The Wrecked, Rebuilt Life Of Aldo Andretti

If you know anything about Aldo’s story, you might be inclined to feel sorry for him. Mario Andretti’s identical twin crashed violently out of racing in 1969 and watched as his brother became one of the most famous drivers in the world. But the prelude to Aldo’s short career, and what followed, proves that luck matters a lot less than how you react when you have to shift gears.

May 20175 Comments

The greatest racing dynasty in history began with a coin flip. When Mario and Aldo Andretti rolled their red Hudson Hornet into Pennsylvania’s Nazareth Speedway for the first time in the spring of 1959, the twins arrived with professional racing uniforms and ambitions to match. But they had just one car. Only 19 years old and a few birthdays removed from their childhood in an Italian refugee camp, the immigrants had scoured junkyards for a frame, learned to weld, and dropped in an engine. Now that race day had arrived, a single question remained: Which one of the brothers was going to drive first? Mario pulled a nickel from his pocket and tossed it in the air. Aldo won.

Even the fans at the top of the packed bleachers that Saturday could see that the newcomers stood out. Dressed head to toe in those zippered uniforms, they didn’t exactly blend with the locals in T-shirts. And compared with the smaller Chevys and Fords the competition ran, their Hornet looked like a bus. A few drivers snickered at the sight. Thanks to countless nights spent reading Speed Age magazine, though, Mario and Aldo knew something the others didn’t: That model handled better at high speeds than most stock cars.

Because the drivers lined up by points earned throughout the season and Aldo had none, he started at the back of the first heat, a qualifying event for the feature race later that afternoon. Given that the twins had dreamed about this day for years, Aldo should have been nervous. He wasn’t. Something felt right about the stripped interior of the car. Mario observed from the pits as the green flag welcomed the roaring pack of 20 onto the dirt track. Aldo watched for any small opening, then he saw it: Down along the inside of the banked oval, puddles had formed from the previous day’s rain. The other drivers steered high to avoid them. That left a path straight through the field for anyone reckless enough to brave the muck. Aldo guided the Hornet low, throwing so much mud that it coated most of his windshield. By the third lap, he was leading.

That lead held straight through the finish line and into the feature a few hours later, where Aldo would win and take home the $80 top prize. Mario shouted and pumped his fists as if he had earned the money himself. The twins celebrated by attending a YMCA dance, where news of Aldo’s exploits preceded him. Nazareth girls practically lined up to flirt.

The boy watching from the pits that afternoon became the most famous racecar driver of all time, as synonymous with speed as Bob Marley is with reggae. The boy who won nearly died a few months later and, after a string of bad luck, eventually settled for a quiet life in Indianapolis. Aldo’s story isn’t about how fortune favors some and not others, though. It’s about leaving what’s in the rearview mirror behind, as he would do to start a business. It’s about having the grace to be happy as loved ones go on to greater things—not just Mario, but three generations of Andrettis. It’s about how a person can lose and still end up winning.

 

Born six hours apart in the winter of 1940 (Mario won that particular checkered flag), the twins can’t point to a specific reason they fell in love with combustion engines. Their father, who managed a 2,300-acre farm in Montona, Italy, didn’t even own a car. And while racing was something of a national pastime for Italians, Europe was at war by the time Mario and Aldo were old enough to remember. All the Grand Prix races were on hold. Nazis occupied Montona for a few years, and the boys’ parents did their best to avoid attention. But shortly after the northeastern portion of Italy that included their hometown was ceded to communist Yugoslavia in 1946, the family lost everything to the new government. Gigi and Rina Andretti, who had a daughter in addition to the twins, knew it was time to go.

Traveling by freight car to a refugee camp in Lucca on the opposite side of the country, the boys took comfort in having their uncle Quirino along for the journey. Quirino had served as a priest in Montona. The Andrettis settled into a large room at the camp housing 17 families for a couple of years, but Quirino eventually charmed the authorities into moving the clan to a two-room “suite.” He also began riding his small motorcycle around the city, visiting with parishioners of what would be his new church. Sometimes, he would bring the boys on those adventures. Mario and Aldo were only 11 years old, but when their uncle went inside a house, they often took the motorbike for a joyride. “He knew we were doing it,” Aldo recalls. “He didn’t tell us we could, but he didn’t exactly say ‘No,’ either.”

Even as kids, Mario and Aldo were best friends.

Gigi struggled to find work, but hid that disappointment from his kids. Rina had an uncle living in Nazareth, Pennsylvania, and he wrote letters inviting the family to join him. Short on options, they decided to apply for U.S. visas in 1952. But then, as now, the process of getting those took years. In the meantime, Mario and Aldo attended segregated schools for refugees and spent almost all of their time together. At night, the two shared the top mattress of a bunk bed, where they would pull the covers over their heads and imagine a future in a better place. As Mario would later write in his biography, What’s It Like Out There?, “A favorite game was … pretending we were hotshots in the world. You know the bit: We would be dressed in fancy rags, and when we walked down the street, everybody would know us and wave to us and say, ‘There go the famous Andrettis.’”

Across the street from the refugee camp, a couple of racing fans named Sergio Seggiolini and Bepee Biagini ran an auto-repair shop. The owners hired Mario and Aldo to park cars for them. Barely tall enough to see over the steering wheel, the twins would tear through the narrow streets of Lucca in other people’s Fiats and Alfa Romeos. Noticing their interest in speed, Sergio and Bepee decided to treat the employees to a field trip to Monza in 1954 for the Italian Grand Prix. Two-time world champion Alberto Ascari drove his Ferrari straight into the boys’ hearts that day.

The following year, word finally arrived that the Andrettis’ visas had been approved. Gigi sold the move to his family as a temporary one. Mario and Aldo—already dreaming of becoming racecar drivers and only vaguely aware of one race in America, the Indianapolis 500—were devastated. But they boarded the Conte Biancamano on June 6, 1955, and sailed for New York, ultimately settling in the small town of Nazareth with Rina’s uncle.

Although they were 15 years old, the twins spoke only Italian. So the local principal placed them in the seventh grade, three years behind everyone else their age. Among the girls in Nazareth, word got out fast that two handsome twins had arrived from Europe. A high school sophomore named Dee Ann Hoch helped tutor Mario as the boys tried to catch up—and quickly fell for him. Aldo chased Dee Ann’s best friend, Corky Stofflet, but she initially rejected his advances. “All the girls wanted the twins, but I was a cheerleader,” she says. “I dated football players. So the Italian boys didn’t faze me much.”

Aldo received better news later that year when Mario came running into the house heralding a discovery: Nazareth had a racetrack. It wasn’t much—a half-mile dirt oval on the rough side of town. But to them, it was a reason to be happy again. The twins began working at a Sunoco gas station to earn money for auto parts. They found the shell of a 1948 Hudson Hornet in a junkyard and a six-cylinder engine in a J.C. Whitney catalog. A local heavy-equipment contractor allowed the boys to use his garage and expertise as they assembled their stock car. Dee Ann and Corky began accompanying the boys late at night in the garage, working on homework as the Andrettis burned themselves and broke bolts. Slowly, Aldo won Corky’s affection. In Corky’s school yearbook, Dee Ann wrote, “Maybe one day, we’ll be sisters-in-law.”

After their first race in 1959, when Aldo walked away the winner, Mario waited only a week before getting behind the wheel himself. He, too, won his first feature. Both of them won more than a dozen races that summer. “They were the kings of the hill in Nazareth,” says Jimmy Maguire, a driver from that era who lost his arm racing a few years later. “I knew some guys there who said Aldo was a better driver than Mario, actually. And they were the spitting image of each other. I’d arrive at a racetrack and see Aldo, and yell, ‘Hey, Mario!’ And he’d go along with it. He’d say, ‘You know I’m going to beat you this week.’ Then Mario would come over in a uniform, and I’d say, ‘You sons o’ bitches did it to me again!’”

As the Andretti boys began to master the Nazareth Speedway, they fanned out to other tracks in the region. All the while, their father had no idea they were racing. Gigi hated the sport. He never would have allowed Mario and Aldo to pursue something so dangerous. So they lied about where they were going on nights and weekends. Even as the newspapers began to cover the twins’ exploits and Gigi’s colleagues at Bethlehem Steel would congratulate him, the language barrier kept the father from understanding what was being said.

At the racetracks, few could tell the twins apart aside from the fact that Aldo was a little taller.

The final race of the 1959 season took place at the Hatfield Speedway in August. Mario, Dee Ann, and Corky came to watch Aldo drive the qualifying heat leading to the 100-lap main event. But Corky was fuming. She had learned Aldo was seeing another girl on the side, and that was the end of things in her mind. “I hope you kill yourself,” she said in a moment of anger before Aldo climbed in the car. The race got underway, and Aldo quickly moved into third position. Considering the top six drivers qualified for the feature, that should have been a safe place to stay. But Aldo kept pushing, steering high, flirting with the warped wooden planks that made up the track fence. Mario was screaming for Aldo to back off when the Hornet’s front right tire caught one of those planks, flipping the car end over end. The roof collapsed and split open Aldo’s helmet. Parts scattered across the track. When the emergency responders pulled him from the wreckage, he was unconscious. At the hospital, doctors declared what everyone feared: Aldo was in a coma.

 

Mario dreaded the phone call to his parents. Not only would he have to convey the tragic news, but also the fact that he and Aldo had been racing. Shortly after midnight, he summoned the courage to dial his mother, and a lie spilled out as he tried to explain what had happened: Mario had been the one racing. Aldo had been watching from a truck and had fallen out. He was in the hospital for minor injuries. Unlike their father, Mom knew where they had been all those nights and weekends. She was suspicious about Mario’s story. And when a tow truck dragged the crushed shell of the Hudson Hornet through downtown Nazareth the next day, everyone—including Rina and Gigi—learned what had really happened. Gigi was furious. Unable to take his anger out on his injured son, he turned his attention to the other twin. “He sure bounced me around the room for that,” Mario recalls.

At the hospital, nurses encouraged Mario to talk to his brother, to mention things that might stimulate him. So he told Aldo a new car was already in the works—they would be back to racing in no time. A few days later, Aldo’s eyelid twitched. Eventually, he awoke. “My dad came in and he had tears in his eyes,” Aldo says. “My first thought was, Oh God, now he knows.”

In addition to shedding 70 pounds over a few weeks in the hospital, Aldo had lost his ability to walk. Corky came to see him as he began rehabilitation, but the two decided to split because of the other girl. When Aldo finally limped home, all he could think about was getting back to racing. Mario continued to drive as his brother recovered in 1960, winning bigger and bigger prize money. In private moments among friends, he expressed concern about Aldo returning to the tracks. But the dream had always been the two of them conquering the racing world together. So when Aldo was well enough to climb back into the driver’s seat, Mario bought him a sprint car.

In those days, a driver worked his way up from stock cars procured at a junkyard to sprint cars to the Champ cars that raced in the Indianapolis 500. Sprint cars were, by far, the most dangerous. With a massive engine that consumed the front half of the vehicle, they featured only a small roll bar at the back of an open cockpit. The uneven dirt tracks they ran on offered plenty of opportunities for a machine that powerful to slide and flip. Several drivers a year were killed, creating regular vacancies for the next young guy. And yet, sprint cars were beautiful, too. Engineers hadn’t yet brought a sophisticated understanding of aerodynamics to racing, so the vehicles looked more sculptural, less flat. Fully upholstered inside, they included the large dashboard gauges of a classic luxury automobile.

Aldo won a few races in his No. 18 car in the early 1960s, but according to Mario, he seemed a half-lap slower on the track than before his accident. Aldo assured everyone he was fine. He charmed Corky into taking him back, and the two married in 1961 and quickly had children. When a sprint-car team owner in Indianapolis named Rufus Gray offered him a ride in 1964, Aldo moved his family here in time to see Mario’s spectacular rookie year at the Indy 500, where he finished third. “Go-Go Mario!” signs littered yards all over the city.

To make his own competitions, Aldo often drove through the night to some far-off location. He would race all weekend, then hurry back home to his auto-parts manufacturing job and the obligations of raising kids. “I really felt for him when he was running those sprint races,” says Donald Davidson, longtime historian at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. “He would make the feature occasionally, but he’d often miss the show. Then you’d see him load up and head for home. He was always very pleasant about it and funny. But after the accident, it was like Aldo got left behind.”

Mario and Aldo only raced against each other once, at New York’s Oswego Speedway in 1967. Mario won that race. Aldo’s brakes failed, and he finished 10th. The following year, Aldo had a potentially life-changing opportunity to get out of sprint cars and into Champ cars when team owner Jim Robbins invited him to test at the IMS. Aldo posted good times until part of the car’s suspension broke, nearly sending him into the wall. That kind of mechanical failure wouldn’t have been the driver’s fault, and the reasons have been lost to history, but the owner clearly didn’t like what he saw. Aldo never got the ride.

By May 1969, Mario was coming up in the world fast. He qualified in the front row of the Indianapolis 500, then burned his face in practice and didn’t want to pose for the traditional Front Row photo alongside A.J. Foyt and Bobby Unser. He asked Aldo to stand in for him. That photo, still on sale at the IMS today, shows Mario’s doppelgänger smiling in his Champ car on the yard of bricks, the closest he would ever come to it. Mario won the 500 that year. Throughout the summer, Aldo followed his brother to racetracks around the country, supporting him whenever he could get away.

The final sprint-car race of the season for Aldo took place in Des Moines, Iowa, a few months later. He was driving the beauty his brother had purchased for him. “I felt good about the car,” Aldo says, then pauses for a long time. “It just didn’t work out.” Aldo was running in second place for several laps when another car spun in front of him. His vehicle catapulted over it, flipping end over end, raking the fence. Each time the car circled around, the barrier shredded his face. When it came to a stop, he was conscious, but hyperaware of how hurt he was. He had broken 14 bones. His right eye socket was destroyed, and his eyeball was drooping. His jaw immediately had to be wired shut. Aldo’s wife and children were vacationing in the Poconos when the news came over the radio: “Twin brother of Mario Andretti severely injured in an accident.” They rushed to the hospital in Iowa, where they found Aldo, in his own words, looking “like a monster.” Mario hurried to Des Moines as well. His twin needed a lot of O negative blood, and Mario was the only one who had it. Seeing Aldo disfigured shook him. Although he had come intending to offer support, the sight of Aldo’s face inspired a different reaction. “We had never asked ourselves, What if this doesn’t work out?” Mario says. “But when I saw him, I said, ‘Aldo, you have to promise me you’re going to give this up.’”

 

Few people cast a longer shadow than Mario Andretti. At age 25, he became the youngest person ever to win the Champ car season title, beating the typically dominant A.J. Foyt. In 1966, he drove 14 cars in 51 races—every team owner wanted Mario behind the wheel. His contracts went from a few hundred thousand dollars a year to millions. Mario was historically versatile, too. He won racing stock cars at the Daytona 500 in 1967. He won racing sprint cars on dirt tracks to take that series title in 1974. He won more Champ car races (52) than anyone but Foyt. “It was obvious he was going to be a star,” says Davidson, the IMS historian. “There was just an aura about him. He ran hard, but there was something else, too. He was so witty and eloquent when addressing groups, which I thought was amazing because 10 years before, he didn’t even understand English. He had the right name. He had the right looks. He was just one of those magical people who comes along once in a while.”

Aldo traveled around the country to support his brother at races from Albany, New York, to Long Beach, California. Often mistaken by fans for Mario at the tracks, Aldo would wave and shake hands. He assured his family and friends he didn’t mind. As Mario grew wealthier (and maybe a little eccentric), he adopted a pot-bellied pig named Martini, and the animal clung to his owner. When Aldo would visit Mario’s Pennsylvania estate, the 400-pound pig would see him at the door and, confused by the likeness, charge the imposter. Aldo had to walk around with a spray bottle to keep the thing away from him.

When Mario finally hung up his driver’s gloves at age 54, he had amassed a $100 million fortune. He owned auto dealerships, gas stations, and a winery in Napa Valley. He showed up in Pixar films, episodes of Home Improvement, and Charlie Daniels songs. The one thing he didn’t have was much luck at the IMS. Mario drank the milk just once, in 1969, despite fielding a car for the 500 almost 30 times. Speed was never a problem. Some bizarre mechanical failure always kept him out of the winner’s circle. Later, Mario’s son Michael and grandson Marco would have similar trouble at the world’s most famous track. The “Andretti Curse,” as it would come to be known, has its own Wikipedia entry spanning 17 printed pages.

Asked about that curse today, though, Mario seems perplexed that anyone thinks of him as unlucky. If it applies to anyone, he says, it’s Aldo. “I don’t know how to explain luck,” Mario says. “We had the same capabilities. He wanted it as much as I did. How do you figure that I had so much good luck and he didn’t? I’ll never understand why.”

 

Aldo had reconstructive surgery after his accident in 1969, and planned to return to racing. As he thought about what Mario said, though, he relented. Aldo continued to frequent the tracks as a fan—a habit that both tortured him and allowed him to entertain the idea that he might drive again some day. “In my mind, I never actually retired,” he says. “I just stopped doing it. I guess I couldn’t admit to myself that it was over.”

The closest he ever came to showing the hurt he felt during those first few years was a quote in The Indianapolis Star in 1973. “It’s important how I say this,” he told longtime columnist Thomas Keating. “I’m extremely proud of Mario, but sometimes I feel something like envy mixed in with the pride. Not envy exactly, but something close like my life isn’t quite fulfilled.”

He never complained to his family and friends. Mario helped him buy a Firestone store on Crawfordsville Road near the IMS, and Aldo started working 12-hour days there. With a job that kept him until 9 p.m. and three kids, he didn’t have time to feel sorry for himself. During that period, the family lived in Beech Grove. Ironically, Corky—who had never complained about her husband’s racing—worried every evening about his drive home. “I-465 was new, and people didn’t know how to drive on an interstate like that,” she says. “There was a death every night. His commute home scared me more than his racing ever did. So I said, ‘We need to move closer to the store.’” Shortly thereafter, the family moved to a modest ranch house in Brownsburg.

At Andretti Firestone, Aldo wasn’t shy about marketing his brother’s accomplishments. A giant cardboard cutout of Mario greeted customers, and photos of him hung on every wall. Anytime Mario was in town, he would stop in. Other famous drivers such as Parnelli Jones and the Unsers would, too. Aldo’s second-oldest son, John, worked there as a teenager picking weeds from the parking lot and shampooing the carpets. “Everywhere I went, people asked about my dad,” John says. “He’s just one of those people everyone gravitates to. And he didn’t have much besides himself to offer. It’s not like he was wealthy or you were going to be famous walking next to him. I don’t know if he ever liked that Firestone job, but I liked hanging out with him.”

Aldo didn’t like the Firestone job much (“Retail businesses are a pain in the ass”), but he was good at it. The enterprise soon expanded to a second store. After several years, he and Mario sold their interests, and Aldo started his own machine shop called Andretti Machine Engineering in 1986. The company made parts for hospital beds and tool manufacturers. While the work didn’t exactly rival steering through Turn 4 when it came to excitement, Aldo liked taking parts from blueprint to creation. He liked his 30-some employees, too. Eleanor Walker, who served as his bookkeeper and administrative assistant for decades, remembers a boss who went out of his way for them. “One of the employees had cancer, and he was unable to do some things he used to,” she says. “From Aldo’s office, he could hear the machines out on the floor. And when a machine made a certain sound, he knew that guy was going to need help loading the heavy steel rods inside. So Aldo would jump up and go out there to help him—all day long.”

At home, Aldo’s family expanded to include five kids. Unlike his brother, who was traveling the world racing, Aldo was around for birthdays and weekends. His daughter Carolyn, who was close with Mario’s daughter Barbie, remembers Barbie lamenting, “Sure, we have more toys, but you have your dad at home.” One similarity between the two families was their love of things with engines. Aldo’s sons would back the riding mower down the driveway and pop the clutch to do wheelies. At Christmas, they’d beg for a mini-bike. Corky was no fan of racing, but she recognized it was the only thing Aldo really loved to do. So she encouraged him to take his sons go-karting.

John, in particular, took to driving almost immediately. When he went away to college in Pennsylvania, John stayed with his uncle Mario there. He started noticing odd similarities between the two twins that even they were unaware of. They both carried a little paintbrush in their car for dusting. They both chewed their tongues. When they went to the garage to smoke, they both would lean against a bench, then compulsively begin wiping the car’s windshield. As John started racing professionally in 1982, Aldo traveled to many of his competitions. In 1988, John attempted to qualify for the Indianapolis 500 for the first time. His early runs didn’t go well, and late on the third day of qualifications, he wasn’t sure where his speeds would place him in the standings. “As I was rolling into the pit that afternoon, they radioed me and told me I had just qualified,” John says. “There’s actually a photo of me and my dad that moment I got out of the car. He was the first guy there. I remember realizing then that I had just done something that my dad never got to do. And it kind of hurt me. He, of course, was only thinking about how great this was. My son is in the Indy 500!

 

In Carolyn Molander’s basement bar on the north side of Indianapolis, framed photos of a young Aldo Andretti, her father, line the walls. Racing museums from Speedway to China may celebrate Mario’s accomplishments, but this is Aldo’s shrine. As the 77-year-old eases down the stairs, he makes it clear he is no longer as spry as his brother, who still drives IndyCars in ceremonial roles. Some health problems—perhaps related to his accidents all those years ago—have slowed Aldo down. Settling into a bar stool, he points out a picture in the top row. “Me in 1967,” he says. “So young and handsome. That’s before I rearranged my face.”

All the major moments are here: The childhood in Italy. The death-defying years in sprint cars. The failed Champ car rookie test. One photo brings up the subject of A.J. Foyt, Mario’s longtime nemesis. “A.J. would always tell me, ‘Mario is a horse’s ass!’” Aldo says. “And I’d say, ‘You’re wrong. Mario is a good guy.’”

Even in Aldo’s sacred place, Mario comes up often in conversation. Yesterday was the 50th anniversary of his Daytona 500 win, and Carolyn asks Corky and her own daughters if they saw the long lines he had there for autographs. Around here, Mario is a beloved uncle and brother-in-law. But the family also refers to him, with a wink, as “the cocky one.” Corky compliments the grace Aldo has shown all these years, and insists his admiration for Mario is genuine. “People might assume that Aldo would be jealous, but that’s not Aldo,” she says. “Now if it had been the other way around …” The room erupts with laughter.

All three of Aldo and Corky’s sons (John, Mark, and Adam) have tried their hand at racing, and their grandson Jarett now drives sprint cars as well. Jarett’s vehicle bears his grandfather’s number, 18, on the side. Aldo attends his races when he can, and while the two talk strategy, he’s there mostly for encouragement. All told, almost a dozen Andrettis in Mario and Aldo’s families have taken laps at a racetrack at some point. Like most of them, Jarett runs fast—he won two sprint races last season. “I’m not really a sentimental guy,” he says. “But I raced at Terre Haute a few years ago, and I remember looking at the front gate and thinking, Aldo, Mario, and my dad all walked through this gate and raced where I’m about to drive. I don’t take my last name or the opportunity for granted.”

Everywhere he goes, Aldo wears his brother’s second-place ring from the 1968 Champ car series. Mario didn’t want it. And Aldo thinks it’s a cool relic from his twin’s career. It would be easy to mistake that for a symbol of the way the two lives turned out. Like the view from the IMS finish line, though, that doesn’t take into account all that happened on the backstretch. Aldo may not have driven his way into the history books, but he started two businesses. He raised five healthy, happy kids who went into racing, law, and other careers. He introduced Corky and her small-town family to the larger world through their travels together to races. Offer that life to any 11-year-old kid in a refugee camp, and an enthusiastic “Yes” will follow.

Mario still spends each May with Aldo in Indianapolis. The two visit the track to watch practice, a habit that has only changed venues since they were teenagers in Nazareth. They are old men now, far enough along to appreciate their respective blessings. In Aldo, Mario no longer sees a guy who got left behind. He sees a brother who just steered in a different direction.

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