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Super Mario!

By Jack Webster & Eddie LePine

One could count – on one hand – the number of drivers who currently move among us and who are true living legends of the sport: drivers whose names are whispered in reverence; whose feats are spoken of in awe and amazement; and drivers who are universally recognized by not just motor racing fans, but the general public as well. They don’t have to walk through a paddock wearing a driver suit to be stopped by fans for an autograph or photo, for they have an aura about them – they are special, instantly recognizable, and just being in their presence is an honor.

Mario Andretti by Jack Webster

There have been others who have transcended their sports. Names like Ali, Pele, Woods and Jordan are all household names, whether you knew their sports or not. If any racing driver could be placed in that pantheon, it would be another who goes by a single name: Mario. A man whose achievements in motorsport and the business world are a testament to a life well lived and lived to the fullest. We are fortunate to both know Mario and to have seen him race in his prime and were on hand to witness some of his greatest racing accomplishments. Even the stories of races that we didn’t witness in person have been related to us by those who were there, and who did see in person what the legendary Mario Andretti was able to accomplish.

It is no small thing that Mario has been chosen to be the Grand Marshall at the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring on November 11-14, the rescheduled classic endurance contest (moved from its traditional March date due to the COVID 19 pandemic) on the historic airport circuit in Florida, which will now be the season ending race in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship.

2020 Sebring by Roger Warrick

Mario Andretti has a very special connection to the Twelve Hours of Sebring, and not just because he won the race overall a total of three times – in 1967 in the Ford Mk IV, in 1970 in the Ferrari 512S, and finally in 1972 in the Ferrari 312PB. No, Mario’s special connection to Sebring was cemented with his outstanding drive and most unlikely victory in what many consider the greatest Twelve-Hours of Sebring ever – 1970.

The Twelve Hours of Sebring in 1970 was the second round of the World Sports Car Championship and the year that saw the dominating performance of the Gulf Porsche 917K at Daytona, where it took the overall victory. The Gulf Porsches took both first and second. Of note, the third-place car was the factory Ferrari piloted by Mario Andretti.

When the teams showed up at the Sebring airport circuit, there was no particular reason to think that the Porsches wouldn’t just continue where they had left off at Daytona. The Porsche and Ferrari factories were on hand with their entries in the 5 litre class (Group 5). The German team fielded legends like Pedro Rodriguez, Jo Siffert, Brian Redman and Vic Elford in the 917K while the Scuderia had pilots like Jacky Ickx, Arturo Merzario, Nino Vaccarella and the aforementioned Mario Andretti among other top-flight drivers as part of their stable.

And that was just part of the line up in Group 5! The next step down in prototypes were the 3 litre sports prototypes and that assortment of cars from the likes of Porsche, Ferrari, Alfa Romeo and Matra featured such drivers as Masten Gregory, Henri Pescarolo, Rolf Stommelen, Francois Cevert, Dan Gurney, Richard Attwood, Tony Adamowicz, Peter Revson and one Steve McQueen among others. All racing legends whose names are whispered in reverence.

The stage was set for a titanic struggle for victory on the bumpy airport runways and connecting taxiways of the former B-17 bomber base from World War II – the 19th Annual running of the 12 Hours of Sebring in 1970!

Perhaps the first surprise of race week was Mario Andretti out-dueling the Porsches for pole position. Mario put his #19 Ferrari 512S (which he was sharing with Arturo Merzario) at the head of the field with a lap that was a full 6.5 seconds faster than the 1969 pole time, set in a Ferrari 312P by Chis Amon. He also bested the second-place qualifier Jo Siffert’s Gulf Porsche 917K by nearly a full second. It was shaping up to be a flat-out, 12 cylinder, 12 hour sprint race with the top cars and drivers from around the world battling it out for the overall victory.

At the start, things were going according to plan for Ferrari as they kept in touch with the leading Porsches. Mario’s car was third after the first hour and had moved into the overall lead by the third hour of the race.

As is usual at Sebring, the track’s rough and demanding nature began to take its toll on the competitors. The #20 factory Ferrari piloted by Jacky Ickx and Peter Schetty led the fourth and into the fifth hour before retiring with a blown head gasket. Mario Andretti, in the #19 factory Ferrari took the lead and held it going into the 10th hour of the race.

In the meantime, the factory Porsches were facing their own difficulties. From bad hubs, to punctures to electrical issues, they were seemingly out of contention for the overall win. However, in the lower class – and flying pretty much under the radar until the 8th hour – was the little Porsche 908/02 entered by Solar Productions and piloted by Peter Revson and Steve McQueen in the 3 litre sports prototype class. They had run a very consistent race and were steadily moving up the order by driving cleanly and staying out of trouble. Pro driver Revson did the bulk of the driving, as McQueen was hobbled by broken foot which was in a cast. McQueen however, certainly made his contribution to the effort and helped to put the car in contention for the overall victory.

At the 10-hour mark, Andretti pitted with a gearbox problem in the #19 Ferrari. This was hastily repaired and Merzario took the car back out onto the circuit, still in the lead but by far less than the comfortable 13 lap lead which they had enjoyed when Mario pitted for repairs. The aforementioned Gulf Porsche 917K #15 (now with Siffert on board as the third driver, since his #14 car had now retired), had successfully chased down the leading Ferrari as it sat in the pits being repaired again. Siffert took the lead when the Merzario/Andretti car coasted to a stop on the circuit, the gearbox malady finally finishing their race for good. All this activity put the Revson/McQueen car into second place overall. As you can imagine, the PA announcer was crazed with excitement at the possibility of McQueen winning which now looked distinctly possible.

So, going into the final hour, it was the Pedro Rodriguez/Leo Kinnunen/Jo Siffert Porsche 917K in the lead, followed by the Porsche 908/02 driven by Peter Revson and Steve McQueen, followed by the #21 Ferrari 512S of Giunti and Vaccarella.

Then, with under an hour left in the race, the #21 Ferrari pitted for fuel. Even though it was a full lap behind the leading Porsche 917, Ferrari Team Manager Mauro Forghieri decided to replace Giunti with Mario for the final sprint to the finish, with the hope that if any trouble befell the leading Porsche, Ferrari would have one last desperate shot at the victory by having their fastest driver behind the wheel. In those days, Team Managers could use their drivers as chess pieces, making changes to driver lineups in the middle of a race. In this race both John Wyer of Porsche and Mauro Foghieri of Ferrari played like Bobby Fischer.

We spoke with Mario at St. Petersburg last weekend, and we will let him pick up the story.

“Obviously, it was one of the highlights of my career. Even though Jacky Ickx and I dominated the race, and we were some 13 laps in the lead you know, with a few hours to go. It looked like it was all over and then the car broke.

“I was asked by the team manager (Forghieri) to take over the other Ferrari (#21) for the last stint. I hesitated, but in the end I said ‘What the Hell’ and did it. I had to make up like five miles to get to the front. I was driving like a man possessed.”

A man possessed indeed. The leading Porsche 917K pitted with front hub failure with the win in sight and the Revson/McQueen car took the lead! Mario, driving well beyond the limit and six-plus seconds faster than the other Ferrari drivers had driven the same car in the race, closed in on and passed the Porsche. Peter Revson, who was still driving must have been mentally and physically exhausted by this time!

Everyone thought that the race was over, but this race had some final drama before the finish.

Painting by Roger Warrick

With just a couple of laps to go, and with Mario in the lead, the low fuel light lit up on the dash of Mario’s Ferrari. Knowing that with the way he had been pushing the car, there was no way he could do lap or two of flat out racing on fumes, Mario dived into the pits for fuel. Now this was 1970 and the World Sports Car Championship – there was no such thing as a splash and dash back then. The car had to stop, the driver get out of the car, the car be fueled and then the driver had to get back in! Mario was practically out of the car by the time it stopped in its pit. The Ferrari mechanics put in fuel, Mario jumped back in, fastened the belts and lit up the tires as he sped out of the pits and into the night to once again chase down Peter Revson in the Porsche.

This was a case of real life exceeding the drama of a movie script, and once again Mario Andretti, perhaps the greatest all around racing driver who has ever lived, did chase down Peter Revson and passed him for the lead and the victory at the greatest Sebring race ever held. Mario went on to win by 23.8 seconds.

So, this year’s Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring will mark the 50th anniversary of that outstanding race and it is only fitting that Mario be on hand as the Grand Marshall of the race.

“Mario Andretti’s achievement for Ferrari at Sebring 50 years ago, may be more amazing than his Formula 1, Indy 500 and Daytona 500 titles combined,” said Wayne Estes, Sebring International Raceway President and General Manager. “His legendary drive in the night, making up more than five miles on the Revson-McQueen Porsche in the final 30 minutes, cemented that race as ‘Sebring’s Greatest 12 Hours.’ He honors us with his return to help us remember that incredible moment in motorsports history.”

“I want to thank everyone at Sebring Raceway for naming me Grand Marshall for this year’s race,” stated Andretti. “It is a great honor for me to be recognized by a race that meant so much to my career. The Sebring 12 Hours is one of motorsport’s true highlights. There are so many great cars, great drivers and manufacturers that all come together to make this a special event. I couldn’t be more proud to be named the Grand Marshall for this great race. I have wonderful memories of my time at Sebring and I’m looking forward to being back there on November 14.”

If you haven’t already done so, make your plans to be at Sebring in November to see America’s greatest sports car race in person. We hope to see you there.

Visit the official Sebring website here

Buy Jack Webster’s book here

You can find artwork by Roger Warrick here