Advertisement

SPORTS EXTRA / FOCUS ON MOTOR SPORTS: LONG BEACH GRAND
PRIX | THE SAVIOR

Mario Andretti Twice Revived Interest With Formula One, Indy Car Victories

April 15, 1999|SHAV GLICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The first--and only--American to win a Formula One world championship race in the United States was Mario Andretti. He did it at Long Beach in 1977.

The first driver to win an Indy car race on the streets of Long Beach was Mario Andretti. In 1984.

And the person most responsible for the establishment and future success of the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach was--Mario Andretti.

In 1977, the third year of the race and the second with Formula One, the Grand Prix was teetering on the brink of collapse. There were huge debts to be paid, more than $500,000, and although crowds were respectable, the race was not gaining much in the way of national interest.

Then Andretti won with a dramatic late-race pass of Jody Scheckter after a tense three-way battle that also involved world champion Niki Lauda.

When Andretti climbed out of his black and gold Lotus-Ford and said to the world, "Winning a Grand Prix in my own country means more to me than winning the Indianapolis 500," Americans and the media took note.

"It was huge, really huge," says Chris Pook, founder of the Long Beach race, which will celebrate its 25th anniversary Sunday. "1977 was a pivotal year for us. Our backs were to the wall. I would say we were no better than even money to survive.

"Then Mario, Lauda and Scheckter put on a great race that electrified the print media and television. When Mario took the lead and won in the final three laps, it put a stamp of legitimacy to the event as a round of the world championship.

"Not in Europe, or South America or Asia, where Formula One already ranked up there with soccer as an international attraction, but more in the eyes of Americans."

It was not just Andretti's winning, it was the way he did it.

Andretti tells how it happened:

"Niki Lauda got a little hung up [at the start] and I didn't get off as well as I wanted, so Jody sort of steamed up between us going down the first turn off Ocean Boulevard.

"Niki and I are side by side, going to see who would be the last to out-brake the other when I looked down at my right mirror and I see [Carlos] Reutemann coming like he isn't going to stop until he gets to San Diego. Sure enough, he locked up all four and never even tried to make the corner.

"Somehow Lauda managed to get behind him, but I had to slow way down and tuck in behind Niki. If I hadn't happened to look, Reutemann would have T-boned me for sure and I would have ended on the first turn."

Andretti managed to out-brake Lauda at the 180-degree hairpin turn at the end of Shoreline Drive where the circuit turned back toward Pine Avenue.

For lap after lap, the three--Scheckter in a Wolf-Ford, Andretti in his Lotus and Lauda in a Ferrari--raced nose to tail around the 11-turn, 2.02-mile course. With three to go, Andretti decided to force the issue, squeezing inside Scheckter on the same corner he had passed Lauda 77 laps earlier.

"Right up to that moment, Jody had never given me much of a chance to pass," Andretti recalled. "I tried to make a couple of passes at him going onto Shoreline, but he wouldn't give up. I just had to persevere and gut it out."

When it turned out that Scheckter had a slowly deflating tire, he could not challenge Andretti in the final laps and on the last lap, Lauda moved into second.

"You talk about going from the bottom of the barrel to the height of euphoria, that's where we were," recalled Pook. "There were days that week I didn't think we would see a third year, let alone a 25th. It was a brutal year but it turned out to have an incredibly wonderful ending."

The victory also served to stimulate Andretti's bid to bring the world championship to the United States, something only Phil Hill in 1961 had done. Andretti had won in Japan late in 1976 and winning in Long Beach in the fourth race of 1977 gave Colin Chapman's Lotus team a boost that carried into 1978, Andretti's F1 championship season.

"Mario and Lotus weren't the only ones who got a lift from winning in Long Beach," Pook said. "It made our phones ring off the hook before the '78 race and it made our sponsor's phones ring. And it woke up the media.

"Stories about Mario became popular and every time one was written, there was a word or two about Long Beach. Formula One had been little more than a footnote in U.S. sports sections, and never on Page 1 until Mario's win and his remark about how much it meant to him."

At the 1978 race, Andretti made a more personal contribution to Long Beach and the race.

A.J. Pritzker, president of Hyatt Hotels, was in town as the guest of then-city manager John Devers to study the possibility of building a hotel in the city.

Pritzker told Devers he had one request. He wanted to ride around the race circuit with Andretti. It was only a few minutes before qualifying, but Pook quickly arranged for Andretti to take the visitor for a ride in the pace car.

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|