One & Done: Mario Andretti captures the 1967 Daytona 500, his lone NASCAR victory
In the world of sports, athletes often dedicate their entire lives to reaching the pinnacle of their profession, but for many, life at the top can be short-lived. Sometimes all a player gets to experience at the highest level is one minute on the court, one trip to the plate, one shot on goal or one checkered flag, but more often than not, that fleeting moment in the spotlight is a story all its own. This is One and Done, a FOX Sports series profiling athletes, their paths to success and the stories behind some of sports’ most ephemeral brushes with glory.
Shortly after Mario Andretti picked up the phone, I offered up a preemptive apology. "Forgive me if I ask anything too simplistic," I lamented before our interview started. "Stock cars are, admittedly, not my forte."
It was at that point that the racing legend stopped me, let out a laugh and offered up a confession of his own, calming my nerves with one simple statement: "Don’t worry," Andretti assured me last month, "they’re not mine, either."
Of course, you’d have never known that watching the 1967 Daytona 500, where Andretti topped 49 other drivers in his seventh NASCAR start to win the sport’s biggest race. But if Andretti says he’s not a stock car expert, then he’s not a stock car expert — which makes his unexpected win on that frigid Florida day that much more impressive.
"It’s almost bigger every year, quite honestly," said the Hall of Famer Andretti, who is the only driver to win the Indy 500, Daytona 500 and Formula One World Championship during a career that covered virtually every circuit in the sport. "You don’t see as much movement among drivers from discipline to discipline anymore.
"In the last few years, you’ve had some moving between Indianapolis and Charlotte for the 600 race and so forth, but in those days there was more movement, with A.J. Foyt, Parnelli Jones, Dan Gurney, Gordon Johncock — guys like that — going back and forth. But today you don’t see that, so it’s very unlikely that that’s going to happen again, that somebody from another discipline is going to come in and win.
"So I look back, and that is one of the very special moments of my career, for sure."
So I look back and that is one of the very special moments of my career, for sure.
Over the course of his epic career, Andretti made 14 starts on the NASCAR circuit and finished only four of them with a running car — one of which was his qualifying race two days before his 500 win. So to say his victory at Daytona was astonishing would be an understatement.
Still, Andretti, who was two days shy of his 27th birthday when he took the checkered flag, was placed on Ford Racing’s top factory team, Holman Moody, alongside Fred Lorenzen, one of the most dominant drivers of the golden era of NASCAR racing. And when he showed up at the track, Andretti did so with the expectation that he would win, even if his equipment wasn’t up to the standard he expected.
"It started out as a not-so-good situation in practice, in qualifying, and they were not giving me really good engines," said Andretti, who finished sixth in his qualifier, which at the time counted for points in the Grand National standings.
"Apparently, they had to figure, ‘Well, he’s here, he’s going to have some fun,’ and they didn’t take me very seriously. But I started to find out from other drivers and so forth — asking questions about what I should be pulling with the gear that I had, and I was at least 400 revs short — so I started complaining. I went over the team’s head and went to some individuals in Detroit and finally I got a decent engine, after I qualified."
Even with an improved engine, Andretti had to modify his approach to make his car work for him. He had his team keep the car as loose as possible, which led to plenty of sliding in the corners. Andretti often rode close to the wall because he didn’t want to be passed on the outside, and because he was running with a shallower spoiler than most drivers, it was important for him to stay at or near the front of the pack, as drafting wasn’t really an option.
As a result, Andretti led 112 of the race’s 200 laps.
"If I would have had a stronger engine qualifying, I would have qualified with a 45-degree spoiler, much higher, and I would have been more comfortable in the race," Andretti said. "But the way it turned out, I had no choice. In the race, I had the back end hanging out, and even the announcer at the time, Chris Economaki, was saying, ‘Oh, I think Mario is having some oil leak somewhere because there’s smoke.’ But I was smoking the right rear tire.
"It was maybe unorthodox vis a vis what the going thing was with veteran drivers, but I had them a little bit confused and it worked in my favor."
Andretti made his final pit stop on Lap 163 and left the track well ahead of the second-place Lorenzen. But by the time both drivers exited pit row, it was Lorenzen who was in the lead by several seconds. And to Andretti, his teammate’s sudden change of fortune was more than just a coincidence.
"Freddie was the golden boy of NASCAR at the time," Andretti said. "They had more interest in him winning than me, and that kind of teed me off a little bit. … They didn’t consider my effort a serious effort, even though I did."
"It was absolutely intentional," Andretti added. "They had orders to hold me, and they held me back for about seven seconds. I was furious because they held the car up on the jack. It dawned on me what they were doing because the work was done. I knew that the tires were changed and everything else, and they’re all looking around and they let him go and he’s already almost in Turn 1 when they dropped me off.
"I put it in gear and I was about ready to raise havoc, and that’s when they let the jack fly and I went. But I was a bit upset at the time, as you could imagine."
Soon, though, Andretti would recapture the lead, and he remained at the front of the pack for the final 33 laps.
Andretti won the race under caution after Richard Petty — winner of 27 of his 48 starts in 1967 –blew his engine with two laps to go, but with a 20-second lead when the yellow flag came out, the result was no longer in question.
I always looked at it this way: It’s just like going to someone else’s sandbox and winning their game.
"I always looked at it this way: It’s just like going to someone else’s sandbox and winning their game," Andretti said. "It’s the same as if, say, Richard Petty would have come to Indianapolis and won that race over all of us who specialized in that. I did not specialize (in stock car racing) and I was driving against the best of the best — the Pearsons, the Pettys, the Yarboroughs, all the top icons of NASCAR were there — and it was really an incredible field, with (50) cars. It was unbelievable. And it was a sense of pride for me and an incredible feeling of satisfaction."
And though there may have been concern that Andretti’s victory might not sit well with the more established NASCAR drivers, he found that wasn’t the case at all.
"Racers are racers, I don’t care where, and they knew what I had to do," Andretti said. "So I like to think — I talk even today to the Buddy Bakers and Darrell Waltrips and people like that — they gave me their respect, and that’s more valuable to me than anything else."
Not valuable enough, however, to want to spend much more time on the NASCAR circuit.
Andretti would drive in three more NASCAR races in 1967, crashing out of all three and never finishing better than 19th. He then raced three times in 1968 before making his final NASCAR appearance at the 1969 Motor Trend 500 at Riverside. Four months later, he won the Indianapolis 500, and nine years after that, he won the Formula One World Championship.
"I would not change a thing," Andretti said of his career. "My specialty was open-wheel, single seaters. Those are the real thoroughbreds, and I did exactly what I wanted to do. I have absolutely no regrets whatsoever. I had choices that I could have made throughout my career, and I’m totally happy with the ones I made, absolutely, 100 percent."
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