Mario Andretti reflects on losing twin brother
ALLENTOWN, Pa. (AP) — In the gift shop at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, you can still purchase an official 1969 front-row photograph. A very young A. J. Foyt on the pole; Bobby Unser on the outside.
The man in the middle is the driver who went on to win his only Indianapolis 500 that year. Can you name him?
Mario Andretti, you say? Wrong! Not wrong that Mario won the 1969 event; what’s wrong is that in the photo taken the day after Pole Day qualifying, it was Aldo Andretti, not Mario, who sat for the photo.
Mario still laughs when he’s reminded of that day.
“I had crashed on Thursday, and by Sunday morning, my face was still puffed up and crusty from the burns,” Mario recalled once again last week. “I looked like Frankenstein. I asked him, ‘Why don’t you sit in for me?’ No one questioned it. We looked pretty close. We’re twins. There was a resemblance.”
And then, laughing at the memory, Mario added, “He looked good.”
Mario, three hours older, and Aldo not only looked close — especially at age 29 — but they were close in every way. Right from the start. Right to the end.
The end for Aldo was Dec. 30, when the combination of COVID-19 and bacterial pneumonia became too much for his 80-year-old body. His wife of 60 years, Carolyn “Corky” (Stofflet), who also contracted the coronavirus, “is pretty much (recovered from the disease),” Mario said.
Mario, who along with his grandson, Marco, visited Aldo and Corky in early December when they went to Indianapolis to get their IndyCar drivers’ physicals for 2021. Aldo was “jovial; we had a few laughs and he could always find something to chat about and bring a smile. He was looking forward to coming back (to Pennsylvania) this summer and going up to the lake. He loved that.”
Mario loved those Pocono vacations, too, because time spent with Aldo was precious. In a tweet following Aldo’s death, Mario called him “my loving twin brother, my partner in crime and my faithful best friend every day of my life. … Half of me went with him. There is no eloquence. I’m shaken to my core.”
When he talked to The Morning Call a week after Aldo’s passing, Mario said, “It almost seems like he took the brunt of it to spare me from everything. While he was racing, it seemed like he had a cloud over his head. If something was going to happen on the race track, it happened in front of him. But he found peace by supporting his own kids (sons Mark, John and Adam all took to auto racing and his grandson Jarett is a bright prospect now), and then supporting me always.
“The one thing that was always clear … Olympic clear … was he never made you feel like he was a victim of anything. He never ever expressed that in any possible way. He always stayed positive and he re-invented himself throughout his life to make the best of any situations. But deep down, his love for the sport kept him serene, motivated. Always being behind, in important ways.”
Aldo once told The Morning Call, “Mario was always the challenge for me. He was my focus; that satisfied me. I won a lot of races that way.
“Looking back is foolish. You either get the breaks or you don’t and to try to live what if and all that baloney will drive you bananas. That’s life. You do the best with what you have. I feel as fortunate as anybody. I had a couple nasty (crashes)in sprint cars … all the races I ran in the ’60s, IMSA and stuff, I feel lucky that I have my legs, my fingers, my arms …”
A sprint car crash in Des Moines, Iowa, in August 1968 ended Aldo’s racing career. But it didn’t keep him from the race track.
In 1978, he told Tom Keating of the Indianapolis Star, “I hope they don’t” when asked about his sons taking up racing. “It’s up to them and if they do become serious about it, I’ll help them all I can. It’s a tough business, gratifying but tough, and I’d rather they chose something else.”
That same year, when Mark and John, along with Mario’s sons Michael and Jeff, came to Pocono for a Formula K go-kart racing weekend, Aldo told The Morning Call, “(Corky) told me I always was involved in racing and always following my brother around the country and the kids were growing up and I didn’t know ’em. And she was right. We started this and it’s been the most gratifying thing in my life … There’s no such thing as a generation gap in our family. We do it together … my kids are growing up with me.”
John Andretti, who drove in America’s two premier series — IndyCar and NASCAR — got a glimpse of Aldo’s family pride in 1988, after it took him three tries to qualify for the Indy 500. He told the media that day, “When I came in from the run, I was so upset that I had lost sight that I had qualified for the race. Then I saw my dad, and he was acting like I had put it on the pole. At that time, I wished I could trade places with him.”
Aldo watched in 1991 and 1992 when four members of the Andretti clan qualified at Indianapolis. He watched when John ran both the Indianapolis 500 and NASCAR’s World 600 on the same day.
Unfortunately, the Andrettis also suffered a major off-track setback last year when John lost his battle with colon cancer.
“One thing after another,” said Mario, whose wife, Dee Ann, and his sister, Anna Maria Burley, both died in 2018.
The outpouring of support Mario has received in the short time since Aldo died has overwhelmed him.
“It’s amazing how wonderful people have been expressing themselves on social media,” he said. “Not just for me, but recalling events and moments spent with Aldo, recalling times they met him. It warms my heart.”
The numbers are incredible. After less than a week, 2,188,098 people from around the world have reacted to his tweet and over 261,000 have expressed themselves. “He touched millions of people, believe it or not,” Mario said. “It gives me chills … ”
But maybe the biggest spirit-lifters are the memories of a lifetime together, from the beginning in Montona, Italy, to a refugee camp following World War II and finally the family’s emigration to the United States when the twins were 15 and their sister was 21.
“We shared everything — until we got married,” he said, “When we were young lads, our mother always dressed us alike. I hated that; we both hated that.
“In the refugee camp, we had one bicycle. We painted it red, like a Ferrari. When we got to America, we both had a job at our uncle’s gas station and he would work one night and I would work the next. When my dad bought a ’57 Chevy, we had one car. We alternated weekends so we could take our dates out.
“When we started racing, we had one race car (a 1948 Hudson they built with the help of friends) and one helmet, and we alternated driving. But finally, when Aldo finally got married, I said now we didn’t have to share.”
Aldo wasn’t always looking out for the best for his brother.
Mario’s first Indy-car race was at Trenton Speedway. Mario didn’t have any testing experience in the car, so he watched for a while to see how the top drivers in the series drove into the first turn. He said there was a tree outside the track on the backstretch, so he asked Aldo to go down there on the infield and watch where others were backing off their speed for Turn 3. Mario would use the tree and Aldo to judge his lifting point.
“As soon as I started standing on (the gas pedal), I was looking for him,” Mario said. “Man, oh man, I thought, and at last I saw him and guessed everybody was going way down deep, so I went deep and I spun.“
After practice, I asked him, ‘Where the hell were you?’ and he said, ‘I knew where the top guys were backing off so I went about another 50 feet.’ I said, ‘Are you trying to kill me?’ He said, ‘I just wanted you to go faster.’”
If there was anything missing in their relationship, it was the fights.
“I don’t remember that we ever had a cross word,” Mario said. “That’s an absolute fact. Ever.
“Not even over girls,” he said in response to a seemingly obvious question about the dating habits of twins. “Sometimes we liked the same girl, and one would say, OK, go for it. It was a pure relationship we had, and we had the same dream from the beginning.”