There are few families whose names are more inextricably linked to the history, heritage and heartbreak of the Indianapolis 500 than the Andrettis. While the Unser Family has the record for most Indianapolis 500 victories with nine, the Andretti Family has encountered more adversity than success at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Mario Andretti’s Indy 500 career spanned from 1965-94, and he often delivered dominating performances only to drop out of the race with one mechanical failure or another. His 1969 win is the only time an Andretti has won the race.
Mario’s son, Michael, also dominated the race in his career (1984-2006), yet he never won the Indy 500. Michael has been a team owner since 2003, and two of his drivers have won the Indy 500 — the late Dan Wheldon in 2005 and Dario Franchitti in 2007.
Michael’s son, Marco, represents the current generation of Andrettis in IndyCar and nearly won the Indy 500 in his very first attempt in 2006, blowing past his father on a restart with five laps remaining. Marco was within a few hundred yards of the checkered flag before Sam Hornish Jr. raced past him to win in one of the most dramatic finishes in Indianapolis 500 history — the first time the race-winning pass was made on the final lap.
Mario represents the “Then” and Marco the “Now.” Before the green flag drops on this weekend's race, Athlon Sports had a chance to talk to both drivers about the Indianapolis 500 — then and now.
What is your first recollection of the Indianapolis 500?
Mario Andretti: I was still in Italy, and there was a movie, “To Please a Lady,” that starred Clark Gable and Barbara Stanwyck, but the title in Italy was “Indianapolis.” I was really curious. I had no idea what Indianapolis was and I went to see that movie. At that time I was 12 or 13. The next time I heard of Indianapolis was when driver Bill Vukovich was killed in 1955. In Italy, they publicized that. That is when I became aware of Indianapolis. That year’s 500 was just a few weeks before my family came to America. The race was on May 30 and we arrived in the United States on June 9.
Marco Andretti: It was the old Speedway Motel for me. That’s the first thing that sticks out because we spent a month there every year of my life back then so it was a second home for me. Playing on the ledge and listening to the cars go by and (announcer) Tom Carnegie on the PA saying, “It’s a new track record.” I was probably 3 or 4 years old then.
How has the Indianapolis 500 changed from when you started competing to today?
Mario: The only things that have changed are the cars and the technical side, and the interest factor is a little bit different now. It seems strange to see Indianapolis advertise for tickets when tickets used to be the most sacred thing there. Still, Indy remains Indy, and I’m thankful for that. … I think it is coming back to the glory days.
Marco: The biggest thing I have to commend them for is the safety with the SAFER Barriers. For a driver it makes us feel more secure. They aren’t exactly pillows, but it helps.
What remains the same about the Indianapolis 500 over time?
Mario: The fact everyone still considers it the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing.” The other part is the technical side and the driving. Nothing has changed there from the commitment of the drivers.
Marco: You still have to make the car last 500 miles. It is more of a sprint race now. You have to be on your game the whole time, and the whole field is on the lead lap at the end of the race.
All three generations of the Andrettis converged on the final five laps of the 2006 Indianapolis 500, but it all ended when Sam Hornish Jr. made the race-winning pass just a few hundred yards from the checkered flag. Did that one race encapsulate the Andrettis at the Indianapolis 500?
Mario: We’ve been so close so many times. Between Michael and myself we have dominated that race more times than four-time winners. Does that mean we have a bitter memory of it or feeling? No, it’s just the opposite. I think of nothing but positive thoughts as far as the Indianapolis 500 is concerned mainly because of how competitive I was every time I competed there.
Marco: I think so. We have been knocking on the door and leading a lot of laps and being competitive but falling short on that one important lap — the last one. That whole month we were asked what would happen if it came down to the two of us. It was literally a fairy tale ending, but there was a third party involved. Still, to this day I will never wrap my head around where Sam got that speed on the last lap. It was the fastest lap of the month on cold tires. It’s a little fishy to me.
How important is the Indianapolis 500 to the Andrettis?
Mario: Extremely. We have been striving to win that for a half a century. We only have one win to show for it. We are trying like hell to make it happen. I’m happy that Michael, after having so many disappointments after dominating that place and was denied even one victory, is enjoying some success as a winning team owner.
Marco: It’s my life. Even my grandfather said it would be a hell of a party if I were able to win that race. It’s the biggest sporting event in the world. We live our lives around that event.
What keeps the Indianapolis 500 as the greatest race in the world?
Mario: The best open-wheel racers not just in America but from around the world are there.
Marco: I think tradition. They keep a lot of the traditions the same, and that is why it is what it is. The fan base and the support we have for the number of fans that come is really unbelievable.
Mario, discuss your 1969 victory.
Mario: Midway through the 1969 race my engine started overheating like crazy. I started in the middle of the front row and ran up front all day and figured I wouldn’t finish. But we finished the race with the water temperature at 250 and the oil temperature at 280. Go figure. But it was a big weight off of my back when I won it because I felt how important it was to win that race by how you are judged career-wise even though that can be unfair. You are judged by that race.
Why is the Indianapolis 500 more than just a race?
Mario: It’s an event. Why is the Kentucky Derby more than just a horse race? Why is the Super Bowl more than just a football game? It’s the importance of it, and the whole world knows that race is happening. I don’t know any other motor race that is as popular today as Indy is worldwide. It’s the only race in my opinion that is as precious as winning the championship. If you ask any driver today which would you rather win — the championship or the Indy 500 — most every driver will say Indy.
Marco: It’s all the history that has happened there. To go back to 1911, that’s a long time. The history with our family alone is unreal there. We’ve had a lot of ups and downs. We’ve seen the glory there and how things can be terrible there. That in itself is what makes the history there and what makes it so important and gives you the goosebumps you feel when you drive into that place. It’s really what has happened there in the past and all the greatest race car drivers that ever lived competed there, and only a few of them get to say they are champions.
—By Bruce Martin