The 1969 Race Through Ten Year-Old Eyes

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This year is the fiftieth anniversary of Mario Andretti’s one and only win in the Indianapolis 500. Of all the years that Andretti was the favorite to win or found himself in a position to win – 1969 was not that year.

By the time the 1969 Indianapolis rolled around, I was a veteran spectator. I would not turn eleven until later that fall. I had started going to the race in 1965, when I was six. My father chose to take his father and brother in 1966, so that is a hole in my “500” resume. But we returned in 1967, not only for the race, but that was also the year we began our annual trips to Pole Day. When May of 1969 came around, it would be my fourth race and third Pole Day

The year before, my father started taking The Indianapolis Star for the Month of May. It usually arrived at our house two or three days later, but we all read the racing section up and down. That was in the days when practice actually began on May 1, although those first few days were usually pretty relaxed. Still, The Star did a good job of covering anything that went on at the track. I think my father may have known someone who kept up with things on a daily basis, because I remember many times when he would come home from work and tell us something that had happened at the track that day.

While that sounds routine today, remember – this was in the days before the internet and before cable. We had four channels when I was growing up – ABC, CBS, NBC and the local educational channel out of Memphis, which would later become affiliated with PBS. There was not a lot of Indianapolis 500 coverage during the Month of May in Jackson, Tennessee in the sixties. So to have information from the track that was just a few hours old was really something.

Pole Day morning looked promising. I recall it being hazy and humid. The cars took to the track for practice that morning. I know that because I remember seeing that radical Lotus 64 that Mario Andretti had been scheduled to drive. I remember being struck by how ugly I thought the car was – especially from the rear, which we saw as it went past and dove into Turn One. It seemed to have wings all over it.

I remembered being shocked at how ugly so many of the cars were that year. The wedged-shape Lotus 56 turbines driven the year before, were beautiful in my opinion. But the next year, most of the cars in the field had tried to copy the wedge design. The results ranged from awkward looking to downright hideous. The Eagle chassis from the past couple of years were gorgeous cars – especially the nose with the prominent Eagle beak. But the 1969 Eagles that Dan Gurney and Joe Leonard drove in 1969 were atrocious – at least at the time. Looking back, they don’t seem so bad. But even back then, I did not like change – and most cars in 1969 featured way too much change for this ten year-old.

Bobby Unser had driven a classic looking Eagle to victory the year before. The next year, he had changed to a Lola chassis and a new sponsor in Bardahl. At the time, I had no idea what a Lola chassis was, but I knew I didn’t like its looks. The front-end looked flattened out with a radiator opening that resembled a catfish. To add insult to injury, the classic Rislone paint scheme had been traded for a black and yellow checkerboard scheme that covered the entire car. I was not a fan.

Who had the only decent looking car in that morning practice? My hero, AJ Foyt.

Unfortunately, that morning practice would provide the only glimpse of the cars I would see that day. Rain would come before qualifying was set to begin. We sat in the covered seats in Stand A for most of the day, just waiting and waiting. With a long drive back to Tennessee and rain starting and stopping throughout the day, we finally left around 3:00. Later that afternoon, Jigger Sirois would make his infamous attempt (that I won’t get into with this post) – but by that time, we were listening to it all on the radio traveling through southern Indiana. Rain would continue and wash out Sunday qualifying also.

Later that week, my father came home from work announcing that Mario Andretti had crashed that radical Lotus and destroyed it. He would be in a totally different car for the race. When qualifying finally resumed the next Saturday, we were listening on the radio from home. Being a ten year-old, I wasn’t keen on listening on the radio. I remember going in and out of the room, and every time I asked what was going on – I was met with “Shhh!”

But I knew that Foyt was on the pole and Mario Andretti was in the middle of the front-row, alongside that ugly car of Bobby Unser. All I really cared about was that Foyt had beaten Andretti. Our household was a Foyt household. We didn’t cheer for Andretti, we cheered for Foyt – because you could not cheer for both. I was mentioning that to Paul Dalbey at Barber last month and he couldn’t understand that. But in those days, that’s the way it was. I’ve since learned to appreciate and respect Mario Andretti as a driver and a person, but in those days – I was not a fan.

When we went back for Race Day, I saw the new car that Mario was to drive, It looked a lot better than the Lotus he had crashed earlier, but I still wasn’t a fan. The week before, my brothers had talked about a new driver that was very classy that we needed to watch. His name was Mark Donohue. I loved the look of his car. Although he was driving the same Lola that Bobby Unser was in, Donohue’s car looked a lot better in the Sunoco paint scheme.

For a while, it looked like Foyt might win again. But he had trouble in the pits. I could see his car number “6” sliding down the scoring pylon directly in front of us. It was obviously not going to be his day. He would return, but would no longer be a factor. One of my father’s favorite drivers was always Lloyd Ruby, but he ripped out the side of his fuel tank on a pit stop. His day was also done.

By this time, I was pulling for Dan Gurney. He was driving an ugly Eagle, but I always liked him. But even though Gurney was running in second, he was far behind.

You have to also keep in mind that while I was not an Andretti fan, I didn’t care for Andy Granatelli, either. I considered him a blowhard. As a kid, I liked his turbine-powered cars, but I didn’t care for this latest breed of STP cars and I basically didn’t like him either. I cheered for his turbine cars in spite of him.

Like my feelings for Mario Andretti, my opinion of Andy Granatelli changed as I got older. As an adult, I have had great respect and admiration for both of them. But as an impressionable kid – I didn’t care for either of them while growing up.

So it was with great chagrin that I sat and watched Mario Andretti take the checkered flag in the1969 Indianapolis 500. It further incensed me when Granatelli kissed him on the cheek in Victory Lane. Now it is considered one of the more colorful moments of the sixties.

With a rained-out qualifying weekend, all of the ugly new cars and a Granatelli car driven by Mario Andretti winning the race – 1969 was not my favorite Indianapolis 500. Of course, I look back on it much more favorably now that I appreciate the historical significance of that Brawner-Hawk being pulled into service after the Lotus 64 was destroyed due to a wheel-hub failure; and Mario winning his one and only Indianapolis 500 – especially when he became such a legendary driver afterward.

Today at seventy-nine, Mario Andretti is one of the best, if not the best, ambassadors for the NTT IndyCar Series and the Indianapolis 500. But fifty years ago, this bratty kid was not happy when he took the checkered flag in the 1969 Indianapolis 500.

George Phillips

10 Responses to “The 1969 Race Through Ten Year-Old Eyes”

  1. Jack in Virginia Says:

    I shared your views of Granatelli, George. From the Novi’s to the turbine cars it always seemed he was trying to find some gimmick to get himself a victory. It was somewhat ironic that his victory finally came with a backup, no-gimmick car. Now as I’ve mellowed through age, I look back on Granatelli with admiration.

    • Bruce Waine Says:

      One might also add that Andy was an innovator, which unfortunately does not fit todays Indy 500 spec racing image………

  2. DAVID GARDNER Says:

    Great piece George. Our experience with the race that year is almost mirror images of each other. We were a Foyt house as well. I did for some reason like the Bardahl color scheme. I have always had a soft spot for the ugly cars.

  3. James T Suel Says:

    My story for 69 was a little different. 69 was my 9th race. I was a Mario fan. I first seen him in a midget at Flemmington NJ. That was about 61 or 62, I was impressed. My old man told me he was too little to wheel the big cars! But in 64 at Salem Mario won the JoeJames/ Pat Occonor sprint car race , they had to eat crow. 69 was great for me. I was and still a guy who liked both Mario and Aj.

  4. SkipinSC Says:

    The 1968-1970 races were ones when I DIDN’T get to listen to the radio broadcast. At Culver Military Academy, we had a Gold Star Ceremony on Memorial Day to honor Culver Alumni who made the ultimate sacrifice in World War I, II, Korea, and VietNam. It wasn’t until my last year at The Academy that First Classmen (seniors) were allowed to miss this service to attend the race. Hence, the 1971 race would be my first in attendance.

    While we couldn’t listen during the ceremony, there were always a few die-hards who had transistor radios in their pockets with an earpiece, who would whisper results throughout the formation. At one point during the race, we were told that Wally Dallenbach was leading. Unfortunately shortly thereafter, we were visited by the Commandant of Cadets who had spied the earphone, so our news source was removed, confiscated by Col. Melvin Estey (nickname “Viper,”) USMC, who had a notorious reputation of showing up when he was least expected (or wanted.)

    It wasn’t until long after the milk had been drunk, Andretti had been smooched by Granatelli, and most of the 350,000 in Indy for the event were headed home that we heard the final results.

  5. Bruce B Says:

    Foyt’s car looked better than the day-glow red of Mario’s STP Special???? Please George….🙄. Also, if you go back in a time machine you will see Mario receiving 1st place prizes at the victory banquet and the coveted 500 winners ring. Penske and a barrage of attorneys strong armed USAC TO Reverse the winner in October. Really? So I count 2 wins for Mario and with a little luck should have 4 or 5. 😉

  6. billytheskink Says:

    Most of the wedge cars that ruled the 500 from 69-71 were fairly unattractive, though certainly interesting machines in the evolution of the quest for speed. I do have a soft spot for Lloyd Ruby’s 1970 car, as the garish star-spangled paint scheme comes around to working on the awkward wedge of a car.

  7. I first went to qualifying on that rainy day in 1969. We sat down near the track in Turn 1. I did see the Jigger Sirois qualification attempt. I did understand the rules, and couldn’t believe the attempt was waved off.
    The race was my fifth to attend, the the third in which I marched with my high school band in the pre-race march of bands. We were provided with only general admission, so we watched the race from several positions. Most of the last half of the race were sitting on the grass a bit past the exit of Turn 2. From that position I was able to see Mario get wide and very sideways exiting that turn, probably with about 10 laps to go. As far as I know that moment when he almost hit the wall was never recorded, so it isn’t talked about.
    Hand painting that yellow and black checkerboard pattern on the 1/25 scale model I built of Bobby Unser’s car, was the hardest paint job I ever had on the many’many models of build of cars as they appeared in the 500 on race day.
    My most ambitious model I built in 1/25 scale was that winning Brawner Hawk. I spent two hours or more, every day for more than six months crafting that model. A photo of it can be seen in an article about Indianapolis 500 models and their builders in the 1976 Indianapolis 500 yearbook published by Carl Hugness.

  8. Ron Ford Says:

    While George has a long, detailed memory of the cars and paint schemes of the 1969 race as seen through his 10 year old eyes, my most vivid memory of being at the track in the 50s as a ten year old is of the concrete seats in the outhouse rest rooms. I have never fully recovered from my initial exposure to that sight.

  9. Talón de Brea Says:

    First race I saw on live pay-per-view closed circuit TV, in a convention center. Not as cool as being there, but better than same-day tape-delay broadcasts several years later.

    That spring I had lurked as a 13-year-old in the pits at Sebring, during practice for the 12 Hours, and got to see Andretti up close, sitting in the cockpit and discussing the Ferrari prototype that he would co-drive to second place. His versatility was starting to dawn on me: he had qualified a Lotus on the pole the previous fall at Watkins Glen – in his first Formula One race! I became an Andretti fan – belatedly – then, so was not sorry he won at Indy.

    I was already of fan of Roger Penske, from his Corvette and Chaparral sports car days, so I enjoyed seeing him in the pits of his team’s Sunoco Lola (the car that won the 24 Hours of Daytona a couple of months before), talking with a guy who, I realized years later, was Carl Haas. So I also pulled for his driver, Mark Donahue, in the 1969 500.

    I don’t believe I had any kind of credentials at Sebring in 1969, and although I looked older than my age, it was still a miracle that I got my first up-cose look at these heroes.

    I also enjoyed seeing other guys I had previously seen race sportscars, in the 500 that year: Lloyd Ruby (really bad luck in that one), A.J. Foyt, Dan Gurney, etc. … it gave me a sense of linkage to the 500 that I now realize the dirt track fans gradually lost over the years (that’s another, huge topic). I liked the cross-discipline work of an Andretti or Foyt or Gurney, and I’m sorry there isn’t as much of that in this current age of relative specialization …

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