Who Was The Best – Andretti Or Foyt?
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.