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My Favorite Car: Mario Andretti

Note: This is the first of a series of interviews with Indianapolis 500 legends about the favorite car they drove in “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” and why, in their words. “My Favorite Car” interviews will appear on IMS.com on Mondays through the spring. Read other installments of "My Favorite Car" here.

Q: What was your favorite car you drove in the Indianapolis 500?

Mario Andretti: Looking at the whole picture, it was my ’87 Lola, no question. When I look back, it didn’t hurt that I had probably one of the best or the best engineer that ever lived so far, Adrian Newey, with me on that car. The bottom line is if you look back, I think I was quickest pretty much every day I was on track. I was on pole with that. We even won the pit stop competition, which doesn’t have anything to do with the car, but we were on a roll. It’s one of the times when I really felt at the beginning of the race a ‘today, they’ve got to beat me’ kind of thing. It’s a very rare feel that you could have before the race. It’s the only time ever that just before, maybe 10 minutes before the start, we were on the grid and on pole, and we changed the front springs because we had the car so dialed in, track temperatures and all that. We changed the front springs only by 50 pounds. And I’ve never had a car that remained neutral throughout the race. Quite honestly, what beat me was I was too easy on the engine.

Q: What? Too easy on the engine?

MA: In all my years, I was always chastised for being too hard on the cars. That’s why I dropped out of so many races. Here I am, cruising. I had led every lap, except for during the stops, throughout the race. At Indy you have two top gears. You use a lower gear when you have a full load of fuel, and then top gear so you don’t over-rev it. I was always using the top gear, giving it the least amount of revs, because the engine guys were always screaming, “Keep the revs down, keep the revs down!” and little did I know that with lower revs, like 600 revs lower, I was running in the bad harmonics of the engine. We dropped a valve with about 23 laps to go. I think I was almost two laps in the lead and just cruising home. We had them covered. It didn’t bring me home, but it was not the fault of the car. It was the fault of the engine.

Q: Was it the chassis or engine that was so superior in this car, or was it all of it?

MA: It’s usually the package, but primarily at Indy, you need an engine, no question. Long straightaways. And we had that, the new Chevy Ilmor. But the chassis was the thing. I’ve had a chassis dialed in pretty close, right in a sweet spot, at Indy before, but nothing like this one, for some reason. This car, we had it in an area where it responded to the most minute changes, and you know you’re in a sweet spot. You can’t do it alone. With an engineer like Adrian Newey, he’s one of the guys, it’s rare. There are many good engineers, but with Adrian, it seemed like he totally understood every word you said when you came in to express what the car was doing. We were able to really dial that baby in there. I wanted to win that race so bad for (team owners) Carl (Haas) and Paul (Newman). We were there. It is what it is. Things we can’t control. That car was a rare situation because it was with me throughout practice, too. I just felt I could go out and be right there at the top of the sheets.

Q: Do you have fond memories of that car because it was so good, or do you look back at it with dismay because you should have won in it?

MA: Fond memories, always. I always took the positive side of it. The car gave me tremendous satisfaction in leading all those laps and controlling the race the way we did. From a driver’s standpoint, those are the great moments of your career at Indy. I look at the positive side. Zak Brown, the team principal at McLaren, he owns that car. It was just totally refurbished, and I drove it on the road course near Chicago just last year. I was so glad to be able to sit in it again.

Q: I think many people may have thought the car in which you won in 1969 was your favorite.

MA: That’s the car, OK, you win, which was fabulous. It was a great car for me. I won several races that season with that car. But the car that I really, really felt that I controlled the race was this one. As soon as I was told of the subject of this interview, in two seconds that’s the car that came to me. I dominated. I really dominated that day if you look at the records. You can’t have it any better than that from the standpoint of really understanding the car. I didn’t have any issues. In ’69, I had overheating issues, a lot of stuff that I thought were going to kick me out of the race again. So, I had some worries. But this one, I was just cruising, man. I was just gone.

Facts about Mario Andretti’s 1987 Indianapolis 500 car:
Car name: Hanna Auto Wash Lola/Chevrolet Indy
Car number: 5
Team: Newman/Haas Racing
Qualified: Pole, 215.390 mph average speed
Finished: Ninth
Laps Completed: 180
Laps Led: 170
Status: DNF (Ignition)
Mario Andretti career ‘500” starts: 29 (1965-78, 1980-94)

Visit IMS.com for tickets to the 104th Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge, GMR Grand Prix and all other Month of May activities at IMS.

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