Mario Andretti ‘enjoying the heck out of’ 50th anniversary Indy 500 win

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INDIANAPOLIS — Mario Andretti sees the reminders of 1969 everywhere these days.

His face, his race car number, that familiar STP logo, they all appear on an endless array of shirts and jackets, clocks and flags, posters and coasters. Mario Andretti Drive has temporarily replaced the Washington Street sign in downtown Indianapolis. Fans driving through the main gate to Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s infield will pass large banners commemorating the 50th anniversary of Andretti’s first and only Indianapolis 500 win. Anyone who strolls through Gasoline Alley needs a metal badge with Andretti’s image to get inside. There’s even a Mario Andretti Store, right next to the track’s famous pagoda.

When he’s not busy signing autographs, posing for photos or taking fans for a ride in IndyCar’s two-seater, there are countless interview requests.

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At age 79, one of the greatest drivers in racing history is revered as much today as he was all those years ago.

“I know it’s special to him,” said Michael Andretti, the oldest of Mario’s three children. “I think it’s so cool he appreciates it, to see him get honored like this. You know it was the most popular win he ever had.”

Super Mario celebrated many victories during a career that first began as a secret from the parents who moved the family from Italy to the United States in 1955.

Eventually, he made 407 IndyCar starts, won 67 poles and led 7,595 laps – all series records. His 52 career wins are second all-time. Andretti won the 1967 Daytona 500, the 1972 24 Hours of Daytona and the 1978 world championship. He captured four USAC titles, the IROC championship in 1979, even a national dirt track crown in 1974. Twenty years ago, Andretti and A.J. Foyt were named co-Drivers of the Century by The Associated Press.

But his career has largely been defined by what happened in his 29 Indy 500 starts – and that unlikely trip to victory lane.

Mario Andretti
FILE – In this May 8, 1969 AP file photo, Mario Andretti sits calmly in his car as his crew works to put out a fire that blistered some paint, at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Indianapolis.

“What this race brings to you career wise, it’s worth it,” the elder Andretti said. “It’s just euphoria when you cross that finish line first because it means so much for your career. It’s very unfair, trust me, but it’s a fact.”

Andretti learned the significance of winning this race quickly.

He finished third as a rookie in 1965 then won Indy’s pole each of the next two years. After a piston problem forced him out just two laps into the 1968 race, he returned to the Brickyard in 1969 as the favorite.

The expectations suddenly changed when a horrific crash in practice left Andretti with facial burns and forced him into a backup car without the Lotus engine he brought to the track. He started second alongside pole-sitter A.J. Foyt and next to another former race winner, Bobby Unser. On race day, there more problems. Andretti’s oil temperature hit 270 degrees after less than 10 laps. Crew members couldn’t get the right rear tire loose and he ran the entire race without making a single change.

“I didn’t want to waste time in the pits because it would have put me a lap behind easily, and I was competitive, I didn’t want to risk it,” Andretti recalled. “So I just kept saying, `Just keep going, just keep going, just keep going’ the whole race.”

Inside the cockpit, Andretti was in extreme pain from his burns and a blistering back. Somehow, through that, the badly worn tire, and a degrading gearbox, Andretti was able to nurse the car across the bricks before anyone else. His finish time of 3:11:14.71 was the fastest in race history by nearly five minutes and car owner Andy Granatelli planted a kiss on Andretti’s cheek in victory lane. The prize money back then was just shy of $207,000.

“It was never like `Oh, we’ve got this, we’ve got this,”‘ Andretti said. “I didn’t feel like we had anything until we crossed the finish line.”

The family’s fortunes since have become an enduring part of the race. There has never been another Andretti victory.

Watch ‘Drive Like Andretti’ — the NBC Sports feature on Mario

Andretti made 24 more Indy starts and never again reached victory lane though he still owns a 1981 winner’s ring; Unser crossed the finish line first then was docked a position the next day for passing cars coming out of the pits and Andretti was declared the winner. Five months later, Unser won his appeal and was declared the winner.

Michael Andretti qualified for 16 Indy 500s and still holds the title of most laps led by a non-winner. Mario’s other son, Jeff, never finished higher than 15th in his three Indy starts. Michael’s son, Marco, the 2006 runner-up, will make his 14th Indy start Sunday from the No. 10 position. Michael’s cousin, John, started 12 times at Indy and never finished higher than fifth.

That’s 0 for 68 since 1969, though Michael Andretti has won the race five times as a team owner.

“I don’t know what it is, I don’t know if I believe in curses, but there’s something weird going on when you have 73 Andretti starts and one win,” Michael Andretti said.

Like pretty much every May since 1965, the Andretti family is gathering in Indianapolis and there is fresh attention for Mario’s win amid some tough times.

Mario’s wife, Dee Ann, died from a heart attack in July. They were married in 1961. His nephew, John Andretti, is going through a second battle with colon cancer.

Inside the Andretti Autosport hospitality tent and amid all the banter between crew members and drivers, Mario Andretti had a quiet moment to realize just how golden this anniversary is for himself and his family.

“I’m enjoying the heck out of everything for all the obvious reasons,” Mario Andretti said. “It’s fun. I’ve had a lot of fun with it. I’m still living the dream.”

James Hinchcliffe on Andretti: ‘It’s certainly the place I want to be’

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Since before the start of the 2020 NTT IndyCar Series season, James Hinchcliffe tirelessly has worked to ensure the future would include a full-time return in 2021.

And with an opportunity to run the final three races this season with Andretti Autosport, there seems a surefire (albeit unlikely) path.

“If I go out and win all three,” Hinchcliffe joked with IndyCar on NBC announcer Leigh Diffey in an interview Friday (watch the video above), “it would be hard for them to say no, right?”

Regardless of whether he can go unbeaten at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course next weekend or the Oct. 25 season finale at St. Petersburg, Florida (where he earned his first career win in 2013), Hinchcliffe will have the chance to improve his stock with the team that he knows well and now has an opening among its five cars for 2021.

All three of Hinchcliffe’s starts this season — the June 6 season opener at Texas Motor Speedway, July 4 at the IMS road course and the Indianapolis 500 — were with Andretti, where he ran full time in IndyCar from 2012-14.

“Obviously, the plan from January 2020 was already working on ’21 and trying to be in a full-time program,” he said. “I’ve really enjoyed being reunited with Andretti Autosport, and everybody there has been so supportive. It’s been a very fun year for me on track. It’s been kind of a breath of fresh air in a lot of ways.

“It’s certainly the place I want to be moving forward. We’ve been working on that, working on those conversations. Genesys has been an incredible partner in my three races. We’ll be representing Gainbridge primarily, but Genesys will still have a position on our car in the last three.”

Gainbridge is the primary sponsor of the No. 26 Dallara-Honda that was vacated by Zach Veach, who left the team after it was determined he wouldn’t return in 2021. Hinchcliffe can empathize having lost his ride with Arrow McLaren SP after last season with a year left on his deal.

“You never want to earn a ride at the expense of somebody else in the sense that has happened here with Zach,” Hinchcliffe said. “I feel bad that he’s not able to see out the last three races of his season. I’ve got a lot of respect for him off track. He’s been a teammate this year, a colleague for years before that and honestly a friend for years before that. I’ve got a lot of time for him and his family. I understand a little bit of what it’s like in that position and what he’s going through.”

Hinchcliffe is ready to seize the moment, though, starting with the Oct. 2-3 doubleheader race weekend at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He had been hoping to add the Harvest Indy Grand Prix to his schedule and had been working out for the possibility.

“Then last week I had given up hope (and) was resigned that wasn’t happening,” he said. “I told my trainer, ‘I think we’re done for this year.’ Three days later, this call comes. I’m glad we didn’t make that decision too early. I feel great physically.

“I look at it as a great opportunity to continue to show I’ve still got what it takes and should be there hopefully full time next year on the grid.”

Watch Hinchliffe’s video with Leigh Diffey above or by clicking here.