Andretti returns to scene of wining biggest stock car race 50 years later

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(This story originally appeared as exclusive content on the Verizon INDYCAR Mobile app.)

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Among the old veterans at Daytona International Speedway, they still talk about the day an Indy car driver from Nazareth, Pennsylvania, drove a stock car so fearlessly – and so loose – they were all afraid to get near him.

Even drivers such as seven-time Daytona 500 winner and seven-time NASCAR Cup champion Richard Petty or team owners Glen and Leonard Wood of the Wood Brothers. They all thought this driver was crazy the way he smoked the rear tires going into the high-banked turns at Daytona International Speedway.

It was February 26, 1967, and a young Italian immigrant who had already gained a degree of notoriety by winning Indy car national championships his first two years in the series in 1965 and 1966 was on his way to winning the Daytona 500. It was Mario Andretti, who drove the Holman & Moody Ford to victory in the 1967 Daytona 500.

At that time, it was the biggest victory of Andretti's career. He would go on to win the 1969 Indianapolis 500 and the 1978 Formula One World Championship – the only race driver to achieve all three. He would also go on to win 52 Indy car races and four championships.

Today, when the Daytona 500 takes the green flag to begin the 2017 NASCAR Cup season, it will be 50 years to the date of Andretti's stunning and impressive Daytona 500 victory. He is being honored as the honorary race official for the event.

“I thought it was really cool to get that invitation from Daytona International Speedway,” Andretti told the Verizon INDYCAR Mobile app. “The race meant a great deal to me and to be able to reminisce and talk about it again and get invited down there is something very special.

“Fifty years ago, my goodness, it's hard to even believe that. Nevertheless, even after 50 years, the event is still that important to me.”

From 1966-69, Andretti competed in 14 races of NASCAR’s top-level series, but the 1967 Daytona 500 victory was his only win. In fact, it was his only top-five finish and one of just three top-10 finishes in the stock car racing circuit.

“It is certainly a very important trophy in my trophy case,” Andretti said. “I'm very proud of that and I'm proud that I represented the open-wheel part of the sport. It was not my specialty and, to pull off a win in the biggest NASCAR race, the value of the event becomes greater and greater with every year. It's always marquee for any driver to put that in their trophy case.”

For the most part, the days when drivers such as Andretti, A.J. Foyt and the Unsers tried different forms of racing every year have been long gone. Most drivers compete in their respective series and don't show the versatility that drivers displayed back then.

“I looked at the starting lineup in 1967 and there were 50 cars that started that race,” Andretti recalled. “There were six Indy car drivers and one Formula One driver in that lineup. The crossover was very important and a lot of our drivers were making the pilgrimage to some of these stock car races. I think it was good for the sport. Then we started getting some stock car drivers like Lee Roy Yarbrough, Cale Yarborough, Donnie and Bobby Allison and most recently Kurt Busch coming over to the Indianapolis 500.

“I think it is something very healthy for the sport in general. Too bad we don't see that as much, but that is part of my career that was very important for me to have experienced the different levels and disciplines outside of my specialty.”

When Andretti was competing at Daytona in 1967, he had a very fast Ford and took it to the lead for 112 of the 200 laps.

“The race was really good for me overall,” Andretti said. “I had a fight with all the icons from that era so it was a memorable, memorable day for sure.

“When I first got there, my teammate was Fred Lorenzen and he was quicker than I was. I had no idea what kind of revs I should be pulling with the engine, so I kept shedding the rear spoiler to try to get more speed. I qualified single-car qualifying and was not as fast as I wanted to be. But nobody would give me any information about what revs I should be pulling with the gear I had.

“The only guy that actually came forward and shed some light was Donnie Allison. I was complaining that I had no spoiler in the back and couldn't get any speed out of it. He told me I was running 400 revs short. That is when I started politicking about getting a decent engine (from Ford).

“I qualified with such a small spoiler, that is why I was so loose in the race. Donnie Allison is the one guy that gave me information and shed some light on what I should be doing. Once I got a decent engine, my car was really fast. It was loose but mechanically it was good and had a great feel for the back end.

“I was lighting up the right rear tire all day but it worked.”

At that time, the stock cars were running nearly 20 miles per hour faster at Daytona than the Indy cars ran at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Daytona had steep banking that helped maintain speed and the stock cars weren’t limited by the engine restrictor plates in use today. At Indianapolis, wings had yet to appear on the car so most drivers had to slow entering the flat turns on the four-cornered oval.

Curtis Turner won the 1967 Daytona 500 pole at 180.831 miles per hour. Andretti won the pole for the 1967 Indianapolis 500 at 168.982 mph.

“(NASCAR and Daytona International Speedway founder) Bill France, always the visionary, wanted to compete with Indianapolis and the only way he thought he could get the speeds up was with high banks and he accomplished that,” Andretti said. “Because of development, Indy cars would eventually surpass that.

“You have to give Bill France credit for doing all of that for his side of the sport. Speed is something that always impresses people and of course, they achieved that.”

Andretti and A.J. Foyt remain the only drivers to win both the Indianapolis 500 and the Daytona 500. Foyt is the first four-time Indy 500 winner and won the 1972 Daytona 500 driving for the Wood Brothers.

“I feel very blessed to still be around and enjoy and celebrate these moments that were very important in my life,” Andretti said. “I can only be happy and thankful I'm here in good health and can still enjoy this."

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