Top Stories from the Sports pages of the International Herald Tribune,
Friday, June 14, 1996

Andretti, 56, Gears Up for Le Mans

By Brad Spurgeon International Herald Tribune
LE MANS, France - Some might say that Mario Andretti, at 56, is pushing his luck. He's racing again this weekend in the world's most prestigious long-distance car race, the 24 Hours of Le Mans, where he has competed five times without a victory.

Then again, after being voted Driver of the Quarter Century in 1992 by peers and journalists and being the oldest winner of an IndyCar race in 1993, at 53 years and 34 days, some might say he's not trying his luck at all but just continuing to forge his reputation.

With 100 victories in several disciplines over five decades including 52 victories and four drivers' titles in IndyCar, the World Championship drivers' title in Formula One, and a victory at the Indianapolis 500 Andretti is not satisfied. There's still this one major race that has eluded him.

''The Le Mans thing became to me something of a symbol because of the terrible tragedy in 1955,'' he said in an interview this week, referring to the famous accident in which 82 spectators were killed after a car spun off the track. ''I was on my way over on the boat on our voyage to the United States, and the big news came on board of this accident. I was 15 years old. And that's when it really hit home, the magnitude of the event.''

Of course, the teenage Mario had already been following European racing for years, watching his hero, Alberto Ascari, win the Mille Miglia and other historic races. When he and his twin brother, Aldo, came to America, it was to conquer U.S. car racing.

''In those days, man, you were shooting from the hip,'' he said of his effort to break into racing in the 1950s. ''We were a bunch of high-school kids, and we pooled some money together and we built this car. I borrowed $500 from the bank. We grew up in Nazareth, in Pennsylvania, where they were running modified stock cars.''

In the 1960s, Mario graduated from stock cars to oval racing on the IndyCar circuit. In 1965, as a rookie at Indianapolis, he met Colin Chapman, the legendary chief of the Lotus team. Andretti remembers: ''I said to Colin, 'You know what I would like to do? I would like to do some Formula One, sooner rather than later.' And he said, 'Mario, when you think you're ready, just call me.' ''

That's when the idea of Le Mans came back. Ford Motor Co. had a Le Mans sports-car racing program, and Mario signed up. ''I wanted to rack up miles and miles on a road course and drive alongside Dan Gurney, Bruce McLaren, established road racers that I could learn from,'' he said. ''Three years later, '68, I called Colin and I said, 'I'd like to have a go.' ''

He started on pole position in his first Formula One race, the U.S. Grand Prix, and became world champion in 1978. ''The Le Mans thing spurred all this,'' he said. His first Le Mans was in 1966. He won the 12 Hours of Sebring in 1969, 1970 and 1972 and raced in Le Mans three more times.

But he never won.

Last year, Andretti drove with the same team he will be with this year, the private French team owned by Yves Courage, in a car powered by a Porsche engine. He has two younger but experienced drivers to share his car, Derek Warwick and Jan Lammers.

Having won only one Indianapolis 500 in 29 starts, Andretti developed a stigma that came to be known as ''Andretti luck.'' He nearly won the race several times, but one thing or another went wrong. Will a similar stigma continue to haunt him at Le Mans?

''I've driven for 36 years straight,'' he said. ''And I only lost two races because of injuries. I look at myself as the luckiest man alive.

''Yes, if Indy was 400 miles, I would have had six on my mantel. I don't know how to explain that. The man upstairs has the last word. When it's your day, it's your day.''

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