This year's Daytona 500 featured some of the U.S.’s current greatest racers, but we’d like to take this opportunity to remind you of perhaps the greatest American racer – Mario Andretti.
The Italian-born Andretti was just a boy when his family emigrated from a northeastern town, Montona, (now part of Croatia) with a brief stop in an Italian refugee camp, before settling in Nazareth, Penn. But even before Mario came to the States, he was building wooden racecars and pulling them up steep hills in his hometown just for that familiar rush.
When the Andretti family arrived in Nazareth, Mario and twin brother Aldo were thrilled to discover a dirt track right there in their town. Within four years, they had built a racecar, a 1948 Hudson Hornet modified, that they raced in Nazareth and other local tracks. They took turns racing the Hornet and after four races total, each had notched two wins.
Perhaps more impressively, they were able to keep the venture a secret from their parents until Aldo was seriously injured in a crash near the end of the season. The following two seasons Mario won 21 out of 46 modified stock car races. But back then, racers weren’t as limited as they are today and enjoyed the freedom to race in other series and for other companies. If an Indy Car owner invited a stock car racer to drive for him and the racer was interested, the racer would fly, or more likely drive all night to get to the race.
As Mario Andretti entered and won more races and his name became synonymous with speed and victory, he received many such invitations. He ultimately won the Indy 500, the 6 Hours of Daytona (a sports car endurance race) and multiple Grand Prixs in Europe – the last American to do so).
Besides another American racing legend, Dan Gurney, Andretti is the only American to win races in Formula One, Indy Car, World Sportscar Championship and NASCAR. But even more impressive is that he’s the only person to ever win the Indy 500, a Formula One Championship and the Daytona 500.
If it seems like this is a list of accomplishments, it’s simply because Andretti was such a dominant driver. There isn’t a single type of car that Andretti couldn’t hustle quickly. His win in the ’67 Daytona 500 is a testament to his ability.
The 1967 Daytona 500 was his seventh race ever in the Sprint Cup Series (then Grand National Series), and it was only his second Daytona 500. Driving a Holman-Moody Ford, he pulled away from Fred Lorenzen, the winner of the ’65 race. His win is notable not only because of his limited NASCAR experience prior to the race and the fact that he led 112 out of the 200 laps, but also because he’s the only foreign-born racer ever to win the Daytona 500.
There are several other drivers who won more Daytona 500s, who ran the race at a faster pace or who won with a larger margin. But Andretti exemplifies the U.S.’s ideals and his ability to win in every class and on the brightest stages from Daytona and beyond, are worth remembering each time the season begins anew.
Gentlemen, start your engines!