The 103rd Indianapolis 500 event is scheduled to take place on Sunday, May 26, 2019, at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Indiana. The legendary event has been the premier event for American open wheel racing for decades with roots deeply imbedded in dirt track racing. To honor this heritage, we plan on counting down the top 20 dirt track racers that have won the Indianapolis 500.
Today we break into our top 3 with Mario Andretti at #2. One of the most likable racers in the public eye, Andretti is best known for his bad luck at the brickyard. Winning the great race one time in 29 attempts is easy to understand. If it was easy, everyone would be an Indy winner. However, the near misses, and incidents each year added to the Andretti/Indy mystique that many called “the Andretti curse.”
Truth be told, Andretti won everywhere, every series, and every type of racecar. Dirt track fans are proud that the Andretti brothers started racing on dirt. When Aldo was injured, Mario took the helm and never looked back. In doing so, he captured some incredible stats:
Andretti is one of two drivers to have won races in Formula One, IndyCar, World Sportscar Championship, and NASCAR. Dan Gurney is the other.
He is the only driver to win the Indianapolis 500, Daytona 500, The Formula One Championship.
Andretti is one of two drivers to win a race in the NASCAR Cup Series, Formula One, and the Indy 500. Juan Pablo Montoya is the other.
He is the only person to be named United States Driver of the Year in three decades (1967, 1978, and 1984).
He was also one of only three drivers to have won major races on road courses, paved ovals, and dirt tracks in one season, a feat that he accomplished an amazing four times.
With his final IndyCar win in April 1993, Andretti became the first driver to have won IndyCar races in four different decades[ and the first to win automobile races of any kind in five decades.
Andretti may have started racing in a youth racing league called Formula Junior in Ancona, Italy when he was thirteen years old. He later implied that he and his brother made up the story of racing in the Formula Junior league to improve their chances on the dirt tracks in Pennsylvania.
The Andretti family emigrated to Nazareth, Pennsylvania, in 1955. Soon the Andretti brothers, Mario and Aldo, found a half-mile dirt track nearby and began racing a Hudson Hornet Sportsman. Each of the twin brothers had two wins after four races which stoked the flames to do more. Aldo was injured late in the season, which sidelined his career. Mario ended up with 21 modified stockcar wins in 46 races for 1960 and 1961.
Mario moved into midget race cars in 1961, and his career took off. The next rung on the ladder was Sprint Cars, which Andretti dominated from the start. Champ cars were added to the resume shortly after, making his debut on April 19, 1964 at the New Jersey State fairgrounds.
Andretti qualified for his first International 500-Mile Sweepstakes (Indy 500) in 1965, finishing in Third place behind winner Jim Clark and Parnelli Jones. He went on to win the 1965 USAC National Driver’s Championship that year, the youngest ever to win that honor. He repeated as National Champion in 1966. Adding to his already impressive list of credentials, Andretti won the USAC National Championship again in 1969, and he won the USAC Silver Crown Series in 1974.
Andretti added Formula One racing to his schedule and won his first Grand Prix race in 1971 (South African Grand Prix). Three weeks later, he won the Questor Grand Prix race in the U.S. This convinced the driver to pursue Formula One full-time in 1975. After a dismal first season, Andretti rallied in 1976, winning the Japanese Grand Prix, the final race of the season, and finishing in Sixth place in the series.
The 1977 Formula One season was a breakout year for Andretti. He won more races (4) than Niki Lauda (3), who won the championship. Andretti won or retired, where Lauda scored points with finishing in the points positions. This would all change in 1978. Mario Andretti won the Drivers’ World Championship and he remains the last American driver to win the World Championship. His victory at the Dutch Grand Prix is also the last for an American driver.
Andretti has remained a great ambassador and media personality for motorsports, and IndyCar racing in particular. Not bad for a dirt track racer!
Among the many honors Andretti has been awarded, he has been inducted into the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame in 1986, Associated Press and Racer Magazine named him Driver of the Century in 2000, Driver of the Year in 1967, 1978, and 1984 (the only driver to be honored with this award in three different decades). He was inducted in the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America in 1990, the Sprint Car Hall of Fame in 1996, the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in 2001, the Automotive Hall of Fame in 2005, and the Diecast Hall of Fame in 2012.