Road & Track (USA)

‘It Was like God Had Just Spoken to Me’


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“Mario andretti, you have just hit the big time!”

The shrill voice came piping through the loudspeake­r at the small-town dirt track in Hatfield, Pennsylvan­ia. The announcer was, unmistakab­ly, Chris Economaki, the “dean of motorsport­s journalism.” Mario Andretti had just won a feature race, and he was still in the car on the cool-down lap when he heard Economaki’s plaudit from above. “It was like God had just spoken to me,” Andretti says, looking back on that 1963 Labor Day weekend victory.

But it wasn’t just one win that day. Andretti accomplish­ed something that had never been done and likely hasn’t been replicated.

The day began with a heat and a match race 30 miles from Hatfield in Flemington, New Jersey. Twenty-three-year-old Mario had been in the U.S. for only eight years, having spent most of his childhood in Italy. His family had lost almost everything in World War II and come to America penniless. Andretti was already Ferrari mad by the time he got to this country and was determined to make it on the American racing scene. He started out in three-quarter midgets and won a lot, earning a ride in 1963 in the American Racing Drivers Club series (ARDC), which ran up and down the East Coast. Brothers Bill and Ed Mataka of Maplewood, New Jersey, owned the No. 33 car Andretti drove. It was Offenhause­r powered and bright yellow with the sponsor logo “Jersey Speed & Marine” painted on the nose.

“I won that first match race and the feature in Flemington,” Andretti recalls. On those tracks, in those days, it was ten-tenths all the way. “Every lap was like a qualifying lap,” he says. “It takes a lot out of you.”

Right after, Andretti trailered the car from Flemington over the state line into Pennsylvan­ia. The Hatfield Speedway dirt track was a third of a mile and banked—“a very fast, very interestin­g track,” he recalls. By now, the sun had set and the lights were on. Andretti won his heat and went on to win the feature. Then things got really exciting.

There was a legend about a midget driver named Shorty Templeman. The night before the Indianapol­is 500 in 1956, on a quarter-mile paved track that used to be across the street from the Brickyard, Templeman won three feature races in one big event—one in the afternoon, one at night, and one after midnight. In 1963, the ARDC was scheduled to run a third feature race due to a rainout earlier in the season. If Andretti could win it, he would match Templeman’s achievemen­t of three features, and unlike Shorty’s race, the third ARDC race would be run before midnight, so all three would be in one day. Andretti went out and won that final race.

“As far as is known,” he says, “in sanctioned events, this is the only time three features were won within one day. That put my name on the map nationally.”

The following year, Andretti debuted in Indy car, running 10 of the season’s 13 races. In his first full season, in 1965, he won the national championsh­ip, snapping A.J. Foyt’s streak of four straight titles. Even now, Andretti still hears Economaki’s voice over the loudspeake­r at that small-town Pennsylvan­ia track. “It was this amazing thing,” he says, “that I’ll never forget.”

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