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Happy Birthday, Mario Andretti

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Muhammad Ali. Michael Jordan. Mario Andretti. Jumble them in any order you want, but all three easily qualify as the Greatest Of All Time in their
respective sporting disciplines. Andretti's career came to an end almost two decades ago, but the 74-year-old continues to be more famous than
the majority of drivers who've followed in his wheel tracks. How's that for enduring respect?
We celebrate the Italian-born, American-bred legend today with a collection of photos, stories and facts that hopefully provide a full measure of the man.
Of the 1000 noteworthy items regarding Andretti, you need to know:

  • He raced professionally in Indy cars until he was 54.
  • He won his last Indy car race at 53.
  • He continued to race sporadically until he was 60, when he completed the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 2000.
  • He was immortalized by rap group A Tribe Called Quest in their 1993 song "Award Tour."
  • He competed in 29 Indianapolis 500s, winning the 1969 event.
  • He won the 1978 Formula One World championship.
  • He's the all-time lap leader in Indy car with 7595.
  • He won four Indy Car championships in the years spanning 1965-1994.
  • He won the 1967 NASCAR Daytona 500.
  • He holds the record for Indy car pole positions with 67.
  • He competed in 407 Indy car races, a record, earning 52 wins (second all-time to A.J. Foyt).
  • He earned a class win at the 1995 24 Hours of Le Mans.
  • He won the 1972 24 Hours of Daytona.
  • He earned pole position for the Indy 500 three times.
  • He won the 12 Hours of Sebring three different times.
  • He's the all-time leader in top-3 and top-5 Indy car results.
  • He drove for six different F1 teams including Lotus, Ferrari and Williams.
  • He contested F1 races from 1968-1982, claiming 12 wins from 128 starts.

Although I grew up in awe of Andretti, my transition from pit lane to the world of writing and reporting came after he hung up his helmet. Thankfully, my friend and colleague Robin Miller, Indy car's patron saint (and devil) of open-wheel reporting, started covering Andretti in the 1960s and shared a few
classic tales and opinions about the man he affectionately calls 'Racer.'

"I don't know how many people know this, but he had a two lap lead in the '87 Indy 500 before that sh*tbox he drove broke down. He went back to Gasoline
Alley and 90 media members—90 legitimate media members—followed him back there. He came outside of his garage, spent 15 minutes talking with the boys
about another disappointment and said, I think his closing line was, 'Well, at least they knew we were there today.'
"You come within minutes of winning the biggest race in the world, it all falls apart, and how many guys in today's world would have faced the music like
that and been so professional? Understanding that, sure, he was the story of the month in the race, but to take things in stride like that and to come out
and talk about it. I know it just kind of encapsulates what a professional he was. He's always the first guy you go to for a quote, and he hasn't raced
since the '90s. He's the first guy I ever call because he's very eloquent. Plus he can put things in such good perspective."

"When he flipped the car in 2003, he was driving in that day, got to Gasoline Alley and A.J. Foyt's sitting on a golf cart. Those two never liked each
other, of course. Foyt motions Andretti to come over and Mario rolls down the window of his rental car and Foyt says, 'I guess I'll be the observer in your
rookie test today. I'll be in turn two, don't stuff it…' Sure enough, that's what happens. It wasn't Mario's fault; there was debris left on the
track that tipped his car nose-up and it just went at 220 mph or whatever ungodly speed. It was just perfect. It was just funnier than sh*t to Foyt.
"I was standing down in the first turn when it happened, it happened fast, but he almost made it into the grandstands and he comes down and lands and
you're thinking, how many lives does this guy have? All he had was a little cut on his cheek. That was the only damage…"

"It's Mount Rushmore. Him, A.J. Foyt, Dan Gurney and Parnelli Jones, those are the four guys that were the most versatile, the best, the fastest, whatever
adjective you want to use. But those are the guys that crossed all boundaries. They drove everything and anything they could get their hands on and always
excelled, and that will never happen again. We understand that. But because Parnelli didn't drive Indy cars for but seven or eight years, and Dan had, I
mean, Dan drove Indy cars but that wasn't his primary focus for a long time, it was Formula One. It leaves A.J. and Mario.
"When AP did the Driver of the Century (in 2000), Mario Andretti and AJ Foyt, it was a tie between those two; they were both number one in that story that
was written and I think they had Mario as 1a and A.J. as 1b. The thing is, Foyt was a good sports car racer, he'd go in sports cars, he just didn't drive that many. And he obviously had success in stock
cars. And Midgets and Sprint cars, he was a badass. He had Formula One opportunities, he just turned them down. He didn't want to do it. So just based on
their sheer body of work, it had to be Mario because … to be the Formula One champion and be Indy car champion and to excel and still win races in
your 50s, I mean, I don't know how you can top him. I don't know how anybody could ever top what he has accomplished."

"When AP named Mario No. 1a, I remember I called A.J. and Mario to comment about it and A.J., who had to be 60, said, 'Well, f*ck that. Let's race right
now. I don't want to be f*cking tied with that ***.' He said, 'Anything he wants to race.' I said, 'A.J., what are you going to race, a f*cking school bus?
That's the only thing your fat ass can fit in.' He said, 'Well, I do need to lose about 30 pounds...' I was pretty brave with Foyt on the phone. I could
really mess with him on the phone. So I then called Mario. Mario, of course, is a world of class. 'It's just an honor to be named in the same breath as
A.J. Foyt and he was the yardstick when I started and he was who I measured myself against. And when you beat A.J. Foyt, you've beaten the best.' That's
the way he was."

"I think that the people that are fans in the last 15 and 20 years—kids nowadays are the people that are in their 20s and 30s that never got to see Mario
and A.J. race. I mean, I don't think you could explain to them—I think the thing that was great about Mario and Foyt was they wanted to be in a racecar
every waking minute. They loved testing, they loved driving. Mario he went out he wanted to race something every weekend. And so did Foyt.
"I think the fact that Mario would go over there, run a Formula One race, he'd come back and run a mile dirt race three days later at Du Quoin and then an
Indy car race at Trenton two days after that. I mean, come on, that's just unheard of. And he was always in front. I mean, he was always in front. It
wasn't like he was just showing up. He was always the guy you had to beat, which is standing to his legacy. I don't know that ... I think those four guys
are some of the most versatile, the greatest race car drivers that we'll ever see and I was lucky enough to get to watch them. But I think Mario is probably
at the top just because of the things that he was able to accomplish."

And happy birthday, Mario!

By Marshall Pruett and Robin Miller
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Quite a wheelman! Happy birthday, Mr. Andretti!
Maybe the greatest race driver of all time. Happy Birthday!!
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