Murto: Andretti still savors Indy wins

There is no disputing the fact that Mario Andretti won the 1969 Indy 500.

It was the first 500 win for Andretti and car owner Andy Granatelli, who planted a kiss on Andretti in victory lane.

“I still smell the garlic,” Andretti said.

“I really liked driving for Andy Granatelli,” Andretti remembered. “It was good to win the 500 for him. He had done so much at Indy with the Novi, the jet-powered cars. But when I won for him in ’69 we were in a backup car.”

Andretti crashed the STP-sponsored car he was supposed to drive for Granatelli that year, an experimental four-wheel-drive racecar. Andretti said he “almost killed myself in that car.”

“So we had a backup car; I won for him in the most basic car,” Andretti recalled. “He deserved to win. He only cared about Indy.”

But Andretti wears two Indy 500 winner’s rings on his hands. One is from 1969, the other is from 1981.

The ’81 500 is known as “The Great Dispute.” Bobby Unser crossed the finish line first, but was penalized a position for passing cars under yellow. Andretti, who drove for Pat Patrick that year, posed for the victory photos and received the ring.

But Roger Penske appealed on behalf of his driver. In October that year the United States Auto Club — who sanctioned the race at the time — awarded the win to Unser. It became Unser’s third Indy 500 win, the final race win of his career.

Video evidence shows Unser passing cars under yellow.

“I’ll always have the ring,” Andretti said.

Mario was a full-time Formula One driver in 1981, and still keeps up with F1. But he’s not a big fan of the new rule package, including turbo-charged rev-limited engines and limited fuel for each race in an effort to make the sport “green.”

“In my opinion I think the rule change was so dramatic and drastic,” Andretti said. “The onus is on the manufacturers, as many of the manufacturers lobbied for it, some of them, anyway. I think they’ve taken too much fuel away from them, and some of the races may become too much of a fuel-saving race. That’s not good for competition.

“Formula One was enjoying some of its most glorious moments with the normally aspirated engines singing up to 18,000 rpm. With the turbo charger you lose quite a bit of that beautiful sound. From the point of the appeal from the grandstands, they’ve lost something. It’s not that I don’t enjoy or look forward to the technology; that’s a part of Formula One that’s also attractive. But I think they tried to go a little too far, in my opinion. You don’t want to hurt the show.”

When Andretti was part of the show, there were many drivers he would have liked to have raced against in other eras; Alberto Ascari, Juan Fangio, Stirling Moss and Ayrton Senna, to name a few. But there were drivers in his own era that he had to beat to remain on top.

“There’s always a driver of the moment, or someone in any period who sets the mark,” Andretti observed. “When I broke into the Indycars, it was A.J. Foyt. He’s five years my senior (Mario’s 74), so obviously he was much more accomplished and he was the guy to beat. There were others, of course, but he was the mark. Anytime that I was able to finish ahead of him, winning with him second, that was a great day. But it was also a good day to finish second to him.

“When I broke into Formula One, I sat on the pole for the first race and who was second? Jackie Stewart, who was the man of the moment. And the first two Formula One races that I won, Jackie Stewart finished second. I could not have asked for anything better. Along the way I’ve had my moments that will be with me forever.”

But some memories from his era are not so good. The loss of drivers such as Canadian racer Billy Foster — Andretti’s best friend in racing at the time — and F1 champion Jimmy Clark, punctuate a dangerous time in motorsports.

“We got through those years,” Andretti said. “The sport became a lot smarter. Safety is a work in progress, as it should be.”

Racing has changed in other ways, too.

“The sport has grown tremendously and become more commercial,” Andretti said. “It’s good and bad, and the good part is that it’s become more professional. The growth is there, and the appeal is worldwide. The sport right now is in good hands.”

So, too, is the 1981 Indy 500 winner’s ring.

Veteran motorsports columnist Craig Murto is a Linden resident.