He tried sprint cars, joining the United Racing Club, but found only clunkers to drive. Most car owners he approached considered him too green and too small. One asked if he’d brought along a pillow to sit on.

“That fired me up,” said Mario, “I may not have had Schwarzenegger’s shoulders, but I had the heart I needed.”

He set a new target: The midgets of the American Racing Drivers Club, which had propelled Mike Nazaruk and Bill Schindler toward Indianapolis while serving as a home to midget lifers like Len Duncan, whom Andretti called “the benchmark.”

The big issue, again, was finding a ride. Aware that ARDC owners would scout talent at the area’s TQ midget races, Andretti wanted to buy a Triumph-powered TQ previously driven by Bobby Marshman. The $1,200 price tag was beyond his grasp, but he had an idea. Recently married to the former Dee Ann Hoch, who’d tutored him through middle-school English, Mario decided to make her father a partner.

“I made my father-in-law a deal he couldn’t refuse. He would buy the car, and I’d give him 50 percent of what it earned. When we sold the car, that money would be his.”

In the winter of 1961-’62, Andretti took a stunning indoor victory at the Teaneck Armory in New Jersey. Come spring, he added wins at nearby Pine Brook Speedway and Wall Stadium. Then he sold the car at a profit, pleasing his father-in-law.

Best of all, he’d secured a ride in a midget owned by brothers Bill and Ed Mataka, who plugged Andretti into their yellow Offy. By September 1962, he was a winner.

In 1963, came six more scores, three of them in a Labor Day romp that changed Andretti’s life. First, he dominated an afternoon show at New Jersey’s Flemington Speedway, winning his heat race, the trophy dash and the feature. Next everyone boogied 35 miles to Hatfield, where Mario opened the evening by winning a feature postponed from an earlier rainout. Then, feeling “hell-bent, really primed,” he swept the nightcap: heat, dash and main event. He’d bagged three ARDC victories in about eight hours.

Hatfield’s guest announcer was SPEED SPORT Editor Chris Economaki, whose ship’s-horn voice could give any Offenhauser a run for its money. On his last cool-down lap of the night, Andretti heard Economaki bellow, “Mario, with this feature win, it looks like you just bought your ticket to the big time.”

Economaki was not wrong. On April 19, 1964, aboard the aging Stearly Motor Freight roadster, Andretti made his Indy car debut at Trenton. He qualified 16th and finished 11th, but there’s more to the story. The cockpit was roomier than he’d guessed; its previous occupant, Troy Ruttman, stood a muscular 6 foot 3 inches or 6 foot 4 inches, and flyweight Mario was maybe 5 foot 7 inches on tiptoes. “I had no feel for the freaking car,” he said. “I was slushing around in the seat, trying to chase the damn thing. But I got through it.”

Four days earlier, on April 15, Mario accompanied his parents, sister Anna Maria and brother Aldo to Philadelphia, where they were sworn in as naturalized United States citizens. It was, he declared, “the proudest day of my life.”

Mario Andretti (left) with his friend and longtime rival A.J. Foyt.

So many of that era’s racing heroes — A.J. Foyt, Parnelli Jones, Richard Petty, Ned Jarrett — seemed to bleed red, white and blue. Meanwhile, every newspaper story about Andretti included phrases like “the Italian-born racer.” It set him apart; long after 1964, it kept him foreign. Yet Mario had a deeper appreciation of what it was to be American than did most native Yankees. He knew the ravages of war; he saw what communism stole from his parents; and he lived the weeks, months and years in that displaced-persons compound.

Now he was raising a family — he and Dee Ann were already parents to Michael and Jeff, with daughter Barbie a few years off — and earning a living at a job he loved, free from oppression. Free, period. He said this often, and he meant it: “More than most people, I know the meaning of the phrase ‘Only in America.’”

Which explains why the next time he raced at Trenton, his patriotic pride made him ask Jim McGee to stop his hammering until the national anthem finished.

Andretti’s tenure in major-league motorsports spanned 30 years, ending with his 1994 “Arrivederci Tour.” It wasn’t all roses. He saw friends die and anguished over the 1969 injuries that ended Aldo’s career.

And what about May 24, 1992? Lying in a hospital with toes broken in an Indy 500 crash, Mario’s treatment was put on hold so doctors could attend to another driver with badly smashed legs. It was his younger son, Jeff.

But, Lord, what a run Mario had, punctuated by those victories at Indianapolis and Daytona, and an F-1 title clinched at Monza, of all places. And when the driving ended, the glory did not. The world kept finding another reason to hang a sash around Andretti’s neck.

On Oct. 23, 2006, in New York City, where his American adventure had begun 51 years earlier, the nation of Italy bestowed upon Mario its highest civilian honor, the title of Commendatore della Repubblica Italiana, “in recognition of his extraordinary racing accomplishments and good character.”

Antonio Bandini, Italy’s consul general to New York, said, “Fantastic achievements in sport are not the only reason we honor him. … Indeed, Mario Andretti has always been a prominent member of the Italian-American community, [and] extremely proud of his Italian heritage.”

In the room were son Michael, a champion driver-turned-team-owner, and Michael’s son Marco, who just that May had scored a brilliant runner-up finish in his rookie Indianapolis 500. For all of the evening’s Italian flavor, that phrase echoed again: Only in America.

It’s like Mario once told Bill Fleischman of the Philadelphia Daily News: “My world started from nothing. But we worked. We believed in something. This is a wonderful country that provides those opportunities.” [/subscribers_only]