The prototypical man for all cars

Auto racing: Mario Andretti has won on the Formula One, Indy car and NASCAR circuits. He's the best of a vanishing breed in this era of specialization.

July 12, 2000|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

Mario Andretti has always been willing to spread his wings.

If he saw a race car that interested him, he'd drive it. It didn't matter if it was his favorite open-wheel Indy car, a Formula One car, a sprint car, a stock car, a sports car or a hybrid.

"All my life, I've tried to win outside my box, if you will," Andretti says.

At 60, he has been at it again. Recently he drove in the 24 Hours of LeMans in an attempt to win the only big race that has eluded him.

It was an effort that fascinated many because of his age, because of his desire and because he is one of a declining breed.

The versatile race car driver has gone the way of the running board. When Andretti was a youngster, running boards were everywhere. So, too, were drivers with an itch to drive whatever came to hand.

When Andretti thought of the greats beyond his beloved Alberto Ascari of Formula One fame, whom Andretti says he and his brother, Aldo, idolized, he thought of Graham Hill and Jim Clark, drivers who had been unafraid to try different styles of race cars.

And in Andretti's heyday, he could just look beside him and see A.J. Foyt, who would lay down the challenge for 30 years of competition.

Nowadays, however, someone almost has to explain what a running board is (that step below the bottom of the doors on antique cars and now on some sport utility vehicles). And so it is with versatile drivers.

"Our sport has become so refined, it has grown so much, everyone is so busy just trying to stay on top of his own racing division, there isn't time to do what Mario did," says former Indy Car champion Rick Mears, who is a consultant for the Roger Penske CART teams.

Today's one-discipline drivers may gulp at what it would take to compile Andretti's resume, which shows him to be the most successfully diverse driver in this country's racing history and, perhaps, the most diverse in the world.

"Mario may be unique in his achievements," says the great sports car driver, Brian Redman. "Others may have had the ability to do what Mario did, but he was the one who most successfully picked his opportunities. He picked the right cars and the right place over a long period of time. There's probably not anyone else in the same spectrum as that."

Andretti was greatly disappointed when the Don Panoz-owned team he was driving for failed to win last month at LeMans. But his portfolio is already brimming.

He has won the Formula One world driving title, CART and Indy Car titles. He has won the Indianapolis 500, the Daytona 500 and has three victories at the 12 Hours of Sebring.

"He certainly has all the trophies to prove he's the most versatile," says seven-time Winston Cup champion Dale Earnhardt, who has been content behind the wheel of a Winston Cup stock car.

Foyt has four Indianapolis 500 victories, the Daytona 500 and LeMans. Hill has won the F-I title, the Indy 500 and LeMans.

No one else has come close.

And, says three-time Winston Cup champion Jeff Gordon, it's unlikely anyone ever will.

"When I was a little kid, I was fascinated by Mario," says Gordon, 28. "He and A.J. were the greatest. They'd race Indy and then get in the dirt champ cars. ...They'd drive anything to make a living, and they did it because they loved it.

"When I started my career, I thought I could drive a lot of different cars. I adapted from midgets to sprints to stock cars. But then I fell in love with stock cars. And after a couple years I remember thinking, `I've either got to stick with this or move on to something else' because I knew if I stayed in stock cars for four or five years I wouldn't be able to go do something else successfully."

Gordon says once a driver gets immersed in a series, he stops growing. He gets so used to doing what he has to do to make what he is driving work, changing to some other car becomes ever harder.

"Guys like Mario and A.J. were able to jump from car to car because they jumped," Gordon says. "They were able to adapt for that very reason. You can't do that today."

Mears says it is a risk in today's market to jump to another series for a one-race deal the way Andretti and Foyt, and even retired Winston Cup driver Bobby Allison, used to do. "These days there are at least five teams in every series that are top teams," Mears says. "You can't drop into their backyard for a single race and expect to run up front with them the way those guys used to. And if you try and you fail, it could hurt you even where you're already established."

Even to make a jump full time could mean losing out big time. Gordon recalls a few years ago when rumors flew that he was going to leave Winston Cup racing for Formula One. "Offers did come in that could have made it happen," Gordon says. "But you don't just go from Winston Cup to F-1. It would have meant two years in CART and then testing in F-1 and then, probably a Formula One ride.

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