July 27 1963: A Date with Destiny

Photos via Greg Rickes, unless otherwise noted.

In this special Tales from the Tower, legendary track announcer Greg Rickes looks back on a unique ARDC race that saw Mario Andretti take to the Lime Rock Park circuit.


Lime Rock Park played in pivotal role in the early career of one of America’s true racing icons.

In 1959 Indy 500 winner Rodger Ward startled the motorsports world when he beat the best of America’s sports car racers while driving an oval-track midget at Lime Rock’s United States Auto Club Formula Libre event. Others tried to follow that path but could  never matched Ward’s success.


Midgets are traditional oval-track open wheel cars. They’re compact and nimble, changing direction fluidly. The drivetrain is simple, there’s no clutch, so they demand precision.  The car is either in gear or out (great for throttle response, no so good if you spin out and stall the engine (which will require hefty push to get re-started).


The American Racing Drivers Club (ARDC) toured  tracks throughout New Jersey, Pennsylvania, New York and Connecticut. They raced on tracks ranging from one-fifth of a mile bullrings to the one-mile Trenton Speedway, with the added variety of both dirt and asphalt ovals. Road courses like Lime Rock however were unknown territory.


1963 Lime Rock Park was in its “diamond in the rough” stage. Major spectator attractions like the TransAm and IMSA were still far off in the future. Jim Haynes, who’d become Lime Rock’s owner a year later, was leaning into his first adventure on the promotional side. Hoping to recapture the vibe of Ward’s 1959 victory he dreamed up the idea of a re-match of midgets versus road racers.


Finding road-racing “formula” cars who were interested in racing for some real prize money (SCCA at the time was strictly amateur competition) was no problem. Haynes himself was competing in an open-wheel Formula Junior so he put out an open invitation to his compadres. 


Luring the oval-track competition was another story. Although the ARDC had never raced on road course before, the congenial Haynes somehow convinced them this would be a ground-breaking idea, and as an added incentive besides racing against the sports cars they’d have a complete program of their own as part of their 46 (!) race season championship. Somewhat surprisingly they rose to the challenge. So, sandwiched between Connecticut races at the Danbury Fairgrounds Speedway, and West Haven the midgets came to race at Lime Rock Park on July 27 1963.


In one respect the Lime Rock event was a great equalizer among the ARDC drivers. Since they often visited the same tracks multiple times the experienced drivers of the club held the upper hand over newcomers. Lime Rock would put everyone on equal footing; they’d all be turning right and left for the first time.


On the appointed day the ARDC cars & drivers arrived. Unlike more modern customs this was a one-day event; there would be a limited opportunity to learn the intricacies of the terrain before rolling right into qualifying races.


One ARDC racer who benefitted from the leveled playing field was a driver in his sophomore season out of Nazareth Pennsylvania. An immigrant to the United States he’d grown up in Italy, captivated by names like Ferrari, Maserati, Alfa Romeo, Monza, Ascari, Fangio. When  he arrived in his new-found home he discovered racing of a different sort, and he adopted the world of oval track racing, sharing a jalopy with his twin brother (much against his father’s approval) at the local dirt track. The young man showed some talent, and began to move up through the ranks. His name was Mario Andretti.


Twenty-three year old Mario Andretti, on the starting grid at Lime Rock Park, suddenly confronted with an unexpected turn, both figuratively and literally, in his racing career. (Gordon Kirby/Bruce Craig Archives)


The young Andretti, driving for the Mataka Brothers out of Maplewood New Jersey, proved to be a quick study. After finishing second in his qualifying race (to a road-racing “ringer” named Mark Donohue, a story for another time) Andretti would start the feature event at the sharp end of the field.


(Greg Rickes/Team McClumpha archives)


Adapting quickly to Lime Rock’s flowing profile Mario Andretti (#33) would  parlay his new-found talent to victory over the 21 car field, reeling off 20 laps in 20 minutes and 52 second.


With the important ARDC win in the record book Andretti moved on to the match race with the road-racing formula cars, the Pepsi Trophy. He’d start on the front row and lead the opening laps

(Andretti on the outside of the front row in the #33.  In the custom of the times the last name initial of the car owner (for Andretti it was Mataka) is embossed on the front bumper.) (Greg Rickes/Sports Car Graphic photo)


Andretti’s lead in this one was short-lived and it was his fate not to finish the race. Regardless, his success in the ARDC race had the effect of opening him to new possibilities. Years later Andretti would reflect on that day “When I started racing midgets this was something I never expected, but I knew what Rodger Ward had done and I was going to make the most of it. The race meant so much to me to win. It was just heaven, the sweetest accomplishment of my early career…… I thought I was Fangio”.


On the 60th anniversary of  Andretti’s only race at Lime Rock Park, all of us here say “Salute’, Mario!” We cherish the role our little corner of Connecticut has played in your epic journey.