INDIANAPOLIS — Word is that the traditional command, "Gentlemen, start your engines!" will not be given today at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Instead, the Andrettis will leap out of their cars and announce to the rest of the field for the 500-mile race, "Come out with your hands up! We've got you surrounded."
If you're looking for an Andretti today, you won't have to look far. In this 75th running of the Indianapolis 500, four of them will be driving together for the first--and possibly only--time.
And in what seems to many altogether fitting, they will start in descending order of age. Mario, the patriarch, is outside in the front row; oldest son Michael is in the middle of the second; nephew John, slightly younger than Michael, is inside in the third; and rookie son Jeff is in the middle of the fourth.
"That's one time I wished I was the oldest," Jeff said.
If there is strength in numbers, then it would seem the Andrettis are in great shape. But that doesn't take into account Andretti luck on this track. Despite the prominence the family has gained in all kinds of racing, in 36 starts here by drivers named Andretti--26 by Mario--there has been only one victory, by Mario in 1969. "We'd have to fill the field to change our luck," John Andretti joked. "We'd have to adopt some racers."
Each of the four, however, understands the significance of the occasion, and nobody appreciates it more than Mario Andretti, who at 51 has had lots more time to assimilate the tradition that goes with the place and the race.
"It is special--I don't know any other way to define this--with the four of us being in the race in the same year," Mario said. "I know for certain that this is never going to happen to our family again. This is the one year. There are many things that I am sure are going to change, so we're really going to savor it and enjoy it, and I know for the rest of our lives we're going to be talking about this."
Having said just moments before that he hoped to drive for at least two more years after this season, Mario apparently confirmed one of the worst-kept secrets in racing--that Michael is off to Formula One next year. Michael coyly continues to refer to that as a possibility.
Continued Mario: "I was very upset in qualifying because my car wouldn't go any faster . . . and then all of a sudden, here's Mike, Jeff, John, they're all in the show. What have I got to be upset about?"
If each understands the special family circumstances of this race, though, nobody is planning to move aside for father, son, uncle, nephew or cousin.
"When we're out there, we're all for ourselves," Michael said. "And then the family comes next."
Mario agreed but suggested that, at his advancing age, his second victory took precedence over any relative's first.
"Michael, in my opinion, has a lot of time," Mario said. "And so does John."
John's idea, though, was considerably different. "I think all (the rest) of us should get a win before (Mario) gets No. 2," he said.
Jeff, as a rookie, doesn't talk so much about winning the race as he does finishing it, preferably as the top rookie.
Although he's a rookie here, he is a veteran racer and can appreciate the prize at stake. "It's got to be exhilarating to win this race," John said. "'It's the greatest race in the world."
Right, Mario said.
"I just hope these kids all get a chance to cross that finish line and get the checkered flag," Mario said. "It's a feeling like you can't believe."
It's also a feeling he would like to experience again soon, and he doesn't believe age is a deterrent.
"I don't feel any different," Mario said. "Physically, I feel good. From every aspect, if the car's working under me, I can drive as hard as I've ever driven. If it doesn't work, it doesn't work, and I will not push it and hang myself on the wall. I'd like to retire from this business and enjoy life afterward."
And when he does retire, he may not be seen much around race tracks.
"I'm a lousy spectator," he said. "I'll tell you a little story. I got in a fight in Atlanta. During the (Sports Car Club of America) national runoffs (several years ago), Michael and Michael Rowe were fighting for the lead and banging wheels right to the last lap.
"Michael was just as much to blame as the other guy, but I could only see what Michael Rowe was doing to Mike. I almost got into fisticuffs. (Michael) said, 'Dad, you're embarrassing me.'
"Then there was another time we were down in West Palm (Beach) and Michael and these guys were racing (in the rain). During the race there was a downpour, and I know how those Florida monsoons can be, so I'm visualizing cars spinning all over the place and I'm going out to the starters saying, 'Murderers! Stop the race!' And the guy says, 'Shut up, you idiot, he's leading.' "
As for his difficulties in winning here, Mario Andretti said: "I don't think I lost any that I could have won that were my fault. I've made mistakes, no question, but mistakes that cost me the race--that has not been the case. I've led just about 500 laps here, and there are guys that have won four times, like A.J. (Foyt) and only led about 20 laps more than I did. I've been competitive enough, but obviously I didn't lead the right ones. But I've been competitive and I've had the opportunity. If the car breaks. . . ."
All of which indicates that if luck is hereditary, four Andrettis might not be enough.