Mario Andretti discovered in 1969 what every Indianapolis 500 winner has learned. “Winning the Indy 500 changed my life,” Andretti said recently at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. “It opened so many doors, creating immense opportunities. It was career-changing. If only Andy Granatelli could be here today to see that we’re still celebrating 50 years later. Because what happened in 1969 was just as important to him.”
Oddly, the Italian-born driver won in a back-up car, the No. 2 STP Hawk III Ford, one that was not planned on being raced at Indy. Team owner Granatelli and car builder Colin Chapman came to IMS with three four-wheel drive Lotus cars to be driven by Andretti, Graham Hill and Jochen Rindt. However, two days before pole day, Andretti crashed due to a broken hub and the Lotus cars were withdrawn. Andretti persevered and qualified the Brawner-Hawk car for the middle of the front row between A.J. Foyt and Bobby Unser.
On race day, Andretti overcame a few car problems and led the final 95 laps.
“Crossing that finish line was just the greatest moment of my life,” Andretti recalled. “It was just amazing, just like the 900-pound gorilla was lifted off my shoulders. I figure from here on, it’s going to be easy to put half a dozen together.”
In one of the Speedway’s fateful twists, the 1969 classic was the only 500 that Andretti won. He is third in all-time laps led (556) and laps completed (3,040) in 29 starts. At 78, the popular 500 winner has many business interests, including Mario Andretti’s Driving Experience and Andretti wines.
Nationally and internationally, no driver has surpassed Andretti’s feats of winning: the Indianapolis 500, a Formula 1 championship, NASCAR’s Daytona 500, 24 hours at Daytona and 12 hours of Sebring, “The jewel obviously was the 500,’ Andretti said. IMS president Doug Boles said that Andretti’s 500 win was “one of the iconic moments in the history of the world’s greatest auto race.”
Motorsports columnist Robin Miller, a Southport High School alumna, contends that Andretti has been “the Indianapolis 500’s best ambassador for six decades.” At a ceremony June 9 at IMS, a commemorative 50th anniversary logo of his 500 win was unveiled that depicts his winning wave and autograph. His likeness will be on IMS silver and bronze badges, the cover of the 500 official program and officially licensed Mario Andretti and IMS merchandise.