Mario Andretti ‘using the cushion’ during qualifying for the ‘Sacramento 100’ Champ Car event, California, Fall 1969…
The ‘Sacramento 100’ was contested at the California Sate Fairgrounds, in Sacramento California, 100 laps of a 1 mile oval on 28 September. The event was won by Al Unser from Gary Bettenhausen and brother Bobby Unser. Mario had a loss of oil pressure, retiring his 1960 Kuzma D/Offy on lap 83, winning $853 for his efforts…
One of my mates contends that the title of ‘most versatile racer ever’ goes to John Surtees hands down, its hard to argue with the ‘World Championships on two wheels and four’ line of logic. The only other contenders are Mike Hailwood and, perhaps Johnny Cecotto with Hailwood the far better credentialled of the two on four wheels.
But what about most versatile on four wheels?
Right up until the 1970’s the nature of drivers contracts allowed them to race in other classes, in fact the pro’s needed to race lots of cars to earn the start and prize-money to eke out a living. The likes of Jim Clark could and would jump from Lotus Cortina, to Lotus 30 Sports Car, to Lotus 25 GP car, and then some, in British National Meetings.
It isn’t necessarily the case that drivers will be equivalently quick in single seaters, sports cars, touring cars, on bitumen and dirt, and road and speedway courses, but that is the criteria to apply in working out our ‘most versatile’.
If we limit ourselves to the absolute elite, Grand Prix Winners, there are a few names which usually come up in these conversations; Stirling Moss, Jack Brabham, Graham Hill, John Surtees, Dan Gurney and Mario Andretti to name a few.
I am not discounting the Pre-War aces who raced GP and Sports cars on varying surfaces, but suggest the greater variety of cars was available to post-war rather than pre-war drivers.
Moss apart from his obvious success in GP and Sports cars, also rallied successfully.
Brabhams career started on Sydney Speedways, and then encompassed single seaters of all types, front and mid-engined like most of his peers, some sports cars, and some touring cars. He also raced ‘Champcars’ and CanAm. So Jack has to be ‘up there’ in consideration.
John Surtees is very similarly credentialled to Brabham without the Speedway or equivalent dirt experience.
Dan Gurney is also similarly credentialled to Jack, but without the dirt background. He came from the West Coast Sports Car scene, not through the rough and tumble of Dirt Speedways, and then into Road Racing in the way AJ Foyt, Parnelli Jones and Mario Andretti did.
Mario is hard to toss as our ‘most versatile ever’…
He started in Speedway racing sedans and midgets, then into faster cars, dirt champcars, paved speedway champcars, into Nascar whilst still racing on Dirt Speedways and then as he built his name and reputation into road racing.
He was scooped up for the factory Ford GT40 program, to Lotus in Grands Prix, and all the rest, but still, well into the 1970’s racing speedway…he walked away from GP racing for a while in the early-70’s as he could not get the driving variety he sought by signing a restrictive F1 contract, ‘Vels Parnelli’, the American team with whom he made his F1 comeback allowing that freedom.
Its interesting to look at just one season, 1969 to see the breadth of cars, classes, surfaces, and circuit types on which he raced, just to test my contention…
Early in the year he raced at Sebring, co-driving a factory Ferrari 312P with Chris Amon…
In March he did the first of three 1969 Grands’ Prix for Lotus… the South African GP, he also contested the German GP at the Nurburgring and US GP at Watkins Glen later in the year.
His first GP was at Watkins Glen, in upstate New York, the year before, 1968, he put his Lotus 49 on pole, really shaking the established order. In 1969 he drove both the conventional Lotus 49 and experimental, four-wheel drive Lotus 63, quite different challenges, the latter a very unsuccessful car.
His primary program for 1969 was the USAC Championship…
Most of May was spent at Indy, very successfully, winning the 500 in his turbo-charged Brawner Hawk III Ford V8 on the famous Super Speedway. He won the 1969 USAC Championship which was contested on five dirt speedways, ten races on paved tracks, eight on road courses, and a hillclimb, this series alone a true test of a drivers versatility and adaptability.
In late June he contested the Pikes Peak Hillclimb…winning it in a mid-engined Chevy V8 powered open-wheeler on the famous dirt course 12.4 mile ‘climb to the clouds’.
The CanAm was run annually in the Summer…Holman & Moody entering a Ford 429 powered McLaren M6B in several of the events, not a particulary competitive car but another quite different driving and engineering challenge. Andretti in a factory McLaren M8B would have been quite someting to watch!
Mario only did one Nascar event in 1969…at Riverside in February, one of the road racing circuits on the tour, it was never a big part of his career but still demonstrates his versatility.
Mario raced on 34 weekends in 1969…his season commenced with a front-engined rear drive Ford Nascar and then a Ferrari mid-engined 3 litre V12 sports prototype…the Lotus’ GP cars he raced were the 3 litre Ford Cosworth normally aspirated V8 powered 2WD 49, and the 4WD 63.
His Hawk ‘Indycar’, for paved road-courses and speedways was a mid-engined single-seater, 2WD car powered by a turbo-charged Ford V8, but he also practiced the Lotus 64 mid-engined 4WD Turbo Ford at Indy.
His dirt-track ‘Kuzma’ was a front engined, rear drive 4 cylinder Offy powered single seater His McLaren CanAm car a mid-engined sports car powered by a normally aspirated 429CID Ford, finally his Pikes Peak car was a Chev engined ‘Grant King’.
The variety of cars and different driving challenges are enormous, the differences in cars and venues in one year of his career qualifies him as our most versatile ever! Let alone the other four decades in which he competed.
Andretti won the World Drivers Championship in a Lotus 79 Ford in 1978…he returned to Indycars after leaving F1, his last Indycar win in 1993, perhaps the only big win which eluded him is at Le Mans, but he was successful elswhere in sports cars of course.
He is synonymous with speed, and revered globally as a champion driver, sportsman and ambassador for our sport…he is also, surely, the most versatile driver ever?
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