Mario's magic shines again

Mario Andretti and Bobby Rahal discuss Andretti's career during the Road Racing Drivers Club Dinner at Long Beach. John Oreovicz/ESPN

LONG BEACH, Calif. -- Al Unser Jr. eventually matched and surpassed Mario Andretti's total of four Long Beach Grand Prix victories. But many still consider Mario the "King of the Beach."

That much was obvious Thursday night when Andretti was honored at the sixth annual Road Racing Driver's Club dinner at the Long Beach Hilton. A crowd of around 400 fans and industry legends -- including 11 other Indianapolis 500 winners -- were in for a treat as RRDC president and event MC Bobby Rahal expertly guided Andretti through numerous stories about key moments in his career.

In a poignant moment, Andretti was joined on stage by his twin brother Aldo, whose own promising racing career was cut short by a pair of terrible accidents more than 50 years ago.

Though his career took him around the world, the talk often came back to Long Beach, which Andretti called "an incredibly special place" to him and his family. Mario's victory in the 1977 LBGP -- the second time the fledgling event was run as a Formula One race and the first (and to date, only) win in a U.S. Formula One race for an American driver -- is credited by LBGP founder Chris Pook as perhaps the most important moment in the 40-year history of the famous street race.

Mario went on to win the first LBGP run for Indy cars in 1984, and he added CART-sanctioned victories in 1985 and '87. In addition, Mario's son Michael Andretti claimed the first and last of his 42 Indy car race wins at Long Beach.

But what was perhaps Mario's most memorable Long Beach moment didn't come on the race track. It came in a hotel restaurant, in a chance encounter with Lotus F1 team owner Colin Chapman less than 24 hours after Andretti drove what he thought might have been his last F1 race with Vel's Parnelli Jones Racing.

"It's amazing how some things happen," Andretti said. "I was given the notice by none other than Chris Economaki at Long Beach on the grid. I think Parnelli forgot to tell me that they were going to pull the plug on the program. The next morning, I'm having breakfast at the Queensway Hilton, all alone. My wife didn't even join me, I was so pissed. Colin was a few tables away, and obviously his chin was in his socks as well. He said they had probably had the worst race of his career, and I said 'Join the crowd.' He said 'Why don't you join me? But I have nothing to offer you, and I know the cars are really not what you'd like.'

"Motor racing was not his priority at the time, so I said, 'Colin, if you come back to motor racing 100 percent, I'll do that.' But I had to be No. 1 on the team, because I knew Colin didn't have two or three of the best, whether it was engine, chassis or whatever. That's the deal we made. If you look at Colin's career, it's all peaks and valleys. If you were with him during the peaks, usually there was a pretty good chance to put some numbers up."

That's exactly what Andretti did, taking advantage of Chapman's last true burst of genius. Andretti and the Lotus team improved gradually throughout 1976, winning the final race of the season in Japan. But it was the revolutionary ground effect Lotus 78 model the following year that turned Mario into a regular F1 winner. He took four Grand Prix wins and finished second to Niki Lauda in the World Championship, a result that could have been easily reversed.

In 1978, the refined Lotus 79 gave Andretti the advantage he needed to dominate the championship, his six wins making him only the second American to earn an F1 title. Mario's memories of Chapman, who died of a heart attack in 1982, extend well beyond the race track.

"I had a Piper Navajo, the same plane as his," Andretti recalled. "Turbocharged engine, you had to warm up the oil and so forth. We're leaving Hethel [the village where Lotus is based], we're going to Silverstone, and it's a chilly morning in England. He doesn't do any warm-up, just ramps the engine up. The oil pressure, all the gauges are right up in the red, and of course once you get too much oil pressure, it bypasses the filter which means your turbos sooner or later are going to fail. I used to get like 700 hours out of my turbos and he'd get 50.

"Silverstone had a grass field, and one morning we waited to watch him come in. It was a cold wet morning, you're landing in a field so of course you were gonna go long. He pitches that thing in sideways -- have you ever seen a plane going sideways? Then he taxis right up like it was nothing. I didn't fly with him unless I really, really had to."

The other F1 team that Mario is closely associated with is Ferrari. He scored his first F1 win in a Ferrari in the 1971 South African Grand Prix, and he wrapped up his time in F1 with a few races for the legendary Italian squad in 1982. Andretti was a full-time sports car racer for Ferrari in the 1970s, but never a full-time member of the Scuderia's F1 team.

"It seemed like whenever I got a bona fide offer from Ferrari, I couldn't do it. And vice versa -- when I was ready, their seats were taken," Andretti said. "We always had a relationship but what's important is that I pretty much started my F1 career with them and ended it there too.

"At the end of '77 we were in a contract year with Lotus, and I already had a handshake with Colin to run another three years. But we didn't sign a contract. At Monza, Mr. Ferrari said he had to talk to me. It's always tough to talk money, but with him it was like being with Walt Disney -- he thought you should just be happy to be there. Walt Disney never paid Mickey Mouse anything!

"I told Mr. Ferrari I had a handshake with Colin, and he said that's what lawyers are for. It came down to money, and I knew what I got out of Colin, so I doubled it. And he said OK. I basically said we have a deal. The next day I'm in the States, and I got a telegram from Ferrari saying 'I don't think we can finish the deal.' I came to find out that half an hour after I left, Colin Chapman went in there and just ripped him to bits. I ended up getting Colin to triple that! I said, 'Colin, you don't want an unhappy driver ... "

Andretti also shared some tales about the lighter side of racing. Although not a notorious prankster, he was certainly involved in his share of hijinks in the relaxed, less commercial era of the 1960s and '70s.

One story involved submerging a Hertz rental car in the Atlantic Ocean at Daytona Beach in 1966 following his first run in what is now known as the Rolex 24 at Daytona International Speedway.

"In those days, we had one driving suit for a 24-hour race," Andretti said. "I was teamed with Pedro Rodriguez in a Luigi Chinetti Ferrari. We finished the race, and our hotel was a few miles up the way in Ormond Beach. So I drove right down to the beach with this beautiful Hertz car -- I think it was a brand new Ford Fairlane or something. I was weaving around, just taking in a little bit of the wake, running in the water, and finally we were just sucked right in. We had water up to our knees.

"I was really ashamed but at least we were getting washed up a little bit," he added. "I mean, we stank! So then I had to go find a payphone, and I looked all scruffy and had to ask people for a dime so I could call Hertz. Avis was really a good company after that."

On another occasion, Andretti duct-taped fellow Indy car competitor Bobby Unser into a phone booth at Handford, Calif.

"He had it coming," Mario said with a grin. "I don't know why he was riding with me, maybe he was too cheap to get a rental car -- but we're driving, again, in a brand-new Hertz car. I'm coming off the freeway and he blindfolds me. Of course, boom, we hit a curb and blow the left front tire. I said, 'I'm not going to change a tire!' so I just kept driving and the thing pretty much caught fire. I finally pulled over, and Bobby starts jumping up and down on the roof of my car, trying to stop somebody. Who stops? Danny Jones of Ford. I said, 'Where the hell is the spare tire in this thing?' He goes in the trunk to look, so we jumped in his car and took off!

After that I felt we owed Bobby one. The next day we're all waiting to qualify. After I ran, I paged Bobby Unser to take an emergency call in a phone booth. He ran over there and I taped him in. [Chief mechanic] Jud Phillips was looking for him and he missed his qualifying run. Can you imagine that today?

"Of course, there was some retaliation later."

The thing about Mario Andretti is although his full-time driving career ended 20 years ago, he never really lost relevance. Modern Indy car drivers still treat him with reverence, and even though he's 74 years old, you get the idea he could jump in a car today, run a few laps and stick it in the top 10.

It took some convincing for Mario to finally be honored by the RRDC, but everyone present Thursday night was grateful that he finally allowed it to happen. Stories from living legends are always better when they're told first-hand.