INDIANAPOLIS — Fifty years later, Mario Andretti calls his lone Indianapolis 500 victory fate. Destiny. On May 30, 1969, the track chose him.

Andretti did not enjoy much good fortune at Indianapolis Motor Speedway before then — or after. He finished last in 1968, and in the years following his sensational rookie debut in 1965, he was plagued by just about every misfortune a driver could experience at the speedway. And, of course, the heartbreak he and the Andretti clan have suffered at Indianapolis in the years since have become the stuff of legend.

But 1969, that was a special year, a special race filled with some of the most memorable moments in 500 history. Recently, The Indianapolis Star had a chance to chat with Andretti as well as a couple of members of that race-winning team to reflect on how the legends of the race-winning Brawner Hawk, the Granatelli kiss and all the rest came to pass.

The crash

 Before the Brawner Hawk ever crossed the finish line, there was Colin Chapman's Lotus 64, a four-wheel drive Ford built to run at the Indianapolis 500. Though Andretti and his team had already won a race at Hanford in the Hawk, Andretti adored the Lotus. It was all kinds of fast. Unfortunately, Clint Brawner and Jim McGee — his co-chief mechanics — loathed it. That’s because the Lotus was also all kinds of unreliable.

“We didn’t like the car,” said McGee, Brawner’s protege, who would be with Andretti for 17 of his 29 years in Indy cars. “We tested it at Hanford and went back to England, and they had to make about 200 changes. … It had all kinds of problems. Heating and stuff like that. It was not proven. It hadn’t run a race.

“We had no faith in that car at all. We knew it was fast, but we knew it would never finish. It had no miles on it. If you wanted to win Indy, you don’t come here with a car with zero miles on it.”

McGee and Brawner’s doubts would prove warranted. Though Andretti dominated the speed charts in the Lotus during practice, two days before time trials, he suffered a horrific crash in Turn 4.

As the bright red No. 2 STP car slammed in the wall, it burst into flames, pieces of it scattering across the track.

It was just as McGee and Brawner had suspected all along.

“We had questioned the running gear, the hubs and stuff on it,” McGee said. “Colin Chapman, to save time and money, used Formula One hubs and uprights and stuff. And we asked him about it with the loads at Indianapolis and everything like that, and he convinced us it would be OK. But we were skeptical. … Of course, it was the hub that broke during practice.”

A post-mortem showed an overall structural weakness in the hubs, so Chapman withdrew the Lotus cars he’d built for not only Andretti but Jochen Rindt and Graham Hill as well.

The best thing McGee could say about the Lotus, outside of its blazing speed, is that the car absorbed the impact better that most cars of its era would have.

“It had a lot of small parts, so it took the blow very well,” McGee said. “The thing flew apart, but when cars are doing that, they’re taking the impact away from the driver.”

Because the Lotus absorbed the majority of the damage, Andretti escaped the terrifying scene with only a few burns on his face.

Of course, those burns contain their own legend.

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