Happy Birthday, Mario.
That’s right – the greatest racing driver who ever lived is beginning his eighth decade today and when looking back over his career it’s safe to say that we’ll never see another like him.
Yes, we might see Formula One drivers as good as him, and sports car drivers, and stock car drivers, and midget and sprint car drivers. But we will never again see anyone who was a champion at all the disciplines and frequently at the same time.
He won the F1 world driving championship in 1978. He won the Daytona 500 in 1967 and the Indianapolis 500 in 1969. He won four Indy car championships in 1965, ‘66, ‘69 and 1984. In all forms of motorsport, he drove in 879 races and won 111 of them. He had 109 poles, to boot.
This, to my mind, is the most amazing statistic and showed – more than anything else – his versatility: In 1974, he drove in F1, Indy cars, sprints and midgets and won – won – the USAC national dirt track championship, on mile ovals at places like Sacramento, Calif., and DuQuoin, Ill., beating out all the legendary names of the day: A.J. Foyt, Al and Bobby Unser, Johnny Rutherford, and on and on.
The first I heard of Mario Andretti was in 1965 when I’d gone to the since-demolished Glendale Theatre (east side of Avenue Rd., north of Lawrence) to see Jim Clark win the Indianapolis 500 on closed-circuit television. Parnelli Jones finished second and Andretti, whose claim to fame to that point was as a midget and sprint car driver, finished third and was named rookie-of-the-year.
There was great excitement that July when Andretti came to Toronto for a U.S. Auto Club midget race at the CNE Grandstand. I have a vivid memory of that warm, sunny evening: Andretti didn’t make the feature and had to be added to the lineup as a "promoter’s option." That’s how tough the competition was in those days. For the record, he finished 18th.
It wasn’t the first time he’d been to Canada. When the Andretti family emigrated to the United States in 1955, the first port of call in North America was Halifax, N.S.
"We had to get off the ship and our names were recorded," Andretti told me once in a telephone interview. "Some of the people on the ship stayed in Canada but we had relatives in America so we went on to New York. There’s a lady in Halifax who’s invited everybody who was there that day to come back for a visit. Maybe I’ll go, one of these years."
His other, major, Canadian connection was his close friendship with the late Canadian racer Billy Foster of Victoria, B.C.
They’d met when they were both rookies at Indy in 1965 and became very close friends. As well as chumming around and travelling to races together, they’d purchased a sports car and took it to the Nassau Trophy Races in the Bahamas in 1966 and took turns driving it.
Foster was killed at Riverside, Calif., early in 1967 while practicing for a NASCAR stock car race and it had an enormous effect on Andretti.
"He was the finest man I ever knew and one with an amazing potential as a race driver," Andretti told me in an interview in Vancouver in the mid-1990s.
"After he died, I never wanted to be buddies with anyone in racing again. Race driving is a dangerous business and these things happen but it affected me tremendously. It was tough on my wife, too, because she and Bill's wife were close. We travelled together, we went everywhere together."
When Billy Foster was inducted into the Canadian Motorsport Hall of Fame in 1993, I represented the Foster family at the ceremony. Several years later, I met Foster’s son, Bill Jr., who was working as a police officer in Victoria, at the Vancouver Molson Indy and gave him his father’s plaque and arranged for him to spend some time with Andretti.
Foster Jr. brought some memorabilia with him that day – postcards that Mario and his wife, Dee Ann, had sent Billy Foster and his wife, pictures of Mario and Billy together away from the track (one was of the two of them riding motorcycles; Mario autographed it for Bill Jr. with the inscription, "the original Hell’s Angels") and speedway programs where they’d raced against each other.
As he got up to leave, Andretti turned to Foster Jr. and said: "If I could spend one more day on this Earth with anyone I wanted, it would be with your dad."
Following Foster’s death, Andretti went on to race many times in Canada – at Mosport and Mont Tremblant in the Indy cars in ‘67 and ‘68, in Formula One at Mosport starting with Ferrari in 1971 and ending with Alfa Romeo in ‘81 at Montreal, and in CART Indy car races at Toronto and Vancouver until his retirement in 1994.
Strangely, except for the two races at Mont Tremblant way back in the 1960s, which he swept, Mario Andretti never visited Victory Lane in this country.
I'll leave it to others to fill in the blanks so far as the rest of his glorious career is concerned but it goes without saying that it's always been a pleasure to watch him race and to represent the world of racing as well as he does.
And he's always available for an interview.
Have a great day, Mario. And have many, many more.