By Mark Robinson IMSA Wire Service
Fifty years after accomplishing one of the most revered wins in sports car racing history – in what is still hailed as “The Greatest 12 Hours” – Mario Andretti returned today to serve as grand marshal of the 68th Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring Presented by Advance Auto Parts.
The legendary racer who won in every discipline where he competed – sports cars, IndyCars, Formula 1, even NASCAR – arrived in style this morning, the HondaJet carrying him landed on the adjacent Sebring Regional Airport and then taxied down the Sebring International Raceway backstretch to Turn 17. From there, he hopped into a current-day Ferrari adorned with a black No. 21 inside a white circle, replicating the number of the Ferrari 512C Coupe that Andretti willed to victory five decades ago.
Andretti and co-driver Arturo Merzario started on pole and dominated the 1970 race in the No. 19 Ferrari 512 Spyder until gearbox issues ended its day two hours before the finish. Scheduled to drive in a Pennsylvania sprint car race the next day, Andretti was prepared to leave the track when Ferrari team manager Mauro Forghieri asked if he would finish the race in the No. 21 Coupe that was running third but a much different car than the open-cockpit Spyder.
The factory-backed Porsche that had been leading suffered a mechanical issue, but that left the privateer Porsche driven by the great Peter Revson and actor/racer Steve McQueen still ahead. Andretti said he was running laps six seconds faster in the No. 21 Coupe that he wasn’t fitted to drive than he had been turning earlier in the No. 19 Spyder designed for him.
“I had some catching up to do,” Andretti said. “I didn’t have much time left – I had about an hour or so to make up a lap or so. I passed him (for the lead), but I had to stop to get about a liter of fuel toward the end. Then I had to re-pass him again and then we won. It was a glorious event because it was not expected.”
Andretti issued the start command for today’s race, then jumped behind the wheel of a Ferrari Tributo for a ceremonial pace lap before the 12-hour race began. His first trip back to Sebring since the mid-1990s opened the floodgates for the fond memories – especially from those “Greatest 12 Hours.”
“I’ve been very lucky here,” he said. “Obviously, we had three wins, but that one stands out because so many things were happening that we didn’t know what the outcome was going to be. It’s so great to be here today, to be invited to celebrate that event.
“To be part of the history here is what it’s all about. That’s what you always remember, that’s what you put on your mantel.”