INDIANAPOLIS -- Suddenly, Mario Andretti can laugh about it.
About all the times -- after nearly every one of his near-misses in 28 previous Indianapolis 500s -- when he turned to his wife, Dee Ann, and asked her how many more cracks his heart could take without breaking.
Now he is about to call it a career, about to start his final Indianapolis 500 and take his last shot at the track that has denied him all but once since he was a rookie in 1965.
Andretti has had so many cars break down or just lose their dominance less than 100 miles from the finish line that even he can see the humor.
At a charity roast here at the Indiana Roof, the largest ballroom in the city, packed with celebrities and members of the motorsports community, Al Unser Jr. began the roasting with this:
"People tend to pronounce Mario's name a lot of different ways," said Unser, holding up a series of white poster boards with boldly printed black letters. "There is MAR-EE-O, heard mostly around here. MARRRRREEEO, heard in Italy. And MAREY-YO, which is the way Dee Ann says it.
"But back home at the Unser house, we say it this way, 'Andretti is slowing down on the backstretch.' "
Andretti, 54, started his career at age 5, when he and his brother Aldo built their first race car in their back yard in Nazareth, Pa. And it will come to an end today -- although Andretti says he is keeping his options open as far as teaming up with his son Michael for an attack on the 24-hour races at LeMans and Daytona.
They are the only major events he hasn't won in a career that has included four IndyCar championships and a World Driving title.
"I have no regrets," Andretti said. "I would do it all again, do it better, but if you had another chance you'd probably screw it up even more. Try to over-engineer it. I think on the overall, things have gone pretty well."
Last season, after a four-year winless drought, Andretti became the oldest IndyCar driver to win a race when he won at Phoenix in his Newman/Haas-owned Lola/Ford.
No one was very surprised by the victory, given the fervor with which Andretti drives.
If anyone doubts it, all they need is to hear Andy Granatelli, who owned the car Andretti drove to victory here in 1969.
In a way, it was an ironic victory for Andretti. Year after year here, he has had the car that has been the class of the field and lost.
The year he won, he figured he didn't have a chance.
"For the last 50 or 60 laps of that race, I had a fairly comfortable lead," Andretti said. "But the car was coming apart. I could feel it, and it wasn't just my imagination. We had been running with 270 degrees of oil temperature all day. I still can't believe it made it. The gear box was totally dried up. It was absolutely empty of oil. It had all carbonized."
But Granatelli and STP and Andretti became famous that day, as one of the most famous photos in the history of motorsports was snapped.
L It showed a celebrating Andretti being kissed by Granatelli.
Just thinking about Andretti retiring brought tears to Granatelli's eyes during a toast he made.
"Mario isn't in the Who's Who of racing," Granatelli said. "He is the Who's Who. In my opinion, he's the greatest driver who ever lived. He won on dirt tracks, on round tracks, straight tracks and racing up mountains at Pike's Peak.
"He won on suicide tracks that don't even exist any more. Jimmy Clark was great, but he didn't drive everything on wheels like Mario did -- and Mario won with them all.
"I kissed him when he won in 1969 because I'm Italian and I couldn't control myself, and then I whispered, 'Say you have more STP in your engine than anyone else.' He did and I made a fortune."
With that, Granatelli turned to Andretti, who had stood for what he thought was going to be a handshake. Granatelli wrapped his arm around Mario's neck and planted a kiss square on Andretti's lips.
Mario, momentarily stunned, wiped his lips and said, "I can still smell the garlic from the first time."
Yesterday, as Michael Andretti made his way to his team's garage, he laughed at the recent memory and talked seriously about being Mario Andretti's son.
"My dad has been everyone's hero," Michael said. "I've never known it any other way, and I always wanted to be like him. In the end, he was my hero, too."
It is Andretti's versatility that has made him great -- his Formula One title, his victory in the Daytona 500, his IndyCar titles and sprint car victories. But Andretti has never been able to rest as he chased one more Indy 500 victory.
"This is an unfair place," Mario said. "It's unfair to the good drivers that have never won, or probably will never win here, to be judged by how they do at Indy.
"But at the same time, I know the race is fabulous, that it has everything. But at the same time, it's only one race. You can't tell me that some drivers who haven't won this thing as many times can't drive as well as guys who have won it four times. It just has to be put in perspective, that's all."
Michael Andretti is happy his father is getting to go out while he's still competitive. But the son is also sad because of the memories that never will be repeated.
"I don't feel any relief because he's not going to be out there any more," Michael said. "To me, it's just going to be strange. He's been in every IndyCar race I've run but one. I don't know how we'll really feel when it's all over. I think it might be bittersweet. The times we've shared the victory platforms, those moments, to me, are priceless."
There was another priceless moment last week. That's when Rick Mears, one of the retired four-time 500 winners, showed up to roast Mario in an official Indianapolis Motor Speedway gate guard's yellow shirt and hat. Mears handed a matching set to Andretti.
"I've signed us up for the main gate next May," Mears said.
After every other May, there has come yet another spring and another Indy race.
This time, there will be no more Indianapolis 500s for Mario.
"You prepare yourself as well as you can," Andretti said. "Going in I know this is the last one and I know I can't force things. I know it can go in any direction. But what a wonderful bonus if I do come away with a result.
"If we don't? Well, I know so far we've tried our darnedest . . . Let's hope the next chapter is luckier. If it doesn't happen, life must go on.
"I think there must be life after racing. After all, I see people who don't race walking around all the time."
THE INDIANAPOLIS 500
Where: Indianapolis Motor Speedway
When: Today, noon
TV: Channels 13, 7 (coverage begins at 11 a.m.)
Pole sitter: Al Unser Jr., 228.011 mph, 1994 Penske-Mercedes.
Field average in qualifications: 223.270 mph.
Defending champion: Emerson Fittipaldi
Past winners in field: Fittipaldi (1989, 1993); Al Unser Jr. (1992), Arie Luyendyk (1990); Mario Andretti (1969); Bobby Rahal (1986)
Rookies: Jacques Villeneuve; Hideshi Matsuda; Dennis Vitolo; Scott Sharp; Brian Till, Bryan Herta; Adrian Fernandez; Mauricio Gugelmin; Marco Greco
Best bets: Unser Jr.; Raul Boesel; Fittipaldi; Nigel Mansell; Mario Andretti
Long shots: Paul Tracy; Bobby Rahal; Eddie Cheever
Records: Fastest single lap run in 1992 by Michael Andretti, 229.118 mph; fastest race 1990, Arie Luyendyk averaged
Mario Andretti is one of only three drivers to win Formula One and IndyCar titles; one of only three drivers in IndyCar history to win on paved ovals, road courses and dirt tracks in a single season, and the only man to win Driver of the Year awards in three decades (1967, 1978, 1984)
1958 -- Raced in his first IndyCar event at Trenton, N.J., finished 11th.
1967 -- Won both the Daytona 500 and 12 Hours of Sebring. Named Driver of the Year.
1968 -- Started his first Formula One race at Watkins Glen, set track record while winning pole, retired from race early.
1969 -- Won Indianapolis 500. Named Wide World of Sports Athlete of the Year.
1971 -- Won first Formula One race in South Africa driving for Ferrari.
1978 -- Won Formula One championship, joining Phil Hill as the only Americans to win the title. Named Driver of the Year.
1981 -- Crossed Indy 500 finish line second to Bobby Unser, then later declared winner because of an infraction. Then he was returned to second by an October ruling. Threw championship ring out his bathroom window.
1984 -- Won PPG IndyCar World Series title. Won six races. Named Driver of the Year.
1988 -- Became first driver to top $6 million in career IndyCar earnings. Won 50th race of career at Phoenix.
1992 -- Named Driver of the Quarter Century by vote of the 12-journalist panel that votes for Driver of the Year.
1993 -- Won his 52nd IndyCar race, second only to A.J. Foyt's 67, ending a 73-race winless streak. Became oldest IndyCar race winner at 53 years with win at Michigan.
1994 -- Will run his last Indianapolis 500 today.
INDY 500 LINEUP
Driver Residence No. Chassis-Engine Speed*
1. Al Unser Jr. Albqrque, N.M. 31 '94 Penske-Mercedes 228.011
2. Raul Boesel Brazil 5 '94 Lola-Ford 227.618
3. E. Fittipaldi Brazil 2 '94 Penske-Mercedes 227.303
4. r-J. Villeneuve Canada 12 '94 Reynard-Ford 226.259
5. Michael Andretti Nazareth, Pa. 8 '94 Reynard-Ford 226.205
K? 6. Lyn St. James Daytna Bch, Fla. 90 '94 Lola-Ford 224.154
7. Nigel Mansell England 1 '94 Lola-Ford 224.041
8. Arie Luyendyk Netherlands 28 '94 Lola-Ilmor 223.673
9. Mario Andretti Nazareth, Pa. 6 '94 Lola-Ford 223.503
10. John Andretti Indianapolis 33 '94 Lola-Ford 223.263
11. Eddie Cheever Aspen, Colo. 27 '93 Lola-Menard 223.163
L 12. Dominic Dobson Truckee, Calif. 17 '94 Lola-Ford 222.970
13. Stan Fox Janesville, Wis. 91 '94 Reynard-Ford 222.867
14. r-H. Matsuda Japan 99 '93 Lola-Ford 222.545
15. r-Dennis Vitolo Ft. Ldrdale, Fla. 79 '93 Lola-Ford 222.439
16. Jimmy Vasser Dis. Bay, Calif. 18 '94 Reynard-Ford 222.262
17. r-Scott Sharp E. Norwalk, Conn. 71 '94 Lola-Ford 222.091
C7 18. Hiro Matsushita Japan 22 '94 Lola-Ford 221.382
19. Robby Gordon Orange, Calif. 9 '94 Lola-Ford 221.293
20. Roberto Guerrero Capistrano, Calif. 21 '92 Lola-Buick 221.278
I= 21. r-Brian Till Columbus, Ohio 19 '93 Lola-Ford 221.107
22. r-Bryan Herta Dublin, Ohio 14 '94 Lola-Ford 220.992
23. Scott Brayton Coldwater, Mich. 59 '93 Lola-Menard 223.652
@4 24. Teo Fabi Italy 11 '94 Reynard-Ilmor 223.394
25. Paul Tracy Canada 3 '94 Penske-Mercedes 222.710
26. r-A. Fernandez Mexico 7 '94 Reynard-Ilmor 222.657
27. S. Johansson Sweden 16 '93 Penske-Ilmor 221.518
28. Bobby Rahal Dublin, Ohio 4 '93 Penske-Ilmor 224.094
29. r-M. Gugelmin Brazil 88 '94 Reynard-Ford 223.104
30. John Paul Jr. Lantana, Fla. 45 '93 Lola-Ilmor 222.500
31. Mike Groff Wrthngtn, Ohio 10 '93 Penske-Ilmor 221.355
32. r-Marco Greco Brazil 25 '94 Lola-Cosworth 221.216
33. x-Scott Goodyear Canada, Nev. 40 '94 Lola-Ford 223.817
Field average: 223.270 (Record 223.479, 1992). r -- rookie. * -- average speed, in mph, during qualifying. x--car qualified by Davy Jones.