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MIKE DOWNEY

Perhaps, They Should Call It the Grand Prix of All Those Andrettis

April 06, 1987|MIKE DOWNEY

Justine Bateman, the cute-and-a-half older daughter on TV's "Family Ties," drove one of the cars in a celebrity race the day before Sunday's Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach. She didn't do too hot. She finished next to last. The only guy she beat was some jerky disc jockey who thought he was in a demolition derby and wiped out about half the cars in the race.

But Justine's brother, Jason, who also is an actor, was the winner of Saturday's cars-of-the-stars race. So, maybe she should give it another shot next April. Long Beach seems to be a nice place for family ties.

When the "real" drivers hit the road Sunday, the man out front, wire to wire, was Mario Andretti. Yeah, Andretti. The same guy who won this race in 1984, also wire to wire, when Long Beach first started seeing Indy cars. The same guy who won again, in 1985. Daddy of Michael Andretti, who won in 1986.

So, tell us. Any more little Andrettis back home in Nazareth, Pa., who feel like picking up a little piece of change for a Sunday drive? Any grandkids, maybe? Any cousins back in Italy? How about Jeff Andretti, Mario's other son? He's been known to do some Super Vee racing. Come on, Jeff, boy. Bring some wheels to Long Beach next spring. Your old man won 97,000 bucks Sunday. Your brother got 45 grand for running fourth. Nothing to it.

Doesn't even have to be an Indy car. Bring a '63 Chevy Impala if you like. Bring a Corvair. Bring a Pinto; just be careful about getting rear-ended. You Andrettis can win in just about anything on wheels. Have Mario's mechanics overhaul a hot-rod Lincoln for you. Have them slap some new tires on the Spruce Goose.

The old man even won Sunday's Grand Prix with a Chevrolet engine under his figurative hood. Nobody had won a race in anything but a Cosworth-powered car since the summer of 1981.

Egad.

Family Ties has even overtaken the Cosworth Show.

Gimme a break.

"One of these days, we'll get these Andrettis out of Long Beach," joked runner-up Al Unser Jr., who has been known to have some kin hanging around the track himself.

Six times now, the Andrettis have won at Long Beach. Mario won in a Formula One car here in 1977. Michael took a Super Vee race in '83. An Andretti would probably win if they ran the Soap Box Derby down Ocean Boulevard.

Sons are supposed to ask old Dad if they can borrow the keys. This kid can't get the old man to slow down. When Mario came up behind Michael around the 65th lap Sunday, he might as well have had a horn to beep. Michael steered clear and let him pass.

"Michael just flat let me go by," Mario said later. "When he saw me in the mirror, he wasn't going to hold me up."

Said Michael: "I'm happy for Dad. It's amazing he still has the drive he does."

No pun intended.

Mario really does just roll on and on. This was the 48th win of his career. At 47, he has won more Indy-car races than anybody but A.J. Foyt, who has won 67. And Mario is still going strong. Strong as ever, maybe.

Can he catch Foyt? "We'll worry about that when we get close," he said, a broad hint that he believes he can get close.

Can he keep winning in these, the last years of his career? "I don't like to hear about 'last' anything," Mario made clear. "I have absolutely no thoughts of retirement for a while."

As good as he is going, this could be the year Mario Andretti wins the ultimate Indy-car race--Indy. Eighteen years have passed since he took the Indy 500's checkered flag. Mark the day on the calendar: May 24. It might be the day Andretti and his Chevy engine feel the heartbeat of America.

The family Andretti has been handling cars ever since Mario and his twin brother Aldo rebuilt a 1948 Hudson and raced it. If he still has it, Mario might bring that car to Long Beach next year. He'll win with it.

After he won Sunday's race and took care of a few interviews and autographs, Andretti started to walk away, but a group of admirers came after him as eagerly as Little Al and Michael and Emerson Fittipaldi had on the track. The sight of Andretti winning at Long Beach was both a familiar and popular one, so some from the mob of 83,000 spectators stuck around just to pat Mario on the back.

Mario, as usual, knew how to open up a lead with others in pursuit. He straddled a little red Honda motor scooter, and zipped away toward his garage.

Same old Long Beach story:

An Andretti giving people the run-around.

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