Who Was The Best – Andretti Or Foyt?

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Ever since I attended my first Indianapolis 500 in 1965, it seems that I have always been hearing the age old question in racing; who was better – AJ or Mario? Although you will be bombarded with facts and figures from passionate fans on both sides; in all honesty, it really boils down to personal preference. It’s almost like Coke or Pepsi, Bud or Miller, Mary Ann or Ginger. There is no right or wrong answer, but you’ll never be short of opinions on any of them. For the record; I prefer Coke, Bud, Mary Ann…and AJ Foyt.

If you’ve been reading this site for very long, you’re probably tired of my saying that growing up in the sixties – you either liked AJ Foyt or Mario Andretti. It was flat-out impossible to like both. You’re either a fan of Duke or Carolina, Ohio State or Michigan, the Yankees or the Red Sox, well…you get the idea.

There was no bigger rivalry in racing in those days. This was not something that was fabricated in the media just for publicity sake. No – these two really didn’t care for each other. Not only did they fiercely battle each other on the track, but their basic personalities repelled each other off of it. It’s ironic that they had such a tumultuous relationship, because their lives ran parallel for a great portion of their careers.

AJ Foyt grew up hanging around his father’s garage in Houston. Racing was in his blood and he started racing with his father’s help at a very early age. His talent and aggressiveness was evident and it didn’t take him long to work up through the ranks. He qualified for his first Indianapolis 500 in 1958 at the age of twenty-three and won the race for the first time in just his fourth try. Foyt would go on to win the race three more times, becoming the first man to win the Indianapolis 500 four times. Only two others have done it since.

Foyt also conquered stock cars. He won the USAC stock car championship three times and won the 1972 Daytona 500. He drove at Le Mans only once, but came away victorious as he and fellow American Dan Gurney teamed up to win one of the most memorable races ever at Le Mans. Foyt retired from Indy car competition in 1993, having competed in a record thirty-five consecutive Indy 500’s and amassing a record sixty-seven Indy car victories.

Mario Andretti was born in 1940 – five years after Foyt – in the Italian village of Montona. Near the end of World War II, Montona became part of Yugoslavia and the Andretti family found themselves placed in a refugee camp. The family migrated to the United States in 1955 and settled in Nazareth, PA; where Mario and his twin brother Aldo suddenly discovered that there actually was racing on this side of the Atlantic.

Mario and Aldo would sneak away on weekends and race at the local dirt tracks, until Aldo was involved in a serious accident. After the accident, Aldo’s driving career was never the same – but Mario’s flourished. Ten years after migrating to this country, Mario Andretti found himself driving at the Indianapolis 500 as a rookie in 1965 – where he won Rookie of the Year. He later won the race in his fifth start.

Like Foyt, Mario excelled in other forms of racing. He too was a Daytona 500 champion, winning the NASCAR jewel in 1967. Although he competed at Le Mans spanning four decades, he never won there. But he competed several seasons in Formula One, winning the World Championship in 1978. Andretti retired from driving following the 1994 CART season. He ranks second to Foyt in Indy car victories with fifty-two and one Indy 500 victory.

Although they had already raced against each other, their paths crossed publicly at Indianapolis in 1965. Foyt was already “King of the Mountain” having just won the Indianapolis 500 for the second time in only seven starts. He was also the defending USAC National Champion as he had accomplished that feat in four of the past five seasons. Now there was this brash kid with a funny name and strange accent that was trying to knock him off.

Foyt was already feeling threatened by the presence of another foreigner – Jim Clark of Scotland. Foyt took great pleasure in yanking the pole position away from Clark in 1965. He took greater pride in announcing that he was glad to bring the pole position back to the USA, as he was interviewed by Jim Phillippe over the PA. This stoked the fear and loathing of the foreign driver among his loyal fans, and probably planted the seed for the rivalry with the Italian-born Andretti that was to come.

The two men had vastly different personalities and driving styles. Foyt was the fiery Texan that was known for saying exactly what was on his mind, and didn’t mind using his fist to make his point. Andretti appeared more laid back in conversation, seemed much more refined and educated and came across as controlled, if not somewhat aloof.

Ironically, their driving styles were the opposite of their personalities. While Andretti was wild and untamed with his hard-charging style that often wore down his equipment; Foyt was known as a smart driver who was always in control behind the wheel. He rarely put a wheel wrong and had a reputation for driving a disciplined race, taking care of his equipment and always being there at the end to make a move. Such contrasting styles were hard to figure by observing their demeanor out of the car.

Comparing the two men in their prime is a tough call. That is why blogs, forums and talk radio exist. It is the electronic form of bench racing – to discuss such topics. In the sixties and through most of the seventies, I would give the nod to Foyt. When Andretti won the Formula One championship in 1978 however, that muddied the discussion.

Foyt’s last win came in 1981 at Pocono. Although he was still having decent runs at Indianapolis through the eighties, he was no longer competitive. He admittedly lost his desire to win after the death of his parents. His mother died in May 1982 and his father who was so much a part of his racing passed away a year later, less than a week before the 1983 Indianapolis 500. But he kept racing, and kept losing – until he caught everyone off guard on the morning of Pole Day in 1993 and abruptly announced he would not attempt to qualify for his thirty-sixth Indianapolis 500. I was in attendance that day. I would like to say I was one of those that saw that final ceremonial last lap. Instead, I was back near the garage area eating a hamburger – totally unaware of what was going on just a few yards away.

Meanwhile, Andretti was no longer racing in Formula One and was solely committed to racing Indy cars in the eighties. Andretti remained competitive and joined forces with Paul Newman at Newman/Haas in 1983. He won the CART championship in 1984. During his time at Newman/Haas, Andretti won at least one race throughout the eighties – except for 1989, which was the year his son Michael joined him as a teammate. By this time Mario was 49, yet still very competitive. Mario’s last win came at Phoenix in 1993, and he retired the following year at age fifty-four.

Looking at the eighties and early nineties, you’d have to give the nod to Mario. Based on the entire body of work and dealing in strictly facts and accomplishments, it’s a tough call. That’s when personal preference comes into play and then things get really jumbled. My preference was and is AJ Foyt, but in all honesty – that is mainly because that’s who I liked while growing up in the sixties. The teachings of childhood are hard to overcome.

George Phillips

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21 Responses to “Who Was The Best – Andretti Or Foyt?”

  1. Since I became a fan as a kid in the 80s the answer is Andretti. Foyts accomplishments were all before my time.

    The time to argue about who was better is past. Each has a list of accomplishments that speaks for itself. But in the spirit of the rivalry I would like to point out that Foyt’s Lemans victory should be valued no more than Milka’s Grand Am win. It didn’t matter who was in the car so long as they didn’t break it that day!

  2. Scott,

    “But in the spirit of the rivalry I would like to point out that Foyt’s Lemans victory should be valued no more than Milka’s Grand Am win.”

    What???????????????

    I’m not no fan of AJ, but that quote is ludicrous! Are you saying Gurney did all the work at Le Mans?

    George, I’m absolutely in the Mario camp here, mainly because he had the balls to go to Europe to race and beat the best drivers in the World on a regular basis. On saying that, I’m surprised you didn’t include AJ’s wins at the Daytona 24 hours and the Sebring 12 hours in the mid eighties along with his incredible drive there when he charged through the field driving in the wet for the very first time.

    From a European’s perspective, it is always viewed with a certain degree of sadness that AJ didn’t give F1 a proper go when he was at the height of his powers. But I doubt his personality would have been a good match for the F1 paddocks of the time (we feel the same way about Rick Mears btw).

    Dex

  3. I’m certainly not saying Gurney did all the work (although one could argue that the mk IV did most of it). I was being facetious.

  4. Mario won most of the “Best American Driver of the 20th Century” polls when all the magazines published these type of cover stories in late 1999 & early 2000 :idea: I agree too… BOTH great but Mario gets the #1 tag

  5. Bent Wickerbill Says:

    Both of these motorsport giants have played major ground breaking roles across the racing spectrum. However, Mario was able to conquer F-1 and no matter what AJ did back here in the states, there as a time when Mario was racing in both CART and F-1. And, if that is not enough for you, if you check both AJ and Mario out on Wikipedia, there are only 10 pages dedicated to AJ, while there are a full 17 pages dedicated to Mario. I think this fact alone should settle this discussion…. lol

  6. Tim Nothhelfer Says:

    One without the other…..both drivers would be diminished.
    AJ is man’s man so maybe Mario seemed cooler.
    In my boyhood I favored Mario because he was often running so much faster than his competition. In my middle age I appreciate AJ for his career and his constitution. Was it last year he flew RHR’s mom home when she was stranded in a Texas hospital?
    That is the kind of thing that puts him over the top with me.

    • I’m sure Mario Andretti has plenty of stuff too… not every good deed gets media attention :idea: Dale Earnhardt did a bunch of charitable stuff & demanded that it NOT get public press… we learned about it after he died

      Mario’s last win came @ PHX in 1993 & he beat some tough competition at age 53 :!: Sadly, AJ’s results were as field filler & perhaps solid runs qualifying for the Indy 500. Mario retired on pace & competitive against much younger drivers… Foyt fans secretly hoped he would retire (years before he finally did)

    • Brian McKay Says:

      The poll was, “Who was the best Indy car driver ever?” It doesn’t ask who sells the best wine or which driver lets other humans ride in his airplane or which driver is most charming…

      • Bent Wickerbill Says:

        Actually the title of the article is: Who was best, Andretti or Foyt…? But just in case you were wondering the wine is great out at Big Ranch Road….

      • Brian: I was countering Tim’s point that AJ had a bigger heart. We agree… its best Indy driver & Mario was SOLID from beginning to end. Sadly AJ was not. Overall greatness can be effected when greats just can’t retire while they are GREAT :!:

  7. Brian McKay Says:

    Who was the best Indy car driver ever?
    Look at the record of wins – and Indy 500 wins, as that’s so important to some.
    Or look at the win percentage of started races (Sébastien Bourdais).
    The question does not involve Daytona, Sebring, Le Mans, IROC, F1, or NASCAR.

    • Did you actually read the title of the post?

      • Yes. I read the title of George’s essay. And I read our poll question. As George only writes of IndyCar racing, not F1 and WRC, I encourage persons to compare the IndyCar records of A.J. Foyt Junior and Mario Andretti for IndyCar to read win totals, ratio of wins to starts, and ratio of podiums to starts to determine “Who was the best Indy car driver ever?”

  8. JT SUEL Says:

    I HAVE TO GIVE MY OVERALL VOTE TO MARIO.IAM ONE OF THOSE RARE
    PEOPLE THAT LIKED BOTH MARIO AND AJ. I THINK AJ WAS THE BEST EVER ON DIRT. IN ALL DISPLENS I HAVE TO GO WITH MARIO. I CAN SEE
    BOTH POINTS OF VIEW, THIS WILL BE MY 50TH 500,1960-2010 GREAT
    NEVER ENDING DEBATE.

  9. Nice post! I think both man are great in different ways. The verdict one is better than the other is subjective.

    • Brian McKay Says:

      Consult the statistics. -not subjective-

      • Of course the statistics are subjective.

        Mario was winning races in CART in the 80′s & 90′s against extremely strong fields. That cannot be said of many of AJ’s victories in throughout his career.

        Looking at statistics alone proves nothing.

        • kurt swomia Says:

          I agree Mario Andretti was the greatest. His accomplishments speak for themselve. He had the balls to go overseas and race F1 and win. He was competitive all through his career, winning in 4 different decades, unlike Foyt who was just running laps toward the end. The thing I liked about Mario, he was aggressive, win or lose, exciting to watch. Side note, I hate driivers who are just running laps to collect a point or 2, typical or boring Nascar drivers. Mario Andretti is still the greatest, proof of him driving the 2 seated Izod Indy Car at 73.

      • I’ve been wrong. I’ve been an idiot.
        I had assumed that one could see who was the more successful racer then deduce “who was the best.” I assumed that “the best” meant the most successful. And how do we define success in motorsport? – winning races and winning championships (garnering most points, likely by first-, second-, and third-place finishes)
        Looking Foyt’s and Andretti’s wins-to-starts ratios and podiums-to-starts ratios and Indy 500 wins-to-starts ratios … doesn’t account for the caliber of their competitors nor all the mechanical failures and crashes that weren’t caused by the racers.
        So I stand corrected. I learned something today.
        Thanks, Dex (and others).

  10. kurt swomia Says:

    Mario was the GREATEST. Proof is also with snowmobiling. Snowgoer magazine had him advertising for Snojet Snowmobiles in the 70′s. Arctic Cat had a prototype Mario Andretti snowmobile ready for production in 1982, but went out of business temporarily until 1984. Where was Foyt? Enough said.. Also, I lost respect for Foyt when he lost his cool and clocked Arie L. during team victory press briefing.

  11. very interesting article, mate! I’m with Mario. Winning F1 ( most importantly, in the 70s) definitely is the ace up his sleeve, IMO. With a bit less misfortune at Indy, he could have won it two or three times and no one would talk too much about this..

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