Thank you, Dan and Mario

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Thank You, Dan and Mario, for America's F-1 Memories

Commentary by Robin Miller, September 22, 2000 - Indianapolis Star Newspaper

There hasn't been a Formula One race in the United States in 10 years, but there hasn't been anything resembling an F-1 hero for Americans to cheer since Dan Gurney shut down his dream and Mario Andretti quit flying the Concorde. Gurney hooked a lot of us in the '60s with his All-American Eagle and unbridled enthusiasm, while Andretti applied the hammer lock in the '70s by winning a world championship. They were the guys we embraced, the ones who made us puff up with pride as they battled the world. The two legends forced sports editors to run grand prix results in Monday's papers.

A total of 147 Yanks have competed in F-1 since 1908 and Phil Hill was America's first true star, winning the title in 1961. But it was Gurney and his independent spirit that first caught our imagination, even Andretti's. "I remember the day in 1962 I won three midget features, all at different tracks in New Jersey, and I was trying to get my third wind, so was trying to get my third wind, so inspiration,'' recalled Andretti recently. "I was thinking, 'I wonder what Dan Gurney is doing?' Honest to God. He had just gone to Formula One and I was so envious. He inspired me throughout my career.''


Gurney's path to road racing's summit wasn't exactly a straight line. The son of an opera singer, he grew up in upstate New York, moved to Riverside, Calif., served in the Korean War and finally began serious sports car racing in 1955 when he was 24. Four years later he was making his F-1 debut for mighty Ferrari. "I don't think I had 20 races, total, in anything, before then,' said Gurney, chuckling at that thought. "I'm not sure they knew what they were doing. Phil (Hill) had recommended me and I was eternally grateful."

Though Gurney won his first GP in France in 1962 (the year he started his first Indianapolis 500), his lore didn't hit folk proportions until he formed All-American Racers with Carroll Shelby in 1964. By '66, their Eagle chassis was successfully competing in Indy cars and F-1. Still, the defining moment came in 1967 at Spa in Belgium. Qualifying in the middle of the front row, Gurney got a bad start (ninth into the first turn) and then picked up a misfire in his Weslake engine. But he caught and passed Jochen Rindt, Chris Amon and Jackie Stewart (setting a lap record) and won by more than a minute. "It was more nursing my car than a virtuoso performance, but it was great for the team. Despite all the critics and doubters, we'd done it," said Gurney, whose victory was the first by an American in an American-built car since Jimmy Murphy won the 1921 French GP in a Duesenberg. "(Jimmy) Clark had dropped out, so I felt as though I hadn't whipped the best guy, but I knew I was going to have a hard time topping that one. There was an Olympic flavor, standing there in victory lane with the national anthem being played. I definitely felt like I was representing my country."

Gurney would never win again in F-1, but his "Us. vs. Them'' mentality had rallied American race fans and made him one of motorsports' most beloved figures. To this day, Dan is regarded as the best to never win the title (he was second in 1961), but it had more to do with mechanical failure and bad car choices than his ability. He received the supreme compliment when Clark's father revealed that his son feared Gurney more than anyone else on the track. "He relayed that to me at Jimmy's funeral," said Gurney. "It was the most difficult and biggest compliment I ever had. A very special moment." The All-American Racer quit running F-1 in 1970 to concentrate on Indy cars, but F-1 gearheads in this country were anticipating another era.

In 1965, Colin Chapman of Lotus had offered Andretti an F-1 shot when the young hotshot from the U.S. Auto Club was ready. Mario debuted at Watkins Glen in 1968 and dazzled everyone by winning the pole position. "They said, 'Sure, it was his home track,' but I'd never seen the place," laughed Andretti, who dropped out while battling Stewart for the lead.

As the '70s reeled off, Mario took on the world's best road racers while maintaining his fight here in Indy cars. It was unprecedented and, other than a victory for Ferrari at South Africa, unsuccessful in F-1. Then Chapman and Andretti reunited in '76. "My team had just folded and Colin was interested in everything else but F-1 when we decided that if misery loves company, we should team up," said Andretti, who scored Lotus' first win in two years in the '76 season finale.

Chapman unveiled his Lotus 78 in 1977 and, with Mario's marvelous feedback and passion, they became a monster. Andretti's win at Long Beach that year put F-1 in the headlines all over this country and he stayed there for two years. Experimental engines cost Mario the '77 title despite three wins, but he came back in '78 with six victories and the world championship. The immigrant from Italy had delivered international glory in red, white and blue. "Deep down, that's probably what I appreciate the most of my career," said Andretti, who had 12 wins and 18 poles and led 799 laps in 14 years of F-1. "It was, quite honestly, very bittersweet because of what happened to Ronnie (Peterson, his teammate killed the day he clinched the crown). "But that was my dream when I was a little boy and to achieve it was so special. So fulfilling."

Racing vicariously with Gurney and Andretti for the better part of 20 years kept many of us into F-1. Those two will be here (Indianapolis for the United States Grand Prix) this weekend. They'll draw the largest crowds and cheers because they're our most recognizable F-1 heroes. And they won't try to run and hide from the fans like most of today's supposed big-time racers. They'll stop and reminisce because they appreciate the history they made. Almost as much as we do.