Italian American racing legend Mario Andretti, now 77, has experienced what we’re sure is an abundance of big moments since his career started in the early 1960s. One of them, which came nearly 50 years ago to the day, was winning the 12 Hours of Sebring in the Ford GT40 Mk IV in 1967 alongside co-driver Bruce McLaren.
Granted, his involvement with the Ford GT40 racing program was much more extensive than just that single race win; he was “part of almost all the testing and development of the Mk II and Mk IV,” he recounted to Ford recently. Now retired, the former racing driver still makes a point of keeping up with Ford Chip Ganassi Racing as they campaign the all-new GT in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar and FIA World Endurance championships.
But back to that victory at Sebring. “We tested only briefly and it was the first race for the Mk IV,” Andretti recalls. “The car was competitive right from the start because we had very good mechanical knowledge and they had used much of the chassis of the Mk II, with some mods, but with a new aerodynamic shape it proved to be quite good. With Bruce McLaren, we just pulled it off.
“It was a hard-fought race. The Chaparral [2F] was the favorite, but we were competitive… Sebring was actually very important from the standpoint of Ford’s effort for the Le Mans 24. At Daytona earlier that year, we had some issues and Ford felt they needed to come up with a different model car, a little slicker and quicker in a straight line, especially for Le Mans, and Phil Remington was given the task of designing that car quickly. He did it and that car won Sebring and Le Mans.”
Ford then asked Andretti whether there was anything he didn’t like about the Ford GT40 Mk IV. His response was an emphatic “no.”
“When you win, you fall in love with a car,” Andretti said. “It was a very, very good car… We did a lot of work and we were well-prepared and those cars were the envy of Ferrari, Porsche and all the other manufacturers. I honestly think they were all slightly intimidated. We had one issue, which was not the fault of the car. It was a windy day and somehow some paper debris got caught in the air intake of the cockpit. It was a closed cockpit so Bruce and I both suffered the excessive heat. We were really beat up, but looking back at it now, it probably makes for a better story.”
Through his career, Mario Andretti won races in F1, IndyCar, NASCAR, and the World SportsCar Championship – the precursor to today’s FIA World Endurance Championship. The only other driver who can claim the same is another alum of the Ford GT40 program: Dan Gurney.
He said of Ford’s current racing efforts with the new GT: “Ford made an excellent choice to have Chip [Ganassi] lead this new effort and so far he is making everybody proud. That’s no surprise since Chip has been successful so many times before in everything he’s championed. That’s true-blue Chip.”
The 2017 FIA World Endurance Championship kicks off April 16th, with the 6 Hours of Silverstone in the UK. The 12 Hours of Sebring, part of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, takes place today.