DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – It’s one of the most remarkable stories in sports car racing history.
The protagonist is motorsports legend Mario Andretti, while the antagonist – at least one of them – is Hollywood superstar Steve McQueen.
The scene is Sebring Int’l Raceway and the 19th Twelve Hours of Sebring on March 21, 1970.
Three years after winning his first Twelve Hours in 1967, Andretti was well on his way to a second Sebring win in the No. 19 Ferrari 512S Spyder that he co-drove with Arturo Merzario.
Andretti put the car on pole by a healthy margin in qualifying, and he and Merzario dominated most of the race for the Ferrari factory team.
They led by as many as 12 laps before gearbox troubles forced the No. 19 Ferrari to stop. Disappointed, Andretti was ready to head for home.
“We’re out of the race and I was pretty much ready to leave because I had my plane there,” said Andretti, who the year prior had won the Indianapolis 500 and the Indy car championship. “The next day, on Sunday, I was racing a sprint car race in Reading, Pa., so I figured, ‘Well, I’ll just leave a little early.’
“I was ready to go, say my goodbye and Mauro Forghieri, the team manager said, ‘No, wait, wait, wait! I might want you to go and finish the race with the third car with (Nino) Vaccarella and (Ignazio) Giunti. I said, ‘Well, I don’t know.’”
Andretti was torn. On one hand, after spending all day dominating the race in the No. 19 Ferrari, it’d be nice to have something to show for his efforts.
But at the same time, the No. 21 Ferrari 512S Coupe was quite a bit different from the No. 19 Spyder, which had an open cockpit. It also was running third, a lap down to the leaders with less than two hours left in the race.
Jo Siffert was leading the race for the Porsche factory-supported team in the No. 5 Porsche 917K and was looking mighty strong. Running second was Peter Revson in a privateer No. 48 Porsche 908 he was sharing with McQueen.
“All of a sudden, the leading Porsche had some issues with a front hub, so they’re in the pits a long time,” Andretti recalled. “And Revson was in the (No. 48) car and he had been in the car for over eight hours – not consecutive – but McQueen did the minimum amount.”
A few weeks before the Sebring race, McQueen had broken his foot in a motorcycle race in Lake Elsinore, California and was sporting a cast on his left leg.
But with Siffert’s misfortune, Revson moved into the lead and track announcers were sensing a big Hollywood ending for McQueen.
“As Revson goes into the lead, they’re saying, ‘And Steve McQueen takes the lead!” Andretti remembers. “They’re screaming, ‘Steve McQueen!’ and I’m looking at it and that pissed me off, actually. So, I told Forghieri, ‘If you want me to go, I’ll go in the car,’ because I felt that I had a better chance against that Porsche rather than the factory Porsche.”
But before he did it, Andretti also spoke with Giunti, who was due to take over in the No. 21 Ferrari from Vaccarella.
“It was his turn to go back in the car and finish,” Andretti said. “He was sitting there, and I asked him – because Forghieri was adamant that I get in the car – but I wanted the other driver to accept that. I didn’t want to be that forceful. I asked him, ‘Ignazio, is it OK if I go?’ He goes, ‘Yes. Yes. OK.’”
With Giunti’s blessing, Andretti climbed into the cockpit of the No. 21 Ferrari. It was a car he had never driven before, in the pitch-black dark of night.
“I didn’t fit worth a damn, because both guys were a little bit taller than me,” Andretti says. “But I was determined.”
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