Time Machine: The Tale Of Two Andrettis

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, May 30 2010

Aldo Andretti is at Indianapolis Motor Speedway today with his son, John, who is driving for the team owned by Mario Andretti's son, Michael. The family is back together. (Photo courtesy of the IZOD IndyCar Series)

By Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer

When Italian-born identical twins Mario and Aldo Andretti first took up their racing ambitions, they alternated behind the wheel of Hudson Hornets built in their adopted hometown of Nazareth, Pa. In an incredible tale of two brothers, from these humble beginnings Mario went on to rock star status due to his racing exploits and Aldo’s career took a separate path. Those Hornets were the last time the brothers raced together on the same team.

At this year’s Indy 500, John Andretti, the son of Aldo Andretti, has finally brought the two family branches back together on the race track on a team carrying the family name, Andretti Autosport. While much of the attention has been focused on the fact that Richard Petty is designated as the car owner for the Window World machine driven by John, the Petty angle is largely ceremonial. It’s John’s way of paying back “The King” for his years driving for Petty Enterprises in NASCAR. In effect, John is driving for Mario’s son and his first cousin Michael.

A little more than a half century ago, Mario and Aldo Andretti fell in love with racing while reading printed exploits in the race-mad Italian press and listening to the news on the radio about the heroics of Grand Prix great Alberto Ascari. The excitement generated by dreams of living the racing life helped the boys weather day-to-day life in a post-war camp with their sister and parents, all displaced from their family’s large farm in the wine country of Trieste.

Despite the privations of seven years in the camp, the 15-year-old twins were a little disappointed about moving to America in 1955, a country that was such a long way from what they considered the center of the racing universe. But the boys quickly found the dirt track at the edge of their newly adopted home town. Four three years later, the teenagers were racing a Hornet recaptured from the junk yard that they built in borrowed garage space using money earned by pumping gas.

The split in the two brothers’ fate started soon after Mario and Aldo began alternating behind the wheel of the Hudson at Eastern Pennsylvania dirt tracks. It was near the end of their first year that a crash in Hatfield left Aldo in a coma and Mario heartsick like never before. He would have to tell their father Gigi about their racing as well as break the news of Aldo’s life-threatening head injury.

“There isn’t a worse thing in your life you could ever see than your own brother lying unconscious,” Mario would later recount in his biography. “Our parents didn’t know and there was nothing I could do. God, it was the end of the world for me.”

While lying unconscious in the hospital, Aldo heard many stories from Mario, including their days of fanatically following Ascari back in Italy. The doctors had suggested Mario talk

Mario Andretti, the more famous of the two racing brothers from Italy. (Photo courtesy of the IZOD IndyCar Series)

to his brother in hopes of stimulating him and helping to bring him back to consciousness – even though last rites had been administered.

Aldo not only regained consciousness. Mario survived the ordeal of telling their father about racing the Hornet. The twins built another one and gradually Gigi acknowledged that the admiration of friends around town in Nazareth, the obvious satisfaction the boys took from racing and the extra pocket money were welcome developments. Then Aldo crashed heavily again, destroying a second Hornet.

Undeterred, the Andrettis built and raced a third Hudson. It was in this car that Mario began to make a name for himself by winning regularly. With the help of his future wife Dee Ann Hoch, a Three-Quarter Midget racer was acquired with financing from his future father-in-law. Despite wisecracks about his size – and sometimes about his Italian heritage – Mario persevered in landing rides in sprint cars and other cars owned by front-running teams in the hotbed of racing in the middle Eastern Seaboard.

Under this old-school ladder approach that eventually led open-wheel driving aspirants to Indy, Mario was nominated by chief mechanic Clint Brawner to substitute for his injured driver in the Champ Car owned by Al Dean. In just five years, Mario won the Indy 500 pole twice, the Daytona 500 as a Ford factory driver in 1967, the Sebring 12-hour sports car race and the Indy 500 in 1969.

In what might be considered part of the Andretti curse at the Speedway, it was three months after his great triumph at Indy that Mario received the phone call about yet another serious accident involving Aldo, who had continued to pursue a racing career in sprint cars. Driving a car  purchased for him by Mario, an accident during a race in Des Moines left Aldo with serious head and facial injuries. By time surgeons had re-built his face, he was no longer instantly recongnizable as Mario’s twin.

Once again, near tragedy brought the Andretti family closer together. Despite a budding career as a Formula One driver and a chance to follow in the footsteps of beloved hero Ascari, Mario signed a promotional agreement with Firestone Tires that meant a commitment to racing Indy cars in America and the rights to operate one of the tire brand’s flagship stores in Indianapolis. As importantly, the Firestone deal opened the door for a business career for Aldo, who reluctantly gave up racing at the age of 30 and took over operating the tire dealership.

After winning the pole at Watkins Glen in his first F1 race in 1968, it was not until 1975 that Mario committed to a full-time career in Formula 1, where he would become the world champion in 1978 driving a Ford-powered Lotus for the team of Colin Chapman. This was almost three full decades after Ascari had won the same title driving for Enzo Ferrari. Aldo, meanwhile, was fully launched into a career as a successful businessman with an engineering company in Indianapolis bearing his name. Whenever his brother Mario practiced and raced at Indianpolis during the month of May, however, Aldo could be found in the pits supporting him.

Each of the first generation of racing Andrettis had sons who prospered in racing and sustained the Andretti family name as a fixture in American motor sports, Mario’s son Michael in Indy cars and Aldo’s son John in sports cars, Indy cars and NASCAR. In another aspect of the now well known Indy curse, the promising career of Mario’s son Jeff was set back by an accident at Indy and eventually ended prematurely. That same year of 1992 at Indy, Michael Andretti led 161 laps before his engine blew up shortly before the finish.

Two years earlier, Mario, Michael and John had shared a factory-backed Porsche 962 prototype at Le Mans. Later, Michael drove alongside his father at Newman/Haas Racing. But after those earliest days of racing the Hudson Hornets, the two original branches of the racing family were not ever part of the same team with the Andretti name on it – until this year’s Indy 500.

– Jonathan Ingram can be reached at jingram@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, May 30 2010
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