Mario Andretti won Daytona International Speedway first.
The motorsports legend and icon is the embodiment of greatness behind a racing machine’s wheel.
He tackled Formula 1, winning the 1978 championship, and is presently the last American to visit a victory lane in the series. On various short tracks across the country, he won in midgets and sprint cars. Famously, he stitched his name and career to the fabrics of NTT IndyCar Series racing, claiming four titles, 52 wins and 65 poles, marks that put him in the top two of both categories when he retired after the 1994 season.
And of course, there was his crowning achievement, the 1969 Indianapolis 500, which arguably linked him and the race together more famously than any other sports personality in the world. When someone thinks Indianapolis, they are quick to associate Andretti with it.
But that win was in 1969. Before he piloted his Brawner Hawk, Ford engine backup car to a winner’s wreath and smooch from owner Andy Granatelli, he celebrated another win first two years prior.
The Daytona 500.
At the 1967 running of the Great American Race, the young 26-year-old hotshot driver from the Championship Car, or Big Car, ranks (as they were called then), was tagged for the No. 11 Holman-Moody Ford. This was a great era for racing as crossovers into varying series and machines was frequent. Andretti was part of that breed of driver, one who sought every opportunity to race something because it would sharpen skills, feed their families and, simply enough, it’s what they loved to do. Costs were low to put a car on track, so teams were searching everywhere for successful motorsports aces to put in a seat.
Prior to February 1967, Andretti had won the last two USAC Championship Car titles, totaling nine wins at various venues like short tracks Lucas Oil Indianapolis Raceway Park and the Indiana State Fair Grounds to bigger, asphalt ovals such as the Milwaukee Mile and Phoenix Raceway. These two title years were pertinent in the opportunity to race Daytona, as his Hawk chassis on the bigger tracks was Ford powered. The stars aligned for this association to turn into a strong partner for the ninth running of the 500.
That February, Ford desired to add a skilled, albeit inexperienced stock car driver, to Holman-Moody’s lineup with 1965 Daytona 500 winner Fred Lorenzen. Andretti was not a newcomer to the track either, having run both races the previous season. At the Firecracker 400 in July, he started eighth and finished 31st after his engine failed. In the lead up to the 1967 race, he put notice on the field he wasn’t just an open-wheel guy when he led 19 laps in his qualifying race.
In his path to contest the race was the only multi-time winner of the Daytona 500 at the time, Richard Petty. He was the defending winner of the race, adding the same trophy he earned in 1964. Another threat to win was 1966 NASCAR Grand National champion David Pearson, who was coming off a 15-win season. He had visited Daytona’s victory lane only once so far, in its third year of existence at the Firecracker 250.
One driver not in the field was two-time champion Ned Jarrett, who had retired at the end of the previous season. He was one of NASCAR’s first superstars, and when he stepped away in 1966, only Lee Petty had more wins than he did in NASCAR’s top series.
At the start, polesitter Curtis Turner led the field. The owner of 17 wins was vainly trying to get a victory on a big track since taking the 1956 Southern 500. Petty was on the outside pole, while Andretti had to work his way up from 12th. Early frontrunners were fellow open-wheel ace AJ Foyt, LeeRoy Yarbrough and Buddy Baker. However, none of them led more than seven laps at a time.
On lap 23, Andretti took the point, leading for 17 laps and showing the field that he had a car to win.
At the conclusion of 125 miles, a fox jumped out of the pack, as Pearson rose to challenge Andretti’s Ford. The defending stock car champion battled it out with his open-wheel peer over 100 laps, swapping the lead between each other eight times.
However, as was common in that era, the mechanical gremlins bit Pearson. As he completed lap 159, a puff of smoke came out of his Dodge and he coasted to the pits. Pearson, who led the second most laps in the race, finished 24th and joined 31 other cars that failed to finish.
Andretti returned to the front but wasn’t in the clear yet. Teammate Lorenzen took on the open-wheel wonder boy, holding the fate of NASCAR and stock car esteem in his hands. Lorenzen took the top spot for four laps and tried to maintain his lead, but Andretti returned back to his former position.
The last 33 laps were knocked out by the former Italian native, and he took his first, and only, NASCAR win.
It was a remarkable showing for the up-and-coming driver. Known to be focused on F1, the domination at the 1967 500 cemented his prestige with the Ford Motor Company. Eventually he’d go from sports cars to the heavily European F1 circuit, starting with Team Lotus and the Ford Cosworth the next year. A third at the 1970 Spanish Grand Prix helped him land a ride with his native Ferrari, earning his first F1 win at the 1971 South African Grand Prix. From there, he’d add 11 more wins and a championship.
That was the best result Lorenzen earned over his five-race season. After grabbing his qualifier win (which were official races then), he’d never visit another victory lane in Cup competition.
Pearson didn’t get his win at Daytona that year but put it all together four years later. However, he’d only notch two victories the rest of 1967, but a move to Holman-Moody in 1968 turned things around, and he became the hottest driver on the circuit, winning 27 races.
The racing background of the 1967 field was astonishing when looked at through the sands of an hourglass. Besides the Cup frontrunners, the entry list included 12 who had already or would eventually run the Indianapolis 500, as well as three more who tried to qualify. Foyt headed to Indy in May and won the Greatest Spectacle in Racing for a third time. He balanced that with four more Cup races later in the year.
Two-time Indy 500 winner Gordon Johncock finished 30th in just his eighth stock car start. Other open-wheelers included heartbreak driver Jim Hurtubise (ninth), Jerry Grant (fifth), and Gary Bettenhausen (31st). None ever tasted glory in either 500-mile event but maintained long racing careers. Bettenhausen qualified for his final Indy in 1993.
As for Andretti, the 1967 500 was an early crowning achievement for the Nazareth, Pa., native. After starting his early driving career on local dirt tracks in an old Hudson, he was the winner of the greatest stock car race on the planet.
But there was one more mountain to climb, and it was Indianapolis. Between his 1965 and 1969 seasons, he was one of the best drivers in the country and riding high in the motorsports world. Eventually he’d be remembered for that famous Indy 500 triumph in 1969, but it doesn’t change one critical fact.
He won Daytona first.
About the author
Tom is an IndyCar writer at Frontstretch, joining in March 2023. He also works full-time for the Department of Veterans Affairs History Office and is a lieutenant colonel in the Army National Guard. A native Hoosier, he's followed IndyCar closely since 1991 and calls Fort Wayne home. Follow Tom on Twitter @TomBlackburn42.
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