The end was clearly in sight for Mario Andretti as he climbed into his race car at Laguna Seca Raceway for the Grand Prix of Monterey on Sunday. Or it would have been if he had put on his glasses. The crews from all the teams he had raced against and regulary beaten for 31 years had seen the end coming, and after the Sunday morning warmup session they had formed a gantlet along the pit lane and, wearing T-shirts emblazoned with ARRIVEDERCI, MARIO, cheered for him as he rolled to a stop.
It was a wonderful sound, those Italianate vowels of his name pealing like church bells amid the methanol fumes. Five years ago somebody actually took the trouble to poll Americans and prove that the name Mario Andretti was better known and more indelibly associated with racing in the U.S. than A.J. Foyt's and Richard Petty's combined.
"He has the perfect racing name." says driver Arie Luyendyk. "He was lucky he was born with a name like Mario Andretti." This is true, of course. What husband, driving home too fast late at night, hasn't been instructed affectionately but firmly, "Take it easy. Mario," by his wife?
For more than three decades Andretti towered over his competition, an accomplishment that would have been rare enough in American sports even if he were not 5'6". How could such a dainty man have created such a long shadow? "The first time you compete against him," says driver Bobby Rahal, "it's like, 'Look, it's Mario Andretti!' And that feeling never really goes away, the feeling that this guy is a god."
There are other drivers—artists like Jimmy Clark and Ayrton Senna—whose best days will linger longer in our memory than Andretti's, but no one was ever as successful as Andretti in so many different kinds of racing. From 1966 through '69 he won 29 Indy Car races (his eventual total would be 52), while also winning both the Daytona 500 stock car race and the 12 Hours of Sebring in '67. The following year he drove in Formula One for the first time and immediately took the pole at Watkins Glen (though he didn't finish the race). He was competing in only his second full season of F/1 racing, in '78, when he won the World Championship driving for Lotus.
He won his final race more than a year ago, an Indy Car event at Phoenix. But other than the parade lap he was asked to lead so his fans could give him a proper send-off on Sunday, Andretti had not led a race all season—not for a single lap, despite driving one of the strongest cars on the circuit.
"Maybe now he doesn't want to take as many chances as he used to because he's already achieved so much," says second-year driver Adrian Fernandez, whose car was the last one Andretti passed on Sunday before his engine let go lour laps from the finish. In his best moments Andretti created openings for himself where there were none and ruthlessly defended his own position. "He will not give an inch, even now," Luyendyk said before Sunday's race. "Mario has a tendency to go over that line between being smooth and doing whatever it takes to go fast."
The decision to announce his retirement a year ahead of time so that he could embark upon his Arrivederci. Mario tour—and its attendant merchandising ventures—seemed to tempt the gods, who had treated Andretti so tenderly that in his career he missed only two races because of an injury. Twice this season he was involved in collisions with teammate Nigel Mansell, for whom Andretti never developed any conspicuous affection and whom he blamed for many of his misfortunes over the past two seasons. "The thing you have to understand about Mario." says Penske driver Paul Tracy, who won easily at Laguna Seca, "is that on the racetrack, nothing is ever Mario's fault. Ever."
A month ago at his home racetrack in Nazareth, Pa., after inexplicably clouting Eddie Cheever's car and putting both Cheever and himself into the wall early in the race, Andretti came as close to admitting blame as he probably ever had. For years there had been questions about how well Andretti could see other cars on the racetrack, though he was held in such high esteem in the garages that these inquiries were usually whispered quietly. He does have a pair of glasses, though he never wears them in public—and certainly not in the race car. After he hit Cheever, Andretti quietly conceded. "I didn't see him." and sounded for a moment as if he were about to take the blame for the accident. But he stopped himself just in time.
He finished 19th on Sunday, running as high as seventh before his engine quit. "All of a sudden everything just went silent," he said. If Andretti had stayed too long at the races, nobody seemed in any particular hurry for him to leave, least of all him. "The cycle of life is what's happening," Andretti said. "The old guys go home, new guys come out. There's no question that I've driven past my prime, but, realistically. I'm still capable of bringing home results." He still couldn't see the end coming, but he could hear it.