Finding the Groove: Andretti at Phoenix
Friday, June 25, 2021 - 15:30
This excerpt is from Chapter 1 of Finding the Groove. In each chapter, author Hal Higdon asks the drivers: "How do you go fast around a racetrack?" Find out how Mario Andretti’s mastery over the “groove” made him one of the sport’s most legendary drivers.
The white racer came around the last turn, seemed to hesitate at the head of the home straightaway, then rushed past the pits tower at Phoenix International Raceway. Mike Mosley drove the car. Down in the pits Al Unser waited, arms folded, watching mechanics adjust the engine in his racing machine. A separate crew worked on the auto assigned to Mario Andretti, his teammate. Mario, just having completed several laps, stood beside me on the tower, still dressed in his driver’s uniform.
The white racer rushed by once again. Mosley, Andretti, and Unser had come to Phoenix in January for a week of tire testing for the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company. “It looks like he’s standing still when he comes out of that last turn,” I commented to Mario Andretti. “You get no sensation of speed from here.”
Mario smiled. “You have to get close to it.” He turned and pointed to the far side of the track. “Go over and stand on that hill.”
The championship racetrack at Phoenix is located about twenty miles southwest of that Arizona city. Humpbacked sand hills, covered with only an occasional cactus, border the track on two sides. “By that telephone pole?” I asked.
“No, thirty yards to the right, and down. Near that rock.”
I shaded my eyes against the bright sun and squinted to locate the rock. Mario Andretti either had exceptional eyesight, or was putting me on.
Below, in the pits, mechanic Jimmy McGee whistled to attract his driver’s attention. McGee pointed at the car, now apparently ready. Andretti jogged down the stairs and to the side of his machine, white trimmed in red and blue and with the name of the sponsor, Viceroy, on the cowl.
Al Unser had driven that car to victory at Indianapolis the previous year, but little about it remained the same. It now used an Offenhauser, instead of Ford, engine. An aluminum wing mounted over the engine compartment was so new it had not yet been painted. But this test car would be replaced later in the season by a newly designed racer.
While Mario Andretti readied himself for more tire tests, I glanced across the track to where he had pointed. Well, why not?
Several minutes later I stood on the hillside above and outside the track. From the pits the back straightaway had seemed almost straight, but looking down from my new vantage point, I could see more clearly the thirty-degree dogleg bend to the left of it. Now Andretti’s car came whistling out of the first turn, the Offy engine winding up, his speed increasing. He followed the black line of rubber and oil already laid down on the asphalt—the groove—the fastest path around the mile-long track. He moved from high on the outside near the turn exit to low on the inside at the dogleg bend, his tires crossing a faded yellow stripe that marked the track boundary. The car fluttered slightly as it passed over some bumps imperceptible to my vision, then rushed past me with a whoosh and swung wide to the outside again, past the braking markers—three, two, one—and around the long, last corner. The whistling sound increased in pitch as Mario went down the far, home straightaway, then another roar as he came past me again. Had I imagined it, or had he given me a slight wave with one hand?