MONTEREY, Calif. — Michael Andretti, clinging to a tenuous hope of winning his first season-long Indy car driving championship, had a point taken away from him Saturday by, of all persons, his father.
Young Andretti is 25 points behind defending national champion Bobby Rahal with two races remaining, today's Champion Spark Plug 300-kilometer race at Laguna Seca and the season finale Nov. 1 at Miami.
Each point takes on tremendous significance at this stage of the season and one point is given to the fastest qualifier for each race.
Michael went around Laguna Seca's twisting 1.9-mile circuit averaging 128.933 m.p.h. but missed winning the pole--and the point--by 0.125 of a second.
It was Mario, racing's 47-year-old grandfather, who was tantalizingly quicker with his lap of 129.237 m.p.h.
"I'm gonna hear about it at dinner tonight," said Mario, who has won four national titles and one world championship.
This will be the sixth time that father and son have started alongside one another on the front row in the past two seasons. Each has been the pole-sitter three times, but never has that been as critical as it was this week.
Actually, neither Andretti improved his time Saturday over Friday's trials as warm weather bathed the Monterey Peninsula in sunshine and slowed the track.
Of the 10 fastest qualifiers, only two, Rahal and Emerson Fittipaldi, went faster Saturday. Rahal, who said earlier that all he wanted was a position in the first two rows, got his wish as his 128.234-m.p.h. lap put him third on the 24-car starting grid.
"This track is tough to pass on, so qualifying takes on extra importance," Rahal said. "If you're not in the first two rows, you've got your work cut out for you. I'm pleased with the way things worked out."
Rahal has won the last three Laguna Seca races.
All he needs to clinch the $300,000 PPG Cup drivers' championship reward is to finish within two places of Michael Andretti today.
"We'll be going for the victory," Rahal said. "I don't believe there is such a thing as running a conservative race. We'll keep an eye on Michael, but we're going to drive our race. The moment you start trying to drive someone else's race, you're in trouble. Winning our fourth in a row is definitely uppermost in our minds."
The much-publicized Porsche, making its first appearance in an Indy car event, picked up more than a mile an hour between Friday and Saturday but the 118.851 m.p.h. qualifying speed left Al Unser back in 23rd position.
"I'm still very pleased with the way things have gone so far," said Al Holbert, Porsche Motorsport director. "Our goal when we came here was to qualify and finish. As of today, we're halfway there."
Saturday wasn't the first time that Mario had snatched a prize from his son.
Last year at Portland, when Michael was also in the running for the CART points lead, Mario caught him to win by .07 seconds in the closest Indy car finish in history.
Mario explained: "I'm rooting for him, naturally, and I want him to do well, but we both have responsibilities to our own teams, and to ourselves. We're on different teams and he certainly doesn't need help from me. But I'll be pulling for him."
It was the seventh Indy car pole for the elder Andretti this season and if he can repeat at Miami it will equal the CART record of eight set by Rick Mears in 1982 and equaled by Mario in 1984.
It was also Mario's 63rd career Indy car pole, moving him even farther ahead of runner-up A. J. Foyt, who has 53.
Actually, it was fortunate for Mario that he posted his quick time Friday, as he lasted less than two laps Saturday before the suspension broke on his Lola.
"Something broke, I don't know what it was, but it was something that can be fixed easily," Mario said. "Thankfully, it was a sunny day and that kept us on the pole. The track definitely lost some speed, maybe a second, because of the sun beating down on it."
Michael only smiled and shrugged when asked how he felt about his father beating him out of the point.
"What can I say?," Michael said. "He's a racer, he always has been.
"I need more than one point, though. I need a little luck Sunday. I need a maximum effort, no matter what Bobby (Rahal) does. If he drops out, I still need to go hard and try to win.
"Crazier things have happened, though, but we really have to win the race to have a chance going into Miami."
A third Andretti, John, is also in today's race. Mario's nephew and Michael's cousin, John qualified 17th at 123.225 m.p.h. in Mike Curb's March.
"I'm pretty satisfied because I had never been to this track before and it's not easy to go real quick here," John said. "I'll probably go quicker in the race than I did in qualifying simply because I'll be more familiar with the track."
The results of today's race will also determine the 10 starters in the $730,000 Marlboro Challenge, a 75-mile sprint, in Miami on Oct. 31, the day before the final CART race. Only race winners and pole sitters qualify.