MIAMI — Fifty-one drivers have contested for the CART/PPG Indy Car World Series championship this year, and now only two contenders remain: Bobby Rahal, 33, of Dublin, Ohio, and Michael Andretti, 24, of Nazareth, Pa.
Neither has won the championship previously, but when today's Nissan Indy Challenge--200 miles over a 1.78-mile road course in Tamiami Park--is completed, one will be the 1986 champion.
Rahal, in the red Budweiser-Truesports March, holds a minuscule three-point lead over Andretti, in the blue-and-yellow Kraco March, going into the 17th and final race. All other challengers were eliminated before the Indy car trail reached South Florida.
A sudden cloudburst Saturday that wiped out qualifying for half the field, including Andretti and Rahal, may have improved Rahal's chances of winning.
Andretti's car did not run well during Friday's qualifying session, and he posted a speed of only 111.974 m.p.h., about five miles slower than he anticipated running Saturday. But when the rains came, he had no chance of improving his time.
This left him in the fifth row for the start of today's race.
Rahal, who also did not make a qualifying attempt Saturday, will start in the second row with his Friday speed of 112.773.
"It's really tough for us now," a disconsolate Andretti said after chief steward Wally Dallenbach rejected the idea of an added qualifying session. "It means we'll be starting 20 seconds behind Rahal. I just hope this doesn't come back to haunt us . . . like finishing a couple of seconds behind him."
Rahal, although he said he also could have improved on his time had it not rained, was not unhappy with the unusual situation.
"It's unfortunate, but that's racing," he said. "Today's behind us. Tomorrow is what really counts."
Two South Americans--Roberto Guerrero of Colombia and Raul Boesel of Brazil--will start on the front row. Guerrero ran 113.043 and Boesel 113.003. Both are residents of Orange County, Guerrero in San Juan Capistrano and Boesel in Capistrano Beach.
The new champion will collect the $300,000 PPG Cup bonus and the attention that goes with being No. 1. The loser will receive $200,000.
"We're going out with the idea of winning the race, because if we win the race everything else will take care of itself," Rahal said. "We want them both. It's good for me to be finishing at Tamiami because I like the course and did well here last year.
"This track is one of the best in the country, if not the world. It's wide, fast and challenging, and when you see some other street circuits and how bad they can be, you certainly appreciate a circuit like this one."
Rahal was the fastest qualifier last year and led 70 of the 112 laps before his tires began to blister, dropping him back to finish second behind Danny Sullivan.
Andretti agreed that Tamiami, one of nine road courses on the CART schedule, is a proper place to decide the championship.
"I love this place," Andretti said. "It's a great track for our cars, and (promoter) Ralph Sanchez has done a super job here. I just don't like having to start so far back.
"I think it's sad that an act of God could cause this kind of problem."
Both drivers have won on road courses this year, Andretti in the season opener at Long Beach and Rahal at Toronto, Mid-Ohio and Laguna Seca.
"Our approach here will be the same as it was in Phoenix, to win the race," Andretti said. "If we win, it means Rahal will be behind us and that's what we have to do to win. I will drive like I have all year, as hard as I know how, and if it's going to be, it's going to be.
"I can't drive any harder because if I did, I would probably make a mistake. The last race is no place for a mistake."
Michael, oldest son of four-time Indy car champion Mario Andretti, won at Phoenix, closing the gap to three points when Rahal finished third.
The two have dominated the CART season in all categories.
Rahal has the most wins with six, including the most important of all, the Indianapolis 500; the most money ever won in a single season, $1,132,569, and the most finishes in the top five with nine.
Andretti has led the most laps at 699, has the most completed laps at 2,091 (3,653.68 miles) and has set four track records. He has won three times--at Long Beach, Milwaukee and Phoenix--and has stayed in contention with four second-place finishes.
Both are coming to the finish with a hot hand. Andretti won the last race, and Rahal has won four of the last six, including three straight that earned him a $50,000 bonus from Hong Kong industrialist Teddy Yip.
Yip also donated an equal amount to the American Cancer Society in a tribute to the late Jim Trueman, who died 11 days after watching Rahal, his long-time protege, win at Indianapolis.
Despite the nine-year difference in their age and experience, young Andretti believes he is more prepared for the pressure of a final showdown at Tamiami than Rahal.