tracks that don't even exist any more. Jimmy Clark was great, but he didn't drive everything on wheels like Mario did -- and Mario won with them all.

"I kissed him when he won in 1969 because I'm Italian and I couldn't control myself, and then I whispered, 'Say you have more STP in your engine than anyone else.' He did and I made a fortune."

With that, Granatelli turned to Andretti, who had stood for what he thought was going to be a handshake. Granatelli wrapped his arm around Mario's neck and planted a kiss square on Andretti's lips.

Mario, momentarily stunned, wiped his lips and said, "I can still smell the garlic from the first time."

Yesterday, as Michael Andretti made his way to his team's garage, he laughed at the recent memory and talked seriously about being Mario Andretti's son.

"My dad has been everyone's hero," Michael said. "I've never known it any other way, and I always wanted to be like him. In the end, he was my hero, too."

It is Andretti's versatility that has made him great -- his Formula One title, his victory in the Daytona 500, his IndyCar titles and sprint car victories. But Andretti has never been able to rest as he chased one more Indy 500 victory.

"This is an unfair place," Mario said. "It's unfair to the good drivers that have never won, or probably will never win here, to be judged by how they do at Indy.

"But at the same time, I know the race is fabulous, that it has everything. But at the same time, it's only one race. You can't tell me that some drivers who haven't won this thing as many times can't drive as well as guys who have won it four times. It just has to be put in perspective, that's all."

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