In the middle of a tragic Formula One season, Mario Andretti became the first American to win a Grand Prix on home soil. After the deaths of Tom Pryce in the South African race and Carlos Pace in a plane crash, the United States Grand Prix West was a glorious triumph for Andretti. It was the start of his two-year march to the World Championship, and the first win for the car that would usher in the ground-effects era, Colin Chapman's Lotus 78.
The first practice session saw Jody Scheckter, who loved the tight oceanside circuit, fastest in the Wolf in 1:22.79, just ahead of Andretti in his brand new Lotus 78. In the second session, Andretti went faster with a 1:22.06, but it was Niki Lauda's Ferrari that grabbed the pole in final qualifying on Saturday in 1:21.63.
On Sunday, it was over 100 degrees as the field formed on the grid. At the green light, Scheckter shot from the second row past both Lauda and Andretti, and led into the first turn, followed by Lauda. Carlos Reutemann had also moved up from the second row and pulled next to Andretti on the inside approach to Turn One. His braking was far too late, however, and he slid straight on through the turn. Andretti avoided a T-bone by braking in time to duck behind him into the corner.
James Hunt was allegedly pushed from behind, though no one knows for sure, and when he hit John Watson's right rear wheel with his left front, he was launched six feet in the air, showing Watson the entire underside of his McLaren. On landing, he slid past Reutemann and down the escape road. Hunt was able to make it back to the pits, and though his suspension was bent, he carried on, and ended up missing a point for sixth by just two seconds.
Meanwhile, the trio of Scheckter, Andretti and Lauda continued the battle they had been waging all weekend, with Scheckter leading by 1.7 seconds after three laps. On lap 4, Lauda was pressuring Andretti and tried to pass in the hairpin at the end of the curving back straight. Smoke poured from the tires as he locked the Ferrari's brakes, but he kept his foot down hard to avoid hitting Andretti's Lotus. The resulting flat spots on Lauda's tires caused a serious vibration throughout the race, and probably took away his chance of winning.
Scheckter maintained a consistent cushion over the battle for second; after 25 laps, Andretti was 2.5 seconds behind and Lauda was 4 seconds back. Even as they periodically worked their way through traffic, the three leaders never lost contact for more than half a lap. The Long Beach circuit was not particularly suited for cars that generate a lot of downforce, and the new Lotus, with its higher aerodynamic drag, could not match the straight line speed of Scheckter's Wolf; Andretti continually closed in through the corners, but could not find a way past.
"I was preparing for a real banzai under braking," Mario said, years later. "I needed to go from fifth to first gear in order to do it, and the way the gearboxes were in those days, I had maybe one or two tries to do that. My objective was to do it if I was in a position at the end of the race. Then I saw a twitch and, obviously, he had a tire that was slightly deflating."
On lap 58, Scheckter's lap time suddenly increased by two seconds, and as he passed the pits, he pointed emphatically to the crew at his right front tire, which had developed a slow leak. The tire began locking up time and again under braking, but Scheckter decided he was going to stay out and go as far as he could. For 18 laps, he tenaciously fought a losing battle as he held off each of Andretti's desperate attempts to pass as his deflating tire got softer and softer.
"It was not at the point that the tire was really going down, because it was the left side, not the right side, and it was not to the point that he really backed off any sooner because his braking point and turning point for the corner was the same."
On lap 77, Mario outbraked the Wolf and pulled inside him entering the hairpin. "It's not that he went wide," Andretti claims. "I just got him clear at the braking point, and then after I went by him, I distanced myself." The frenzied crowd of 70,000 finally burst into rapturous applause as America's best accelerated into the lead. Scheckter's despair was complete when Lauda also went by on the next lap. The crowd cheered Andretti home, deflecting considerable pressure from Lauda right to the flag, as he won by less than a second.
"It is one of the nicest moments of my career, even more satisfying than winning Indianapolis and really gratifying to have so many people pulling for me," Andretti said. "The car remained perfectly balanced throughout the race and the brakes were superb."
"It was not that I was given a break," Mario still insists. "I outbraked him clean. To me, it was just as satisfying a win. Jody tried to say that the only reason I passed him was because the tire was going down; but if that was the case, he would have had a lot of smoke and a lot of locking up, and there was none of that. So, it was a good, satisfying win."
Scheckter held on for third place, and the scoring was completed by Patrick Depailler's Tyrrell, over a minute behind; Emerson Fittipaldi in the Copersucar; and Jean-Pierre Jarier in the ATS Penske-Ford.
The 1977 United States Grand Prix West will always be remembered as one of the magical days in US motor racing history, as Mario Andretti thrilled the home crowd with the third of his 12 career Grand Prix wins.Note: Only the top five positions are included for both sets of standings.