Mario Andretti’s victory against all odds at the Indy 500

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

Mario Andretti is the familiar name in the world of IndyCar racing, especially in my house. I grew up hearing about the exploits of this unstoppable driver, and my grandfather was even in the famous 1969 Indy 500. My father sent me to intern 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 as it ended up being one of the key artifacts on display at the Museum speed nation exhibition.

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

If you take a look at the 53rd running of the Indianapolis 500, it’s about two major figures in the racing world, who crossed the checkered flag for the first time together that historic Memorial Day weekend in 1969. It was Mario Andretti and his team owner, Andy Granatelli, who is also known as Mister 500 because of how long he had been involved in the race.

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

“[Granatelli] It had been going around for a long time. He had campaigned all kinds of historic cars…and had never won. [the Indy 500] and the years before 1969 it was so close,” Boles said. “So for him to win in 1969 and for Mario to win in ’69 was special for both of them.” This victory had been the culmination for Andretti since his rookie year in 1965, when he was Rookie of the Year and the IndyCar National Champion.

During the 1969 season, Andretti drove a Lotus. “[The Lotus] I’ve been so successful, but I haven’t been able to win at the Speedway in years past,” Boles said. When practice began for that year’s Indy 500 in early May, “Mario and AJ Foyt … had this incredible competition in pre-qualifying practice,” Boles said. “They were both running over 170 miles per hour around the Speedway, which in 1969 was a big deal.”

The greatness of the Lotus fell apart two days before qualifying began. Andretti hit the wall at turn 4. The Lotus burst into flames leaving the car unusable and Andretti with nasty burns all over his face. With just a day and a half before time trials were due to begin, the pit crew got down to business and prepared the backup car for Andretti, a Brawner Hawk that was already two years old and was never supposed to see the factory. bricks. Andretti does the unthinkable in his new car and “qualifies on the front row in second just a tick shy of 170 miles per hour. Right behind AJ Foyt [on the pole]Boles said.

Andy Granatelli and Mario’s pit crew with the backup Brawner Hawk after qualifying. Credit: Indianapolis Speedway

Andretti jumping from a Lotus to a Brawner Hawk is a remarkable change that not all drivers could successfully make in the middle of May. “Cars drive completely differently,” Boles said. “For them to have to make that change, to have the car ready to go and be competitive with it was quite a feat for them… The weight distribution was different, the aerodynamics were different, it created not only a challenge for the team but Mario had to completely rethink the way he drove because it handled completely differently than Lotus but that is a testament to the team of that day and certainly to Mario’s ability to drive almost any racing car on the face of the earth.

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All the sweat and tears had been carried until May 30, 1969 and until the green flag fell. “From the green flag you knew I was going to compete,” Boles said. “[Andretti] immediately, in that Brawner Hawk, he goes to the front and leads the first 5 laps. AJ [Foyt] he leads a few laps in the race and ultimately Mario leads 116 laps. So the story is even better because the car started the month of May as a backup, but because of an accident involving Mario Andretti, that car probably won’t get a chance to race.

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

Switching to a backup car wasn’t the only wrench thrown at 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 worked throughout the famous 500-mile race.

“That’s another one of those crazy things,” Boles said. “It’s amazing, right? Those are the things that make the story even better. During the 500 mile life, the tires change. Grip levels change, and all of those things change, so Mario has to constantly adapt as the race goes on to different driving situations and the way the car was handling based on what tires he had on the car. and, in particular, a tire that was on the car the entire time.”

Once a driver takes the checkered flag and finds his way to victory lane, it’s Speedway tradition 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 at Victory Lane, which is one of those iconic moments at the Speedway,” Boles said. “So many things came together at the 1969 road course to make it one of the most historic races.”

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

The abundance of interesting stories originating from May 1969 does not end there. It became popular among IndyCar fans that it was not Mario in the front row qualifying photo taken on Monday after qualifying, which Boles confirmed. “Mario’s face was still burned from the accident, so he asked his twin brother, Aldo, to stand in for him in the photo. So when you see those historical photos of that Brawner Hawk right in the middle of the front row, it’s not Mario, it’s his twin brother Aldo replacing him because of the burns Mario had on his face.”

Front row qualifiers for the 1969 Indianapolis 500. Mario Andretti’s twin brother Aldo represents him for the photo after Mario suffered severe facial burns in an accident earlier that month. Credit: Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Doug Boles hadn’t stopped reminding himself of the magic that was 1969. “You asked me earlier, what makes that year special… All these little stories, that make the victory of ’69 with Mario, Andy Granatelli and the Brawner Hawk so special. so special,” Boles said.

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The Andrettis have become a family racing dynasty, but neither has won in the driver’s seat at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway since 1969. Some have come to believe there is a curse on the family never to return. win there ever again. .

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

Despite Andretti’s string of losses at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Boles believes the tide will one day turn: “I think there will be a day when an Andretti wins the 500 again. I don’t think it’s necessarily a curse that’s keeping them from going back to victory lane since 1969.”

Andretti remains a very prominent 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 the whole world, IndyCar racing in particular. , but in other places like F1, he’s still so involved,” Boles said. “He is one of the best ambassadors that our sport has, so to be able to have Mario Andretti here to continue promoting and defending racing. [is] really special.”

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

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 explore America’s thirst for speed. Examine speed in the sky, on land, and in water. In addition to Andretti’s Brawner Hawk, it features many new items that have never been on display at the National Air and Space Museum, such as Richard Petty’s famous NASCAR race car that drove him to his 200th victory.

There are more connections between IndyCar and the race to the Moon than you might think. During the Apollo 10 mission in 1969, “Astronauts were informed that AJ Foyt had won pole [in qualifying] And it’s funny that now, more than 50 years later, we’re sitting here talking about Mario Andretti and that car and its connection to space,” Boles said. “In 1969 we talked a lot about the similarities between motorsports and the aerospace industry and even today our cars use aerospace technologies. The aero components that are there are things that have been tested through NASA and a lot of the experiments and a lot of the missions that NASA has done have improved our sport. So we love the connection and I think the fact that that car lives inside the Air and Space Museum is pretty special. It’s probably exactly where it belongs.”

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