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Mario’s Finish Line : Phoenix Is Very Special in Andretti’s Final Season and Crew Chief McGee Has Been a Big Part of His Career

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Jim McGee was Mario Andretti’s roommate and chief mechanic when Andretti drove in his first Indy car race in 1964. He was the crew chief in 1969 when Andretti won his only Indianapolis 500. He was with him here last year when Andretti won his 52nd race to become--at 53 years, 34 days--the oldest Indy car winner.

And the two are together this weekend as Andretti defends his Slick-50 200 championship Sunday at Phoenix International Raceway. Qualifying is today for the race, No. 2 in the PPG Cup Indy car season--which Andretti has said will be his last.

“It all started right here in Phoenix,” McGee said. “Clint Brawner and I had put together a car and we needed a driver. I told Clint that ‘That Andretti kid has really looked good running against Parnelli Jones and A.J. Foyt back East.’ ”

Andretti moved to Phoenix, roomed with McGee and worked on the car as a welder and handyman.

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“He was pretty handy as a welder and he rebuilt a dirt car for us before we put him in our champ car,” McGee said. “That was an amazing time in Indy cars, a real transition year. We were shifting from roadsters to rear-engine cars, and at the time were moving from the old Offy engines to Ford V8s.

“When we went to Indy in ’65, we had a whole new car, a new engine and a rookie driver, and we got there late. We only had two engines and when we blew both of them in practice, it looked like we were cooked, but Clint got Firestone to lend us an engine so Mario could finish his rookie test.”

The incident helped launch what many racing followers believe is the career of racing’s greatest driver. Andretti qualified fourth, finished third and was named rookie of the year.

“As it turned out, it was one of the most amazing races of his career,” McGee said. “We were so afraid of blowing the borrowed engine, we ran such a safe fuel mixture that it left Mario down 150 horsepower to guys like A.J. and (Dan) Gurney and Bobby Unser. The car didn’t have proper ventilation, so Mario cooked in the cockpit. His hands were so blistered, I don’t know how he held the steering wheel, but there was no way anything like pain could stop him.”

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Later that year, Andretti went on to win his first Indy car race, at Indianapolis Raceway Park, and stunned his elders by beating Foyt for his first driver’s championship. He won the title again in 1966 and ’69, when the Indy 500 was one of his nine victories that season, and for the last time in 1984.

“We had a great run until it ended in 1970 when Mario left Brawner to go with Andy Granatelli (who had been a partner with Brawner),” McGee said. “He and Clint had been feuding for years, and I was the peacemaker, but when Granatelli entered the picture, Clint said, ‘So long.’ I worked a year for Andy in Santa Monica, but a year was enough for me.”

After stints with car owners Parnelli Jones and Bob Fletcher, McGee was approached by Roger Penske in 1975 to help develop an Indy car team.

“Tom Sneva was our only driver that first year, and we built it up to a three-car team that began dominating the series,” McGee said. It also brought him and Andretti together again.

“In my last year with Penske, our cars finished 1-2-3 at Michigan with Mario winning. It was a great team, and it still is.”

Andretti and McGee parted company when Mario joined a new team formed by Paul Newman and Carl Haas in 1983. McGee spent 12 years with Pat Patrick, during which time he was crew chief for two Indy 500 winners, Gordon Johncock in 1982 and Emerson Fittipaldi in 1989.

After the 1992 season, in which McGee directed Bobby Rahal to his second Indy car championship, he decided to take a year off, enjoy his family and explore other possibilities. They took a monthlong trip to China.

“When we got back, I had a call from Mario,” McGee said. “He asked me what I was doing, I told him nothing, and the next thing I knew Carl (Haas) was calling, asking me to come up to Chicago. He told me (Nigel) Mansell was coming over and the team needed someone to help him through the year, especially at Indy. He said he wanted me to sort of guide him around, not only in the race car, but off the track as well.”

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When McGee accepted the challenge, it reunited him with Andretti yet again in a fourth decade and on a seventh different team. He was made team manager for both Andretti and Mansell, although on race days he is in Mansell’s pit.

“I had watched Mario while I was working for Patrick,” McGee said, “but I was still a bit surprised when I started working with him again and saw how much he still had the same burning desire, the fire, that he had when we started together. It wasn’t only his mental approach, but also his physical. Basically, he was doing the same work he did 20 and 30 years ago.”

There were highlights and lowlights for Andretti in 1993. The highs came when he ended a 73-race winless streak, dating back to 1988, with his victory at Phoenix and when he set a world closed-course record of 234.275 m.p.h. to win the pole for the Michigan 500.

“He was back in his glory when he was on the podium at Phoenix,” McGee said. “You could see the old fire back in his eyes. He was a winner again. But I think that pole at Michigan was even more remarkable.

“At his age, to set a record of that magnitude, it’s a heck of a feat. I know records are made to be broken, but that one’s going to stand for a while, I’m sure.”

The downside of Andretti’s year was the anguish over the disappointing season by his son Michael in Formula One.

“Last year was painful for me, no doubt about it, because it was so unjust,” Mario said. “When (McLaren team manager) Roy Dennis decided to have Mika Hakkinen do all the testing for the team, it left Michael out in the lake without any oars. He went to tracks he’d never seen, and when he didn’t produce, he caught it from all sides. I knew what was happening, but there was nothing I could do about it. It was very stressful.”

The elder Andretti, the first to win both an Indy car and a Formula One championship, said he has mixed emotions about retiring.

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“I’m very comfortable with my decision,” Andretti said. “On the other hand, I know I will miss the driving. All those miles, thousands and thousands of them, have been such a part of my life I can’t imagine what it will be without them.

“I will miss going to the tracks, feeling the tension, the commitment, the team camaraderie. Every year you look at each track in a different way. Every new season is like waiting for a newborn baby. You can’t wait to find out what’s going to happen. I don’t know what in hell I’ll be thinking about this time next year, but it’s not something that concerns me at the moment.”

Andretti’s speed of 171.953 m.p.h. in his Lola-Ford on Phoenix’s mile oval during practice Friday was seventh-fastest of the 31 cars in Sunday’s race. Emerson Fittipaldi was quickest at 177.087.

“Phoenix has a very soft spot in my heart,” Andretti said. “I have driven a lot of miles, probably more than anyone, on this track. I got my start right here and I look back on it with a lot of emotion and a lot of images in my mind.”

Andretti won here in 1966, ’67, ’88 and ’93. He sat on the pole for eight races.

“Of course, the win last year is something that will always be extra special. Only I know how much I really, really wanted to win in the 1990s. It gave me a win in my fourth decade and it proved that on the right day, and in the right circumstances, I could still win.”


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