Indy 500 victory against all odds for Mario Andretti


The summer of 1969 was memorable. It was the summer when we first saw a person walk on the surface of the Moon, creating an unforgettable historic moment in space exploration. But the summer of 1969 was also the summer of the IndyCar racing history books. It gave Hall of Fame driver Mario Andretti his first and only victory in the Indianapolis 500m.

Mario Andretti is the household name in IndyCar racing, especially back home. I grew up hearing about the exploits of this unstoppable driver, and my grandfather was even at the famous Indy 500 in 1969. My father sent me to my internship at the National Air and Space Museum with one goal: to find out where the Smithsonian kept the car. that Andretti drove to victory in 1969. It was a pretty easy mystery to solve since he ended up being one of the main artifacts on display at the museum. speed nation exposure.

The mystique of the 1969 Indianapolis 500 is something that has stuck with me since I was a kid. I always felt it was a pretty special race and when I sat down with Doug Boles, the current president of Indianapolis Motor Speedway, I found he felt the same way.

If you look back at the 53rd running of the Indianapolis 500, it comes down to two important personalities in the racing world, who crossed the checkered flag for the first time together that historic Memorial Day weekend in 1969. They were Mario Andretti and his equally legendary team owner Andy Granatelli, who might be better known as Mister 500 due to his long involvement in racing.

Mario Andretti in the driver’s seat of his backup pilot Brawner Hawk. Credit: Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

“[Granatelli] had been coming for a long time. He had campaigned for all kinds of historic cars… and he had never won. [the Indy 500] and the years before 1969 he had come so close,” Boles said. “So for him to win in 1969 and for Mario to win in 1969 was special for both of them.” This win had been the pinnacle for Andretti since his rookie year in 1965 when he was both Rookie of the Year and IndyCar National Champion.

During the 1969 season, Andretti drove a Lotus. “[The Lotus] had been so successful, but unable to win at Speedway in previous years,” Boles said. When practice for that year’s Indy 500 began in early May, “Mario and AJ Foyt … had this incredible competition in practice leading up to qualifying,” Boles said. “Both were going over 170 miles per hour around the Speedway, which in 1969 was a really big deal.”

The greatness of the Lotus crumbled two days before the start of qualifying. Andretti hit the wall in Turn 4. The Lotus caught fire, leaving the car inoperable and Andretti with nasty burns all over his face. With just a day and a half before the start of timed practice, the pit crew got to work setting up the backup car for Andretti, a Brawner Hawk who was already two years old and never supposed to see the brickyard. . Andretti does the unthinkable in his new car and “qualifies first in second just a tick under 170 miles per hour. Just behind AJ Foyt [on the pole]“, said Boles.

Andy Granatelli and the Mario pit crew with substitute Brawner Hawk after qualifying. Credit: Indianapolis Motor Speedway

Andretti going from a Lotus to a Brawner Hawk is a remarkable change that not every driver would be able to pull off halfway through May. “The cars behave completely differently,” Boles said. “For them to have to make that change, get the car ready and be competitive with it was quite a big feat for them… The weight distribution was different, the aerodynamics were different, it not only created a challenge for the team, but Mario had to completely rethink the way he drove because he behaved completely differently from that Lotus. But it’s a testament to the team of the time and certainly Mario’s ability to drive just about any racing car on Earth surface.

All the sweat and tears had led to May 30, 1969 and the fall of the green flag. “From the green flag you knew he was going to compete,” Boles said. “[Andretti] immediately, in this Brawner Hawk, passes in front and leads the first 5 laps. A J [Foyt] leads a few laps in the race and finally Mario leads 116 laps. So the story is even better because the car started May as a substitute, but for an accident involving Mario Andretti, that car probably didn’t get a chance to run.

STP Hawk No. 2 by Mario Andretti, in the collection of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

Switching to a spare car was not the only key thrown into Andretti’s 1969 Indy 500 plan. During several pit stops, the Brawner Hawk’s right rear tire could not be changed because the pit crew was unable to remove the tire from the car. The tire remained on the car and traveled the 500 miles of the famous race.

“It’s another one of those crazy things,” Boles said. “It’s amazing, isn’t it? So those are the things that make the story even better. Over the life of 500 miles, the tires change. Grip levels change, and all of these things change, so Mario has to constantly adapt over the course of the race to different driving situations and how the car was handling depending on the tires that were on the car and in especially a tire that was on the car the whole time.

Once a driver takes the checkered flag and finds his way to victory lane, it is a tradition at the Speedway for the queen of the Indianapolis 500 to kiss the winner. It looked a little different for Mario Andretti, “Of course there’s the kiss on the cheek that Andy gave Mario in Victory Lane, which is one of those iconic Speedway moments,” said Boles. “So much came together on the circuit in 1969 to make it one of the most historic races ever.”

Team owner Andy Granatelli kisses Mario Andretti on the cheek after winning the 1969 Indy 500. Credit: Indianapolis Motor Speedway

The abundance of interesting stories that come out of May 1969 doesn’t stop there. Among IndyCar fans, it has become a tradition that it was not Mario in the front-row qualifying photo taken Monday after qualifying, which Boles confirmed. “Mario’s face was still burned from the accident, so he asked his twin brother, Aldo, to replace him in the photo. So when you see these historic photos of this Brawner Hawk right in the middle of the front row , it’s not Mario, it’s his twin brother Aldo who replaces him because of the burns Mario had on his face.

First-row qualifying for the 1969 Indianapolis 500. Mario Andretti’s twin brother Aldo portrays him for the picture after Mario’s face was badly burned in an accident earlier that month. Credit: Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Doug Boles hadn’t finished reminiscing about the magic of 1969. “You asked me earlier what makes this year special… All those little stories, that that victory in 1969 with Mario, Andy Granatelli and the special Brawner Hawk,” Boles said.

The Andrettis have become a family dynasty in racing, but not one of them has claimed victory at the controls of Indianapolis Motor Speedway since 1969. Some have come to believe there is a curse on the family to never win there again. .

“One of the things about racing, especially 50 years ago when Mario Andretti was in his prime, superstitions were a big thing in sports,” Boles said. “I think that’s less the case now, but there was a period where there was this streak of bad luck from Andretti.” Since 1969, five Andrettis have run in the 500m. Mario has raced at the Speedway 29 times with one win. His son Michael has attempted 16 times on the speedway and his grandson Marco has entered 17 times, most recently in 2022. Mario’s other son Jeff has driven the 500m three times and failed to qualify twice. John Andretti, the son of Mario’s twin brother Aldo, had 12 starts.

Despite Andretti’s losing streak at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Boles believes one day the tide will change: “I think there will be a day when an Andretti wins the 500m again. I don’t think it’s necessarily a curse that has kept them off the winning path again since 1969.”

Andretti is still a very important face in the racing world today.

“One of the things that makes Mario so special is the longevity of his racing career, but the longevity of his involvement in our sport, and when I say our sport, I mean globally – especially racing from IndyCar but other places like F1 – he’s still so involved,” Boles said. “He’s one of the best ambassadors for our sport, so to be able to have Mario Andretti here, to continue to promote and defend the race [is] really special.

Mario Andretti’s Indy500 winning race car on display in Nation of Speed. Credit: Smithsonian/Jim Preston National Air and Space Museum.

More than 50 years later, Andretti’s iconic Brawner Hawk makes its debut at the National Air and Space Museum in the speed nation exhibit, on loan from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. speed nation explores America’s thirst for speed. It examines speed in the sky, on land and on water. In addition to Andretti’s Brawner Hawk, it features many new items that have never been displayed at the National Air and Space Museum, such as Richard Petty’s famous NASCAR race car which he drove to his 200th victory.

There are more links between IndyCar and the race to the moon than you might think. During the Apollo 10 mission in 1969, “the astronauts were informed that AJ Foyt had won the pole [in qualifying] and it’s funny that now over 50 years later we’re sitting here talking about Mario Andretti and this car and its connection to space,” Boles said. “In 1969 we talked a lot about the similarities between motorsports and aerospace and even today our cars use aerospace technologies. The aerodynamic components in them are things that have been tested by NASA and many experiments and many NASA missions have enhanced our sport, so we love the connection and I think the fact that this car lives inside the Air and Space Museum is quite special. That’s probably exactly where it belongs.


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