Auto Racing: What Is This Danger?

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"I don't have any feeling ofaccomplishment about anything unless there's a lot of risk to it," says Mario Andretti. He was already racing automobiles—90-m.p.h. Formula Juniors—in Italy at an age when no state in the U.S. would have given him a license to drive the family Volkswagen: 13. "I was crazy," he agrees, now that he is 27. "None of my relatives even knew what I was doing except my old priest uncle, and I had him hiding it because I told him in confession so he couldn't tell."

Born near Trieste, diminutive (5 ft. 6 in., 135 Ibs.), Mario Andretti came to the U.S. in 1955 and settled in Nazareth, Pa. He originally intended to be a welder, gave up that idea when he discovered that he could make more money racing stock cars and midgets on the dirt tracks of Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Today, Andretti is the hottest racing driver in the world.

Driving to Riches. You name it, Mario drives it: Indianapolis cars, stock cars, sports cars, sprint cars. He did have to say no to Enzo Ferrari, who begged Mario to drive for him on the Grand Prix circuit; the Grand Prix races conflicted with Andretti's previous engagements, and besides, Ferrari doesn't pay enough. "Anybody who can drive and doesn't come out of it a rich man is a fool," says Andretti.

Two years ago, as a raw rookie at Indianapolis, he astounded racing experts by placing third and winning $42,551. That same year he won the U.S. Auto Club's big-car championship, a title he took again last year when he won eight out of 15 races and $82,695. This month Andretti teamed with New Zealand's Bruce McLaren to win the Sebring twelve-hour endurance race for sports cars—averaging a record 102.9 m.p.h. in a Ford Mark IV. As soon as that race was over, he flew to Georgia where he took over the wheel of a 1967 Ford stock car in the Atlanta 500. He was leading after 235 miles when he spun out and crashed; he got back on the track only to spin out again 158 miles later when he was running third.

To Overpower. Andretti has his critics, who think that his schedule—and his tactics—are suicidal. "Sometimes you should wait to pass," says Parnelli Jones, "and Mario often doesn't." Two-time Indy 500 Winner Rodger Ward says that Andretti "has to learn patience; he tries to overpower the competition." But maybe Mario can. He is the early favorite to win next month's Indy 500 in his Ford-powered Dean Van Lines Special; he also will drive a Ford Mark IV sports car at Le Mans in June and, if Sebring was any test, he will probably be favored there, too.

As for danger, that is one English word Mario has never been able to understand. In Phoenix, while he was practicing for last week's U.S.A.C.'s Jimmy Bryan 150-mile race, his car went out of control and hit the wall at 130 m.p.h.; Andretti walked away from the wreck with minor bruises. Next day he cracked up again; this time he did not even have a bruise to show for it. "Oh. I've turned over a couple of times, and I've been against the wall," he says. "But I've never even broken a bone. When you start thinking you may get hurt, it's time to get out of racing."