The Greatest Spectacle in Racing
The 103rd running of the Indy 500 is set for Sunday, May 26. It will mark the 50th anniversary of Mario Andretti’s victory in the race.
SUNDAY, MAY 23, 1993, SPORTS
Copyright 1993/THE TIMES MIRROR COMPANY
Palmer Had the Open; Andretti Has This Place
If, as has been said, it’s never a good idea to bring up the subject of rope in the house of the hanged, perhaps it’s not too advisable to bring up the subject of the Indianapolis 500 in the house of the Andrettis.
For too long, it has been a sore spot. The purists wince, the dedicated fans groan, and well-wishers shriek “Not again!” as the tragic words come drifting over the loudspeaker in the late stages of the race, “Andretti is slowing down!” Pit crews kick the fuel tanks, owners curse, wives weep.
It’s a bit of historic injustice that happens every year. It doesn’t seem to matter which Andretti — father Mario, or sons Michael and Jeff. Maybe, one of these years, it will be nephew John.
The Andrettis should enter this haunted house with dread. Trepidation. It’s Little Red Riding Hood going to grandmother’s house. Hansel and Gretel strolling through the forest. Snow White and her stepmother.
It’s galling. It’s particularly discouraging when it keeps happening to Mario. Mario Andretti is unquestionably — now that A.J. Foyt is retired — the greatest race driver of our times still in a car.
The Indianapolis Motor Speedway was supposed to be to Mario Andretti what the stage of the Old Vic was to Olivier, the Met to Caruso, the Bolshoi to Nureyev, a ring to Muhammad Ali. A showcase for his great talents
The first time he drove the 500, he dazzled the natives with the confident competence with which he handled it. He was a 4F driver — fast, fearless, feisty and (usually) first. He was rookie of the year. He finished third, only ticks behind winner Jim Clark.
When he won in 1969, it was freely predicted he might win a dozen of these before he was through.
He has won one.
Anyone who ever watched an auto race knows what a colossal bit of unfairness this is. Mario Andretti winning only one Indy is like Arnold Palmer winning one U.S. Open. Mario is the Arnold Palmer of auto racing. The gods of sport have it in for them.
You will remember that Palmer, too, in winning only one Open, was second in four of them and in playoffs in three of those.
Mario has won only once at Indy. But he has been second twice, third once and fourth once.
You might say he was in a playoff in 1981. That was the year Bobby Unser, driving one of Roger Penske’s cars, arrived in Victory Lane, only to be told the next morning that he had been penalized a lap for passing cars under a yellow light. His “victory” was taken away from him and awarded to Mario Andretti, who had come from 32nd — next to last — on the grid to second. And then, apparently, to first.
Andretti got the traditional pace car at the victory banquet the following Monday — but without the keys in it. He got an envelope with the winner’s check in it — but the check wasn’t signed.
The race was turned over to the courts. The litigation dragged on until October, when a three-judge panel returned the victory to Unser — but by a vote of 2-1. Bobby got two-thirds of a triumph.
It was the longest, costliest Indy race in history, four months from start to checkered flag. It computed out of an average of about 6 m.p.h. Covered wagons might not take that long to make 500 miles.
So, Mario — like Palmer with golf — became synonymous with racing, a popular victim of what Aristotle called underserved misfortunate.
Arnold won 60 golf tournaments on the PGA Tour, fourth all time. Mario has won 52 Indy car races, second all time.
By rights, each should be multiple winners in his sport’s showcase tournament.
The Open eluded Palmer once when he had a seven-shot lead with only nine holes to play.
Indy has eluded Mario when he was in sight of the checkered flag, had a clear track in front of him and plenty of fuel. In 1987, he had led the race for 170 laps when, on Lap 195 of 200, his car suddenly slowed and stopped.
In 1985, Mario not only saved Danny Sullivan’s race, he saved his life. Andretti dived down beneath Sullivan’s spinning car on Lap 120. Mario led that race for 107 laps, but finished second.
Shouldn’t Mario stay in bed on race day? Or take the family to the beach? Get an insurance policy against even hearing the race?
Not Mario. He couldn’t wait to get out on that track this year, as usual. He was first off the blocks on qualification day. He rolled out there and put himself solidly on the pole — for six hours — on a day the track was so hot it made pizza out of the tires and slowed the cars into delivery trucks.
But, Mario knows those corners like Palmer knows the greens at Augusta, and he put up a number — 223-plus — that stood until late in the day and the cool of evening, when Arie Luyendyk went out and took the pole away from him by a tick of the second hand.
Mario has won the pole three times at the Speedway. This will be the third time he has started from the No. 2 position. The first time he did, he won.
Does he feel snakebit at this citadel of motorsport? Is the Brickyard the graveyard for Andretti hopes?
“Well, when you consider I’ve led this race more laps than anyone in it — and more times than a guy who was a four-time winner (Rick Mears), you have to think something is at work here,” Mario concedes. “Yes, I would have thought I’d be working on my fifth win by now.”
Instead, he’s working on his second.
It’s the hardest race in the world to win. You don’t even win it when you do.
Of the 1981 debacle, Mario says: “The rules say you can’t pass (cars) under the yellow (caution flag). (Bobby Unser) passed 13 cars under one yellow. He put 13 cars behind him and the pace car. The pictures showed that.
“The rules are there. When Jerry Grant finished second (in 1972), they found he had pitted in Bobby Unser’s pit and took on fuel there. They penalized him 12 laps. Moved him back to 12th and cost him a lot of money ($72,000). They penalized Johnny Rutherford for passing under the yellow one year (1985) when he was running third.”
So, who won the ’81 race?
“Penske’s lawyers,” Mario says.
Mario makes his 28th assault on the Speedway next Sunday. At 53, is he Don Quixote tilting at his personal windmill once again? Age 48 is the oldest anyone has won this race — Al Unser Sr.
Mario Andretti is not interested in trivia. The Indianapolis 500 owes him one. Auto racing owes him plenty. The hope in the infield is that this year the exciting news that comes spewing over the loudspeakers on Lap 198 is, “Andretti is speeding up!”
Even Arnold Palmer would applaud that. It would be fitting and just. But, if racing had any decency, Andretti would be on the pole. If it had a conscience, he would win. And we would all be 25 years younger.
Reprinted with the permission of the Los Angeles Times
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