Mario Andretti enjoyed many memorable victories during his spectacular racing career, but his “favorite win” came on Father’s Day in 1986.
The only driver to win the Indianapolis 500, Daytona 500 and the Formula One championship in his career admits it was a tremendous gift given to him by his son, Michael.
The race was the Budweiser/GI Joe’s 200 at Portland (Ore.) Int’l Raceway on June 16, 1986, and Mario Andretti was the defending winner. He won the 1985 Portland race by 25.17 seconds over Al Unser Jr. He started seventh in 1986.
It was also the first season that Michael was his teammate at Newman-Haas Racing and the youngster was already pushing his “old man” on the race track, having won two of the first four races that season.
Had Mario Andretti written a script to how the Portland race would finish on Father’s Day, nobody would have believed it.
“Not in 100 years,” Mario Andretti laughed. “Father and son. Father’s Day. Father winning a race that he should have never won. Son blowing him away big time.
“I get so much joy out of that you cannot believe because it pissed Michael off so much,” Mario Andretti added. “And rightfully so, because Michael was flying that day. I remember he and Danny Sullivan were on a planet of their own and Danny dropped out and I was left there with no chance of catching him. I was fighting for second with Al Unser, Jr. on my tail.”
But with two laps to go, Mario heard over the radio that Michael’s car was having a fuel pickup problem. With Michael’s car sputtering around the course, Mario was running at full throttle trying to get to the lead.
“Oh man, I just stood up in that seat and must have set the all-time record,” Mario Andretti recalled. “We were coming down to the stretch side by side and his engine sneezed just enough that I beat him by seven-thousandths of a second.
“Ricky Craven of NASCAR was over to my house in May with Kyle Petty on the charity ride and Ricky holds the NASCAR record of two-thousandths of a second over Kurt Busch at Darlington. I showed him the huge photo I have on the wall of Michael and I and I beat him literally by two inches at the line.”
Mario contends that it was seven-thousandths of a second although the actual box score lists it as seven-hundredths of a second because of the timing and scoring system used at that time.
“People thought there was no way it was that close, so they called it seven-hundredths and that is what went on the record and I’ve been trying to rectify that for years,” Mario Andretti said. “I can show anybody the photo and that is seven-one-thousandths of a second. Officially, we don’t have the record. I know it was announced on the podium as seven-one-thousandths of a second but the ‘experts’ corrected it for some reason.
“I assumed I won. The photo has Michael looking at me and me looking at Michael and Al Unser Jr. right behind us. Think about it, 180 mph and I win by two inches. Michael was still thinking he won it and then they certified it.”
Michael Andretti, who led 87 of 104 laps, was crushed by the outcome.
“He was not very happy until somebody told Michael, ‘Cheer up, it’s Father’s Day,’” Mario Andretti recalled. “Michael looked over at me all glum and said, ‘Oh, happy Father’s Day.’”
To this day, mention that race to Michael Andretti and he will roll his eyes, still thinking about a certain victory that got away.
“It was good that it was dad, but at the time it hurt really bad,” Michael Andretti recalled. “I literally had a one-lap lead on the field on a road course and that is almost impossible. Then, I had to coast the last few laps because I couldn’t pick up seven gallons of fuel in my tank.”